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, 2014Page : 1 2 3
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.
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.
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.
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?
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER left no diaries. The last time I saw him, he was in his early nineties. I was eight. Like most kids, I had little sense of history but great awareness of the old. I remember no conversation, just his wrinkly face and near-toothless grin.
It's easier to decipher what he couldn't have done in Penang than to know what he had. My first morning in town, I stand on my balcony at the Eastern & Oriental. A grande dame dating to 1885, the hotel hosted Kipling, Coward and Maugham. As I gaze at the sea that brought my great-grandfather to these shores, it isn't lost on me that he couldn't have afforded a room at the E&O.
Penang's grande dame, Eastern & Oriental
After breakfast, I meet historian Marcus Langdon at China House, a coffee bar/restaurant/gallery in a restored shophouse. At RM10, coffee is 10 times the price in an old-school café. "This is a good example of what's happening," Langdon shouts over a La Cimbal espresso machine. There's RM12 tiramisu. "Nothing's local"
Eventually, we arrive at the Eng Loh, a century-old, open-air coffee shop where the ceiling fans struggle to cut the humidity. Little seems to have changed in decades, except the portraits of Malaysia's king and queen—new monarchs are installed every five years—who watch us from high on the seafoam-green walls.
The Eng Loh isn't a place where one uses the term "barista." As Langdon and I talk, a cleaver-wielding cook chop-chop-chops a chicken and another chef clack-clack-clacks his metal turner against a wok of noodles. They're barely sweating, whereas I look as if I'm mid-shower. My glass of iced milk tea—RM1.60—drips puddles onto a chipped marble tabletop that appears old enough to have held my great-grandfather's tea too.
As rents rise and tastes change, can places like the Eng Loh survive? "Penang is such an amalgamation of historical and modern," Langdon says. "These things have to live together. The question is how."
Breakfast at Eng Loh coffee shop
I WANT TO HUG Wazir Jahan Karim when we meet at Jawi House, her gallery/crafts shop/restaurant on Armenian Street. She gets, better than most, the potency of personal history. "Everyone is tracing roots—maybe you find an Arab great-uncle or a Turkish grandfather," she says. "This is what it means to be in this postmodern, cosmopolitan city."
Wazir, a British-educated anthropologist, opened Jawi House to spotlight her roots in the uniquely Malaysian culture of the Jawi Peranakan. It originated with 19th-century Muslim immigrants to the Straits Settlements from South Asia and the Middle East. Mostly prosperous and educated, they often married Malay women. "It was a very upper-middle-class, progressive, pro-Empire group," Wazir says. "Religion was the common factor."
Over the decades, Jawi Peranakan culture faded. The government cultivated a more strictly Malay identity, and as Malaysia became more diverse, there was a desire to be seen as more singularly Malay—however historically inaccurate that is. Wazir mentions an aristocratic friend who declared: "My heritage is pure!" "The royalty she belongs to is half-Thai!" Wazir says indignantly, "and the Malay DNA is one of the most plural in the world."
Wazir sees shifts toward embracing diversity. Especially among the younger generation, she believes, the modern Malay identity—and the modern Malaysian one—doesn't require homogeneity. "It's fashionable to be hybrid now," she says. "By reclaiming our hybridity, we're also reclaiming our history."
The Jawi Peranakan's ancestral lines converge on the Jawi House menu. Hummus echoes Levantine cuisine. Biryanis summon India. Meat rendang and serabai, a rice-flour cake traditionally served during Ramadan, honor Malay cookery, though the former immigrated too, centuries ago, from Sumatra.
The most unusual dish: lemuni rice. At Jawi House, this Jawi Peranakan specialty features chicken curry served alongside basmati rice flavored with lemuni leaves. Also called the chastetree, the lemuni has been used for millennia to aid female reproductive health. "Try it!" Wazir prods, promising that men can appreciate it too.
Lemuni rice at Jawi House
Savory and visually stunning, the rice is studded with blue tualang (butterfly pea) blossoms. The dish—something borrowed, something blue—is quintessentially a Penangite union, like Jawi Peranakan culture itself. "Penang is eclectic. It is messy. Behind that mess is something of a method," Wazir says. "We have stories to tell, but we also have new stories to learn. We are people with many different narratives. This is where they come together." And, she hopes, where they continue for generations. While Wazir created much of the menu, she handed control of the kitchen to chef Nuril Karim Raza—he's her son.
PERHAPS MY CANTONESE great-grandfather, a jeweler's apprentice at the time, had registered in the logbooks of the Ta Kam Hong, on Muntri Street. Founded in 1832, the goldsmiths' guild drew its membership from Cantonese families.
The grand temple, built in 1903, honors Wu Ching, patron deity of goldsmiths. When I learned that, I doubted my great-grandfather, given his fervent faith, would have entered its gates. But I'd never know, because I couldn't enter its gates either; whenever I walked past the building, they were locked shut.
While I only glimpsed history's facade, present-day Penang teased me through Little Girl in Blue, a mural over the temple forecourt by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. He and his girlfriend, the novelist Gabija Grusaite, backpacked to Penang in 2011 and stayed, finding inspiration and a home. "It's the community—very unique, multicultural, laidback," he says when I visit his studio. "Also, it's cheap."
Would Little Girl in Blue have better luck than the author in entering goldsmiths' guild Ta Kam Hong?
Zacharevic painted Little Girl in Blue, and the more-famous Two Children on a Bicycle on Armenian Street, in 2012. The latter is mixedmedia—the kids are painted, but the bike is real. One day, I go to the Tanjung Tokong suburb to meet the real-life kids, Tan Yi and Tan Kern; their parents, Ashley Teoh and Adrian Tan; and a friend, the artist Ch'ng Kiah Kiean, known for his impressions of Penang streetscapes.
The family met Zacharevic through Urban Sketchers, an art group founded by Ch'ng. "Starting with UNESCO, people have been coming in and exploring Penang," Teoh says. "It's very encouraging that we're having this exchange of culture."
Two Children on a Bicycle
The three adults reminisce about their childhoods, mostly spent in George Town's historic precincts. All three laugh when Teoh mentions the "toilets" of their youth. Even in the 1980's, they used modified chamber pots—"buckets, actually," Tan says—kept in a cubbyhole accessible from the street and emptied by sanitation workers, "usually around 6 a.m.," Ch'ng recalls. "Our parents would say, 'If you don't study seriously, you'll end up like them!'" Teoh says. (Threats of shameful professional failure survived the journeys of the Chinese diaspora undimmed.)
After lunch, we drive to their old neighborhood. They're hankering for a coffee at an alleyway café that has endured from their youth. Parking proves pure tribulation—we circle and circle. "We used the streets as our playground. We played badminton. There were no cars," Tan says sadly. "Sometimes I wonder if, with all the foreign investment, we're actually eroding the culture. Locals have been forced to move out. Sometimes we don't even want to come here."
Their original move was born of modernity's draw; now, suburban living is a practical matter. "We appreciated new things, not old ones," Teoh says. Tan adds that it wasn't until foreigners began buying old houses that locals realized their value: "Now that we want to own them, we can't afford to."
LANGDON SAID Penang beyond George Town might provide windows to a more pastoral past. So on my last day, I go touring. Within minutes, urban surrenders to rural, echoes of what Rudyard Kipling, who visited Penang in 1889, describes in From Sea to Sea. "We struck into roads fringed with native houses on piles, shadowed by the everlasting coconut palms heavy with young nuts," he writes. "There was a mutter of thunder in the hills which we were approaching."
As we putter along sinusoidal roads, dodging foraging chickens, I tell my guide, Mr. Quah, a retired cooking-gas salesman, I want to visit a nutmeg farm Langdon had mentioned. It's one of the last remnants from the 1800's, when plantations proliferated in a British attempt to break the Dutch stranglehold on the spice supply.
Mr. Quah insistently narrates the treescape as we drive: "Durian tree. Rubber tree. Rambutan tree. No nutmeg! Durian tree. No nutmeg!"
Eventually, we find the Ghee Hup farm. Seedlings line the parking lot. Under a lean-to, a saleswoman gives a five-minute primer in pidgin English about the nutmeg. "Nutmeg mace! Good for joint pain!" she says. "See? Male seed. Cannot get baby. Female seed. Get baby."
I buy some whole nutmeg—in foodie-obsessive Brooklyn, I might shave it on spinach and serve with a story—but as we leave the farm, I began to sense the foolishness of chasing Penang's past. I'm finding only shadows. I can't know the reality of what my great-grandfather experienced. And it's both patronizing and impossible to decide what is worth "preserving."
Nutmeg at Ghee Hup
Yet the foreshadowing of the future seems strangely discomfiting too. After we lunch in Balik Pulau, Mr. Quah mentions that an acquaintance has asked him to buy bread here. This is apparently no ordinary Malaysian roti. We find the shop, Yin's, in a strip mall on edge of town. Proprietor Chan Su Yin learned to make sourdough in Portland. Upon returning to Malaysia, she tinkered with recipes to adjust for climate, opening Yin's in 2013. "I make my own kefir too!" she says, as if from a Portlandia Goes to Penang script. "When I got back from Oregon, I couldn't find it anywhere."
I buy a still-warm coconut bun, the only thing in the bakery that seems vaguely, stereotypically Penang. I swallow it nearly whole, along with my guilt, judgment and confusion. And as much as I don't want to say so, it's delicious.
Baker Chan Su Yin and her goods
Eastern & Oriental Hotel 10 Farquhar St., George Town; +60 4 222 2000; eohotels.com.
Seven Terraces 2-16 Stewart Ln., George Town; +60 4 264 2333; seventerraces.com.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion The famed "Blue House," this century-plus-old manor of a Hakka magnate and diplomat once housed the Chinese Vice-Consulate, as well as Cheong's favored seventh wife. 14 Leith St., George Town; +60 4 262 0006; cheongfatttzemansion.com.
Jawi House Café Gallery 85 Armenian St., George Town; +60 4 261 3680; jawihouse.com; open until 7 p.m.
China House 153-155 Beach St., George Town; +60 4 263 7299; chinahouse.com.my.
Yin's Sourdough 11 Pesara Claimant, George Town; +60 11 2419 5118; yinssourdough.com.
Eng Loh Coffee Shop 48 Church St., George Town; +60 4 261 5526.
Toh Soon Café 184 Campbell St., George Town; +60 4 261 3754.
Patio This indoor-outdoor tapas bar has live music, grilled ribs and signature sangria. 49 Weld Quay, George Town; +60 17 546 2353; facebook.com/patiopenang.
Eng Loh Coffee Shop
Suffolk House 250 Jalan Air Itam, George Town; +60 4 228 1109; suffolkhouse.com.my.
Self-Guided Street Art Tour George Town; tourismpenang.net.my/pdf/street-art-brochure.pdf.
Ghee Hup Nutmeg Factory 202-A Jalan Teluk Bahang, Balik Pulau; +60 4 866 8426; free admission (and nutmeg-juice samples).