Pleasures of Penang

Penang, Malaysia has stylish hotels and some of Southeast Asia’s best street food.
From May 2011 By Guy Trebay
Appeared as "Pleasures of Penang" in T+L Magazine

I had money to burn, thick wads of it, funny money colored bright orange and flaked with gold leaf. Angling myself upwind of a ritual furnace at the gateway to the Goddess of Mercy Temple, banked in incense as thick as Newfoundland fog, I joined the crowd feeding fake loot to the tongues of flame. The offerings were, in my case, all-purpose: something for the ancestors, for living family and friends, for luck and prosperity and health, the usual stuff. But to the customary human importuning I also sneaked a silent request to the travel gods: ―How soon can you get me back here?‖ I was in Penang, a small island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, half a world away from my front door. Few people of my acquaintance have heard of this lovely flyspeck, and the omission seemed more confounding the more time I spent there. Not only is Penang—or, anyway, its capital, Georgetown—so lightly touched by 21st-century modernity that you occasionally feel as if you have wandered onto a period film set, but its dense mesh of streets and cultures, its polyglot population, its infrastructure and sophisticated fusion cooking also call to mind another more celebrated island, the one I call home. In certain ways Penang is like a Toytown version of Manhattan. An outpost of trade in an earlier era of globalization, the island leased by the British from the Sultan of Kedah—in an agreement forged by Captain Francis Light on behalf of the East India Company in 1786—once lay at the eastern extent of Britain’s imperial expansion. Briefly the most important of the British Straits Settlements, it eventually ceded that distinction to Singapore, which went on to claim an important place on the regional and world stages while Penang lapsed into a prolonged subtropical slumber. In recent years this tiny Malaysian state has powered back into view, its fortunes revived as it transformed itself into Malaysia’s Silicon Valley. Though tourism lagged behind the boom, it is increasingly possible to find chic boutique hotels, the first stirrings of a culinary movement, and enlightened restoration projects that signal the end of Penang’s status as a secret shared only by backpackers and Malaysians who make pilgrimages

naturally. Sir George Leith. of cooking onto the tidy little hive of a town. specifically the No. in flight from peonage and in pursuit of fortune. Sri Lanka—spiritual cousins of the industrious voyagers from those selfsame places who once arrived by boat in Georgetown and slowly grafted their customs. traders dropped anchor here to buy and sell cloves. Moorish mosques. By the early 19th century Penang was already a mercantile. India. architecture. tin. It is certainly accurate to say that UNESCO deemed the fabric of the place precious enough to inscribe Georgetown as a World Heritage site in 2008. But you would not necessarily notice these shifts if you happened to arrive by night. gilded Chinese temples. Cambodia. as are many faded port cities. and opulent mansions built with the unfettered flashiness favored by the Peranakans. A smallish place roughly shaped like an ax blade. Neoclassical churches. Thailand. Georgetown is. nutmeg. and rubber and also. pepper. shipping. and this may be.there for the justifiably famous street food. could observe that there was probably not ―any part of the world where. and starting as early as the 15th century. as I did. 7 train entering Manhattan carrying 21st-century immigrants from China. styles of worship and. and banking center—the London–based banking powerhouse HSBC opened its first branch there in 1884—and the island’s lieutenant governor. most importantly in spices. Hindu temples. star anise. taxiing past the shadowed industrial campuses to fetch up in Georgetown beneath the porte cochère of the great white slab cake that is the venerable and deeply anachronistic Eastern & Oriental Hotel. and also true that I have yet to encounter another city quite like Georgetown in the region. . People say that Georgetown possesses the greatest concentration of colonial structures in Southeast Asia. or so great a variety of languages spoken. so many different people are assembled together. One version of the origins of Penang’s name holds that it is a Malay (or possibly Tamil) word for betel nut. So did trade of all kinds. in so small a space. Bangladesh. oriented inland. very profitably and for quite a long time. opium. In the days when Penang was still an important port along global shipping lanes—a status predicated on its deep-water harbors and position in the Strait of Malacca—banking thrived there.‖ As I read this an image rose to mind of the New York City subway. as the descendants of Chinese immigrants who intermarried with the local Malay population are called. Its streets are literally crammed with tile-roofed shop-houses. away from the sea. bird’s nest. language. equally important. Immigrants followed.

you find 10 minutes has stretched to an hour. You talk about lunch while having breakfast in Penang. dedicated to Mariamman. printing presses. Somerset Maugham called ―the everlasting present. one of a collection of 19th-century wooden docks off Pengkalan Weld—Koay Jetty. restaurants. Peng Aun Jetty. a muezzin sounding the call to afternoon prayer. and other business of daily life is enacted constantly. and as in Rome you can allow yourself to get lost in a maze of lanes. glancing down at your watch. The five-foot way is to Georgetown what the piazza is to Rome. creating a city filled with buildings whose overhanging private upper floors are situated atop public gathering places: cafés.In Georgetown. guesthouses. quickly adapting to local customs that restrict outdoor activities to early mornings and late afternoons and that place a serious emphasis on food. gossiping. also called Harmony Street.‖ You can allow yourself to become absorbed by a city that. dinner when at lunch. smoke-wreathed Goddess of Mercy Temple and then beyond it to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple. laundries. You start your mornings in Georgetown with a street breakfast of putu mayam. Lee Jetty. George’s Church. the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia. Not only that. it is the shop-houses in their jumbled thousands that unify Georgetown. That is what I did for one fine week. and then nose your way to the Chew Jetty. you can walk out on an afternoon and simultaneously hear church bells tolling. idling.‖ Designed to keep the streets clear and to provide shelter and shade from subtropical heat and torrents. you pass from the austere portico and dome of St. Follow the street to its end and you are in the walled precincts of the Kapitan Keling Mosque. Nearly all of these structures are linked by arcaded pedestrian passages known generically by the term ―five-foot way. the five-foot way is also a kind of continuous corridor. is no museum and certainly no tomb. and Chap Seh Keo are the . they think about food and discuss it whenever they are not lifting morsel to mouth. despite its varied architectural anachronisms and treasures. yet people there eat all the time. vermicelli noodles made from rice flour and coconut milk. Stop at a café for a short break of sweetened iced coffee and you can easily get so caught up in the theater of daily life that. To consume anything but liquids in the gob-smacking heat of Penang might seem ill-advised. to the bustling. slipping into the daily flow that W. Still. Lim Jetty. eating. men’s clubs. a Hindu goddess linked to fertility and rain with a red complexion that makes her look slightly apoplectic. chants emerging from a Buddhist temple. both convenience and proscenium. supper while polishing off the dinner that turns out to be a kind of late-afternoon snack. It is a stage on which the washing. Walking the length of the Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. Tan Jetty. Yeoh Jetty.

you stop where and when you like. Fortified. Even at Pasar Air Itam. there are the gilded carvings of a bird feeding its chick in a scene depicting nobles on a pilgrimage. and the sensuality of the indigenous Malay people. As it was. I also made it my business again and again to visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Despite recent shifts in both the numbers and the kinds of travelers visiting Penang. I would take lunch at Pasar Air Itam every day were it not that the food stall is roughly 22 hours by air from home. You walk on from there. And yet it felt like a calm and deeply contemplative place. for balance of flavor and sheer sophistication. and because Georgetown is small and very manageable on foot and has many respectable kopi (coffee) shops that function as restaurants. The results of the renovation are stylishly minimalist lodgings along Lorong Stewart unified by a central bookshop and a café that stocks The World of Interiors and French Vogue and that serves a kind of fusion menu that would not be out of place in London or New York. a new hotel compound formed from five adjoining shophouses built in the 1920’s in the so-called Straits Eclectic style and recently restored. the dragon at the roofline toying with a colossal pearl. drawn there by a wild hodgepodge of stuff arranged in this vaguely ersatz monument to a blended Chinese-Malay culture.others—whose lengths are flanked by tin-roofed fishermen’s houses built over the water on pilings. the grisaille murals of filial piety. a celebrated food stall midway across the island—a place literally at the roadside and whose nonexistent atmospherics are offset by the fact that it serves a tamarind-flavored noodle soup called assam laksa—the lunchtime scene was as relaxed and pleasant as the turnover was efficient and brisk. though. more or less at random. the pop-eyed stone foo dogs snarl at the gate. was about as good as anything I’ve ever eaten in my life. the tutti-frutti mosaics made from fragments of Chinese porcelain. I walked on to find the fabled Khoo Kongsi. mostly to locals who carry theassam laksa away in clear plastic bags. Between 11:30 and nightfall chef Ang Kak Peoh ladles up as many as 400 servings of his famous noodle soup. This was probably because I had it to myself. Georgetown remains a pretty drowsy spot. It has to be. but also by the distinct way the Peranakans absorbed and transformed the prim Puritanical tastes of the English colonials. Zesty eclecticism might be a polite way to characterize the fusion aesthetics of the Peranakan babas and nyonyas (men and women) . a clan temple erected in an outrageously opulent style in the mid 19th century and rebuilt in similarly delirious form 50 years later when lightning struck the first building and burned it to the ground: the curious Sikh soldier statues stand guard outside the sanctum. I hopped a taxi and made the cross-island trek as often as possible to partake of a dish that. By no rational standard could the Khoo clan temple be called harmonious. Seldom did I encounter anything resembling a mob. I paused for fresh fruit and cappuccino at Kopi Cine at the Straits Collection. Letting my feet lead me one morning. the ornate aesthetics of the Southern Chinese immigrants.

while its appeal is easy to understand. To my eye. For several days running. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Lee. jade doodads. later a mercantile outpost poetically known as the Sea Remembrance Store. From the museum I went in pursuit of a certain Mr. I took a rickshaw taxi from there to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. opulence. a head set with heavy-lidded avaricious eyes and hands like a pair of varnished claws emerge. is a hotel now and offers limited tours to nonguests. but a friend who accompanied me to the museum that day suggested that she was perhaps merely constipated. intoxicated by the place’s atmospherics and also by the countless collections of carved wood panels. Certainly there are other more tastefully arranged mansions in Penang. apparently the last man in Malaysia to make sandalwood joss sticks by hand. the woman appeared cruel. who gawp at a dreamlike setting overseen by a young Malaysian with an Oxford accent and a purring demeanor that seems to mimic that of the house cats draped across the mansion’s rattan planter’s chairs. which had views across the channel toward the mainland and which I filled with exotic orchids bought at a roadside nursery for $5 apiece. sinisterly rendered naturalism and fun-house gaud. This particular place. Whether they were truly of the Guangxu period (1875–1908) or made last week in mainland China I can’t say. I was left wondering whether its burnished air of chic might not tarnish at night when a hawker center next door opened for business and local drunks sidled up to the karaoke mic. I preferred the Eastern & Oriental. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is a favorite of high-end travelers and discerning globe-trotter types and yet.and a style they devised that favored rampant abundance. and there can be little question that the crone whose portrait dominates a broad hallway of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion was no stranger to a pipe. I was pleased all the same by the way the peony and bat motifs on the plates echoed the auspicious symbols one sees carved into fanlights above shop-house doorways and also by their curiously preppy pink-and-green colors. and most recently a bit of dubious historicism conjured by a wealthy local. bright colors. A heritage brochure I’d picked up had made special note of the sole surviving practitioners of various traditional crafts in . portraits of ancestors. Scottish ironwork. root tables. and opium beds of rare huanghuali wood. Minton tiles. built by the Sarkies Brothers of Raffles fame. European art glass. shiny surfaces. a house museum set in what was once a Chinese clan hall. From the enveloping volume of her brocade robes. It was at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion’s tidy little gift shop that I found and purchased a set of antique dessert plates in a style known as Nyonyaware. It was once estimated that 10 percent of the Chinese population of 19th-century Penang was addicted to opium. used as a backdrop for the film Indochine. most notably the 19thcentury indigo Blue Mansion built by Cheong Fatt Tze. a merchant sometimes termed the Rockefeller of the East. Opium is known to have that effect. and my immense white room.

Lee’s shop—―hole-in-the-wall‖ is a more literally precise description—I passed a two-story shop-house from which emanated an unholy racket that called to mind the sound track of The Birds. in a clear plastic bag. Mr. I ran into him returning from breakfast. Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times. was a kind of deal. like many in Georgetown. The swallows that roost there build nests that are harvested for soup. he explained in a Hokkien dialect that a friend of mine helpfully translated. as had the man who made hand-beaded shoes. just as I rounded the corner on Lorong Muda. Lee at his shop. like all prayers. Now in his eighties. His lunch of fish stew. I also learned that the palm-blind weaver had gone out of business. and Mr. And then. http://www. First mixing water with powdery batches of Indian sandalwood to form a paste. Lee had been making joss sticks and incense cones by hand for six decades.travelandleisure. but I got lucky one morning. I fell in among my fellow supplicants.Georgetown.com/articles/pleasures-of-penang/4 . On the way to Mr. he then rolls up incense sausages of varying dimensions and slips them onto candy-striped sticks to dry. Lee was listed. It took days to find Mr. and also leaving some real currency in a tea bowl on the temple altar. I threw in a silent word to the assorted gods of thanks. was slung from the handlebar of the bike he was walking. Rolling up the corrugated shutters to his stall—a space little larger than the flatbed of a pickup truck—he waved toward a stack of crates packed with incense sticks in diameters ranging from billy club to matchstick. I uttered a silent prayer that. and only later learned that the calls were recorded lures. I assumed that the building. I bought several batches painted with characters written in Chinese and English and said good-bye. As I gazed at a blissed-out Buddha mounted on his gilded throne. had been abandoned and left to the wild things. At the Goddess of Mercy Temple. stuffing wads of orange joss paper into a furnace. while lighting an incense stick with luck written on it. I had already stocked up on paper money and wanted to add some incense offerings to hedge my bets with the gods. The traditional wooden signboard engraver was seldom to be found at a shop presided over by an ancient whose wry neck caused her head to pitch forward like that of a broken Jumeau doll.