Spirit of Asia

Spirit of Asia

A wizened old lady sat outside her minuscule shop, strung with colourful T-shirts and doodads, eyes almost unseeing yet all-knowing. In the seven decades of her life, she had seen much she told us, a wan smile lighting her face.

We were in George Town, the main city of Penang Island in Malaysia, brimming with character and a certain swagger that comes from knowing that it has a rich history, dating back to its life as a trading post in the colonial era. The historic heart of George Town yet reeks of its colonial past, she said, but it is also garnished with dashes of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. Indeed George Town seems to have kept the 21st century at arm’s length; time has not just bypassed this UNESCO World Heritage site, it has skulked past like a defeated thief — empty handed.

We explored the town’s underbelly, its secret lanes, and caressed its wind-swept stone; ducked into some of its weathered buildings in order to dip into its multi-cultural flavour, to inhale the intriguing aroma of its street food and gaze at its vibrant street art. Visiting the city was like meeting an old aunt who had aged gracefully and still had a lot of spunk in her.

The old & the new
George Town hums with boutiques, cafés, galleries and museums that have mushroomed in traditional Chinese shop houses and in colonial remnants; its finger-licking street food and playful wall murals, Chinese and Hindu temples, mosques and churches make it a pastiche of memories overlaid with a living culture.

And strolling in this lively enclave was like having that mythical aunt relate stories from the past — about the Blue Mansion with its 38 rooms and 220 windows, built by a Chinese entrepreneur called the Rockefeller of the East. The Blue Mansion (called thus because of the blue lime wash) had fallen on bad times but was saved from the wrecker’s ball in the 1990s and magnificently restored. Now a chic hotel, it is favoured by global gadabouts who stay there for its ambiance and sheer luxury.

Another curiosity is the Khoo Kongsi, the clan house of the highly successful Khoo clan, studded with stone carvings and murals. The clan house caught fire on the night of its completion in 1901 and the present one dates from 1906. The Khoo Kongsi is located in Armenian Street, named after the highly successful immigrant community of Armenians. This community included the Sarkies brothers (of Raffles Hotel, Singapore, fame) who built the grand all-suite Eastern and Oriental Hotel in 1885, in the heart of George Town, which is a landmark even today.

The Peranakan Museum too houses memories of the opulent lifestyle of the Peranakans, descendants of Chinese immigrants who inter-married with local Malays. There were carved wedding beds, opium beds of rare wood, dinner porcelain, ceremonial costumes, crafts and tableaux that showcased the community’s 12-day wedding ceremony.

But what we found most engaging was our walk down Harmony Street with its line-up of houses of worship. The incense-filled gilded Goddess of Mercy temple, the Sri Maha Mariamman temple with its soaring gopuram, the brick Kapitan Keling Mosque and St George’s Church — all testified to the fact that the tourism slogan — “Malaysia Truly Asia” — wasn’t just hype. This is a country whose social fabric is intact and in fact richly woven with colourful strands of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences.

Beyond these enchanting spiritual spaces in a town that heaved with life and colour, bicycle rickshaws, bedecked with plastic flowers and dolls, ferried happy tourists who gawked at the passing scenery. There, we saw a tombstone engraver, a paper craft-maker for Chinese ritual offerings, a rattan weaver, a shoe maker who crafted traditional beaded shoes and the country’s oldest retailer and wholesaler of perfume compounds and essential oils!

The little alleys and store fronts were a throwback to an earlier era and we often caught ourselves wondering which century we were living in. Had spice traders, rice farmers and opium dealers walked into what is virtually a movie set of what Malaysia used to be, they would have fitted nicely into the frame.

Colourful culture
George Town may be about fugitive flavours and aromas of times past, but it has clearly refurbished and amped up its offerings for the tourist. The highlight, of course, are the wall murals that beguile and ambush tourists as they explore the labyrinthine streets; murals that seemed to indicate that George Town is having a good chuckle at its own expense. On Armenian Street we stumbled on the famed mural of a little girl taking her baby brother for a ride on her bicycle. One of two on the street, done by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zakarevic, who was commissioned to execute the murals for the George Town Festival in 2012. A crowd had gathered there, as a beaming bridal couple was posing for a photo shoot in front of the mural and sportingly obliged the paparazzi in the crowd with more Instagram-worthy poses.

Another one of a little boy straining to reach up to a window, a boy and his pet dinosaur, two girls on a swing, a trishaw puller taking a break on his trishaw, murals of lost kittens… all seem to heighten the ordinariness and quirkiness of daily life and raise it to the level of art.

And what could be more artful than street food in George Town which is said to surpass culinary sleight of hand found anywhere else in Malaysia! It’s become the foodie capital of the country and offers a delicious distraction from all the tumult and colour of the town. Chinatown, Little India, hawker stalls and food courts all offered blandishments that we could not resist.

The hot-to-the-touch naan bread, the steaming vessels of biryani in Little India cooked in the Indian-Muslim style but enhanced with  Malaysian flair; hawker stalls, wreathed in billowing smoke, sell the iconic char koay teow (stir-fried noodles) cooked on a charcoal fire, tart assam laksa, an intense fish soup spiked with tamarind; bak kut teh, a Malaysian breakfast of slow-cooked pork and herbal soup; Chinese dim sum in a historic teahouse… the options were many and we tried some.

We washed it all down with refreshing passion fruit green tea and a rich pearl milk tea with fruits… The tea, however, did not wash away the sensory overload that George Town inflicts on visitors, nor did it take away the memories of making a connection — with the old lady, the trishaw puller and the hawker stall owner… all of them part of the George Town package!

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