Category Archives: Malaysia

Penang’s shades of green and hues of blue…a mansion and Jimmy Choo

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There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…

 

The Blue Mansion…img_5098-1

A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.

Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.

boutique-hotel-penang-island-blue-mansion-architecture-02-1-600x600-1I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.

Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.

“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.

Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.

That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.

Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.

I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”

The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.

On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.

The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.

“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.

Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.

Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.img_5060-1

As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”

It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .

“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”

It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.

The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.

When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.

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And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.

As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”

Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…

*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 

A connection with Jimmy Choo…

img_3173I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.

I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.

There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.

“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.

This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.

Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.

Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”

img_5285Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.

Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.

I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.

I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.

Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.

“How long Sir, until they’re ready?

“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.

“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.

“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”

I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”

“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.

 

And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…

Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell

Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House

Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern    China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…

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The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

Postcards from Malaysia…a writer’s journey

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The past few months have found me researching, interviewing and penning. I’m involved in a book project which is endlessly engaging and challenging.

With a team of writers, photographers, a brilliant designer and project manager, we collaborate from various countries –yet happily rendezvous for some eventful on-location forays. It’s an interesting journey as I delve into the history and culture of a place that I am now very familiar with… Penang, Malaysia.

With trips of discovery and a recent getaway to Borneo, experiences gained and people befriended continue to make this the most rewarding of times.

Thankfully our home in Bangalore, India, is now ‘settled’ with the arrival of our shipment which most definitely took the ‘long way around.’ We have an eclectic mix of old and new, from here and there; Omani, Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Middle Eastern and Thai…and some wooden skis propped in the study to remind us of home.

The guest-rooms await a visit from our sons in the not too-distant future and our adopted family has grown by one. Preya joins us three times a week – her spicy South Indian food is scrumptious and help in the house is much appreciated as another month of work ensues. All is well in the neighbourhood; the monsoon rains are expected imminently, Munglora has procured a charming ancient scale for my new kitchen and without a doubt, the roof top yoga kept me sane.

A good friend commented that I was fortunate to have this ‘mountain to climb.’ Indeed it does feel like a wonderful, steep journey, one that I could not have imagined two years ago when I set out with my blog…it feels quite surreal yet natural at the same time.

So for the moment, just a few of my favourite images from the adventure thus far…many kind thoughts, Terry Anne

 

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Street Art in Penang…tri-shaws and Chinese lanterns

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IMG_0855If you’ve ever doubted the positive influence of art, you might wish to reconsider. I’m in Penang, Malaysia, where street art has helped revitalize and create a cool vibe for travellers and locals alike.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t immediately taken with Penang; the street art was bridging a gap until I started peeling away the layers of history that make this island so fascinating. It’s a living testament to its multi-cultural heritage and unique architecture.

Wanting first impressions of Georgetown, the inner city of Penang, I sought out a tri-shaw. Considering the vast number of these well-traveled, three-wheeled contraptions, it felt like the natural way to orientate myself.

“See street art?” the tri-shaw peddler asked as I sunk into his passenger seat, a welcome respite from the long day of travel.

“Sure, one hour please,” uncertain as to how long it would take to see IMG_0724the murals. The vast array of them was a complete surprise. And I couldn’t have known how delightful and engaging they’d be.

The images depict scenes of everyday Malaysian life, with local people and heritage as the inspiration. They’re honest and often fun, a combination of paint and installation; a strategically planted bike, swing, or motorbike, completing the painted scene. Wonderfully, the pieces encourage participation as people pose with the images, creating their own interpretation.

My tri-shaw chauffeur, Mr. Goh, often encouraged me to hop off his ‘chariot’ to take photos and pose. He expertly manoeuvered his three-wheeler through the hectic narrow streets and threaded it in and out of alleyways to find some of the more hidden away murals. Unfortunately, his limited English prevented conversation, but he pointed out each mural with a smile in eager anticipation for my reaction.

IMG_0723We stopped at a popular mural where people waited patiently to pose on the bike while a young couple created their own ‘masterpiece’. They became the star attraction as we all took their photo and chatted amongst ourselves. It’s clear that street art encourages interaction.

Mural after mural was revealed as we made our way IMG_0715through this Unesco World Heritage Site. Named after George III, Penang was ceded to the British East India Company in 1786 by the Sultan of Kedah, in exchange for military protection from Siamese and Burmese armies. The golden age of Penang was soon ushered in with tin, rubber and shipping industries. Other Europeans followed the British, as well as Arabs, Armenians, Burmese, Thai, Japanese and Indians to name a few. The most prominent group were the Chinese and still today, Georgetown reflects the rich layers of culture that they and the other settling pioneers brought with them.

As Mr. Goh navigated through the narrow streets, I soaked in the street scenes of Chinese mansions and shophouses, many having been restored since the Unesco World Site designation. Chinese lanterns decorate most entrances, often intricate, always colourful and steeped in meaning. I peeked inside long, IMG_0714narrow go-downs (warehouses), marvelled at colourful Chinese temples and admired statuesque Colonial-style buildings. Diverse peoples have given Georgetown its fascinating mix of culture and architecture. The street art is a modern extension.

I learned that a young painter, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania is credited for many of the installations, but I find out a little more when I have lunch with some new friends today.

Of course some of the conversation touches on Penang and I mention the street art.

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“Yes,” says Geokling, “it’s a good story. And it’s done so much to bring life back to Georgetown, but it wasn’t entirely planned.”

I had been told that Geokling has the inside story of just about everything one needs to know here. Her enthusiasm is evident as she relates the tale.

“This young backpacker comes to IMG_0860 (1)Penang and decides to stay awhile. He does some busking and asks if he can paint something on one of the walls.”

I could understand his mindset as many of the buildings are a little ‘worn’ with faded layers of plaster and paint hinting at years gone by. That first mural drew attention but has since faded. Ernest returned the following year which happened to coincide with the
upcoming Georgetown Festival in 2012 and was commissioned to create more installations. They triggered an overwhelmingly positive response from the locals. The artist said he “was thrilled to unleash the creativity tucked away in the streets.”

IMG_0758“Ernest is a celebrated muralist these days,” Geokling tells me as she scrolls on her phone to show me his latest installation in a Singaporean hotel.

We both agree it’s wonderful to hear a story where a simple passion creates IMG_0871opportunity, when a little luck changes a life. And for the local people and those who visit Penang, the street art is an endearing, welcome addition to the rich culture of Georgetown.

After lunch, I’m given a ride along the waterfront by one of the young fellows who had been in the lunch group. As we pass back along Beach Street, I happen to see my favourite tri-shaw peddler on the corner, just where I had found him.

“Gosh there’s Mr. Goh,” I say out loud, “I’d love to take another tour.”

“Should I let you out here?” Frank asks.

“No, I really shouldn’t, I have a blog to write. Would you mind dropping me off at China House please IMG_0846.”

IMG_0699And so I find myself in the trendy, impossibly long China House that I had been told I must visit. It comprises three heritage buildings linked by an open courtyard that houses a cafe, restaurant, wine bar, galleries and a stage. The atmosphere is indicative of a new direction in this centuries old trading settlement that cherishes the past, but knows it must also embrace change.

“Young people are coming back to Georgetown to hang out,” Geokling had told me. That’s evident this late afternoon as candles are lit and animated chatter floats my way.

This is the kind of place in which I love to write; embraced in the whispers of the past but alive in the exuberance of today.

I look forward to returning next year and peeling back more layers of this treasure that is Penang.

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