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Ghosts and Gods of Penang

September 23, 2014


Trying to follow his great-grandfather's century-old trail through the Malaysian melting pot, Jeff Chu encounters guilds, gilt and guilt—and realizes that the Straits isle still is dancing a delicate quadrille between past and present. Photographed by Kit Chan.

Published on Sep 23, 2014

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The violins had long stopped playing at Suffolk House by the time Laurence Loh arrived. The Georgian manse stood on a Penang pepper estate created by Captain Francis Light, who claimed the island for the British in 1786. In the early 19th century, nothing else on Penang matched its prestige. The governor lived here for a time. During balls, the silks of ladies' gowns swept the wide, wooden verandas, which overlooked riverside lands tamed to resemble English countryside.

Suffolk House
The exterior architecture of Suffolk House

When Loh, a Malaysian architect who has restored some of Penang's finest historic buildings, visited in the 1990's, the house was dilapidated verging on destroyed, the forest waging a reclamation campaign. "People said it would be impossible to bring it back to what it was," Loh says as we sit in his firm's offices, in a residential precinct of George Town, Penang's capital. He starts to refer to the house as "she." "She didn't give up her favors easily," he says, shaking his head. "She is a very naughty lady."

Nobody had the full picture of how Suffolk House originally looked, so Loh played forensic archaeologist. Meanwhile, over seven tortuous years, she won his heart. Today, he speaks of her with supernatural wonder. "Put it this way, la," Loh says. "Suffolk House is a secular building, but she is one of the most spiritual also. You just feel the different types of spiritual energy. Go and see for yourself."

Later, exploring Suffolk House, I feel mainly sweaty and sad. A droopy floral arrangement sits on a foyer table. The ground floor houses a dusty, usually closed souvenir shop and a restaurant serving British cuisine, an odd nod to colonial times.

Suffolk House

Then I climb the stairs to the colonnaded veranda, where my mind runs wild, coloring in the picture. I can smell gentlemen smoking and hear them playing cards in the drawing room. Dancing ladies whirl around the ballroom to a little night music. How is this possible?

Looking around, I see nobody. So I do a spin on the ballroom floor to a quadrille only I can hear. Then I think, "How very Penang."

GHOSTS AND GODS drew me to Penang. I'd come in part to retrace my great-grandfather's missionary journey a century ago. He converted to Christianity as a young man in Hong Kong. Why he then boarded a ship to colonial Malaya is lost to history, but it's not hard to see Penang as a proselyte's perfect destination: a marketplace not just of spices and goods but also cultures and ideas, it welcomed hustlers, hucksters and salespeople of all stripes and sectors.

One of the Straits Settlements enriched by the British East India Company, Penang rose much like Singapore and Hong Kong did. All three owed their fortunes and diverse demographics to the seas. In its early decades especially, translators were particularly in demand in George Town: you could hear Armenian and Arabic, Chinese dialects and various English accents, French and German, a dozen languages of the Indian subcontinent and, of course, Malay.

Penang

But while Singapore and Hong Kong attained stratospheric wealth in the 20th century, Penang, the oldest by several decades, didn't. Especially after it lost its free-port status in 1969, the economy foundered. Skylines tell the story: Hong Kong has nearly 300 buildings taller than 150 meters. Singapore has about 70. Penang? One.

Penang's silver, teak and terracotta lining is an architectural and aesthetic fabric that's better preserved than Singapore's or Hong Kong's. Six years ago, George Town's charming historic core was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site—acknowledging the past's importance to the place's present and future.

History matters—that's why I was in Penang. But change is inevitable too. The UNESCO status has increased the premium on George Town's storied buildings, squeezing locals out. How do you honor the old while forging the new? And who gets to decide whether street art, espresso machines, and other markers of globalizing hipsterdom and gentrification belong in a culture defined by intermingling?

 

 

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