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Blog: Feeling at home in Penang

So what started as a press junket for CausewayEXchange, an annual festival for deepening arts, cultural and business ties between Malaysia and Singapore, has become an exciting personal expedition and the closest thing to coming home for me. This is the first time that CausewayEXchange, in its fourth incarnation this year, is partnering the George Town Festival, in the bid to give it an even more international and cross-cultural appeal with a variety of performances in both Malay and English.

The front view of the famous Eastern & Oriental Hotel

It’s hard to write about George Town in Penang and not compare it with my own muddled sense of identity; I was raised a Muslim by two fathers and three mothers, spent ten years studying in a Lasallian Roman Catholic convent school and most of the elders in my biological family have passed away before I could attempt to properly trace my Bengali, Acehnese, Malay and Chinese roots.

The difference between George Town and me is stark: George Town seems comfortable in all of her contrasting and confusing hodgepodge while I’m not. Being a dweller of present day Singapore, where most of its defining original architecture, street culture and way of life have been edited, neglected or destroyed to make way for towering financial and cosmopolitan ambitions, George Town has helped me make more sense of my own roots in the four hectic days I was there than all my life elsewhere.

Short of taking a very expensive DNA test, George Town’s newly acquired World UNESCO Heritage Site status gives me hope that I would be able to visit her again and again in her natural and mostly unadulterated state and uncover the histories, nooks and crannies and perhaps even living, breathing people that could have some connection to my own forebears.

Some highlights of my visit:

BMWs give way to trishaw riders

Doing the touristy thing: riding a trishaw!

Not unlike in my childhood, trishaw rides in Penang are for people – tourists mostly these days – to get to places which are too far to walk to but too close for a drive while offering you a unique, intimate perspective of the historical sites.  It was heartening to see two BMWs give my trishaw the right of way as I was taking pictures from my kneecaps en route to a clan house belonging to the descendants of Yeap Chor Ee, a self-made sugar merchant.  

John, my very English fiancé and retired Major from the British Parachute Regiment had overestimated the distance back to the hotel, so we got on a trishaw of a well-spoken, dark brown, leather-skinned uncle who took us “several hundred yards” past the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus School on Light Street and the Penang Museum to our hotel. I wished we had more time to ask the uncle where he had learnt to speak such good English, if just to confirm the romanticised idea that he had been a Kapitan (captain or head or representative of his ethnic group) serving the British in pre-war Penang.

Big and white

This is not in London, but on Beach Street in George Town, Penang!

Penang had been the first British port established in South East Asia and the British would not let you forget it. Many of the British trade and government buildings were built in the Georgian style popular in the day, with its strict structural symmetry, large multi-pane windows and sometimes intricate stucco facades occasionally embellished with wrought iron French balconies. Today most of these grand old dames have been taken over by various Malaysian government and statutory boards and businesses; Kentucky Fried Chicken occupies one, to John’s horror, but he would rather that they were occupied than left to rot for decades until sometimes only the facades were left standing. Now many of these buildings have been earmarked for conservation and reconstruction, mostly by Caucasian expats and perhaps developers keen on banking on George Town’s World UNESCO Heritage Site status.

Chendol by the longkang on Penang Road

Famous chendol stall on Penang Street

There’s something so visceral (and Singaporean) about queuing up with a dozen other tourists and locals at what has been touted to be the producer of the best chendol in Penang; the pushcart stall looked like the sort of set-up that the Singapore National Environment Agency (NEA) would have a field day sending summons to. The chendol itself was delicious enough (and overrated), but slurping it up quickly enough in the hot sun that the melting ice would not water down the coconut milk based dessert made me almost tear up with nostalgia.

Stay tuned for more Penang insights and reviews of the CausewayEXchange festival!

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