Heritage matters: An insider's tour of George Town

Updated: 27 Nov 2012

Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson takes you on an insider’s tour of George Town to explain how it earned the highest honour from Unesco in 2008

George Town is going through a major renaissance. The UNESCO World Heritage Listing has been its godsend and the hard work, especially in the early days of heritage enlightenment by the passionate and dedicated Penang Heritage Trust (26 Church Street. +604 264 2631) has paid off. It’s largely to their credit that George Town has become a cultural World Heritage Site preserved for future generations and this acclaim is celebrated during the George Town Festival (+604 261 0790/ www.georgetownfestival.com) in July, when the city opens its doors, closes some of its roads, and offers everything heritage, including art and drama tours, glimpses into private residences, and talks. Can’t make it then? Mark your diaries for at least one outing at the Little Penang Street Market (Upper Penang Road. +6017 429 0806/www.littlepenang.com.my) on the last Sunday of every month for the best nasi lemak, local artists, homemade handicraft, plants, and vintage items.

Whilst the architecture in George Town must be taken in, architecture alone is not what makes this place unique. Many religions and cultures form its multi-ethnic skyline. Chinese temples jostle with Muslim mosques, while Indian temples, Chinese rooflines, Anglo-Indian columns, and colonial style buildings all sit on the same streets laid down by Francis Light in as early as 1789.

Light’s vision and entrepreneurship attracted merchants and companies of people who saw the ideal opportunity for new life and a vibrant marketplace. These days, Light’s spirit has been ignited again, as real estate prices rise within the inner city, and once again, people from faraway places see opportunities for business and a good life. This is obvious in the restoration of old shophouses, and all over the city, the business of heritage is taking shape and whole streets are being transformed.

Prepare to get hot and sweaty. The heritage zone can be covered on foot and every doorway into a building here is a potential art installation, photograph, or movie set. For those who want to take George Town in more leisurely, the trishaw is your chariot and puts you at the perfect level for peeping into doorways as you glide by. For those who want wheels, hire bicycles at the unlikely-named The Leaf Healthy Store (5 Penang Street. +604 262 7007). They have tandems, mountain bikes and good old-fashioned bicycles from RM10 for four hours. They also serve tasty natural organic vegetarian food with no MSG, white salt, white sugar, colouring or preservatives.

The places of worship are certainly where the buzz is in George Town and visitors are welcomed and encouraged to participate. People are happy to explain anything that is going on, but streets are at their busiest during festivals and celebrations.

Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavail, and Christmas are celebrated everywhere, but in Penang, you’ll literally run from one celebration to another as the annual festival calendar is also dotted with Chinese opera, street dances, festival markets, Hokkien New Year, Tua Pek Kong processions, Hindu processions, Ponggol and more. It’s never ending and Penangites know how to celebrate.

During Hungry Ghost month (seventh month of the lunar year), you’ll need stamina to run from one incineration of the God of Hell to another. Take in the abundant installations of offerings and paper statues (look out for those on Sungei Ujong Road, Rope Walk, Cintra Street and Muntri Street), not to mention the wonderful Chinese Operas brought in from other parts of Malaysia, China and Thailand. Highlights are the face-changers and magicians. View excellent performances at the Kuan Yin Temple at the top end of China Street, Armenian Street and at Sungei Pinang.

At the end of the Hindu Navarathiri (October 24), it’s a different kind of show with two gorgeous white bulls pulling a golden chariot from its home on Penang Street through the streets of inner George Town. Devotees pass offerings up to the priests standing atop it. This is a beautiful enough vision, but when accompanied by a crowd of 300 and dancers with sticks and music, it’s a spectacle that must be caught.

Don’t miss Thaipusam (January) either. Chariots emerge again and meander across Chulia Street, Victoria Street, Magazine Road, Datuk Keramat, and finally to the Waterfall temple at the Botanic Gardens. Start at the beginning on Penang Street. Here, you’re welcome to stand in line for a meal and walk the first stretch through town. The area through Victoria Street is also charming, as the road is painted and recycling businesses set up shrines and installations that decorate their shop frontages. Look out for families dressed in their finest and the backdrop of heritage buildings in this context is also quite surreal.

A taste of Penang’s heritage can also be seen in her businesses. Spend a morning at the infamous Chowrasta Market, and on a weekend, potter about on Kuala Kangsar Road. This portion of the market stands on its own and has become a bit of an attraction for yuppie and suburban Penangites on weekends with a range of products that reflects this. This stretch is great fun and where you’ll see and pick up anything from chopping boards to trendy shoes, fruit and vegetables to live crabs or goldfish. Best route’s from Campbell Street, walking through to Kimberley Street. If gentlemen require a close morning shave, go into Ching Hwa Barbershop (197 Kimberley Street). Here, ears can also be thoroughly cleaned out with all manner of instruments and strong lights. Otherwise, just watch with fascination.

You may also want to marvel at the traditional paper offerings of the father and son team on Gat Lebuh Prangin between Victoria Street and Pengkalan Weld (49 Gat Lebuh Prangin). Together, they create perfect paper bicycles, motorbikes, Mercedes Benz cars, golden horses, and other decorative offerings for funerals or festivals. They welcome orders and have sent pieces to London for clients who display them as art. They’re usually busy and have no time for idle chat, so don’t mistake this for grumpiness. Instead, get closer by learning their trade. They’re part of the Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisans (Penang Heritage Trust, +604 264 2631), a project that also lets you commit yourself to learning wooden sign board carving or traditional Nyonya beading work.

For all things temple and ritual, go to Bee Chin Heong on Kimberly Street. Their bright pink row of buildings and their logo, a man on horse, cannot be missed. This is the IKEA of temple paraphernalia and there are truckloads of treasures to be found here like lanterns, posters, delightful boxes of incense, singing bowls, monk’s robes, and charms. There are also giant statues for the adventurous and amazing ceramic ware for the creative cook. This store is kitsch incarnate and a compulsory visit.

For those looking for vintage items, visit the many antique shops on Chulia Street. Lorong Kulit (at the city stadium carpark) offers a more local, boot sale atmosphere. This one’s not an early morning affair (it opens at about 9am) and has a variety of stalls offering brassware, ceramics, bric-a-brac, traditional Malay medicines, fruit, plants, clothes and gadgets. It’s still possible to find real bargains and treasures here on a good day, but patience is required.

Watch out for the festival markets too. During Ramadhan, Market Street has to be visited. These stalls open in the afternoon ready for sunset when Muslims break their fast, and during Chap Goh Meh (March), a one-night-only street market with entertainment is set up on the top end of China Street near the Kuan Yin Temple and also along Pitt Street. Festival markets like these enable grazing and nibbling on a wide selection of local and traditional delicacies, but for a sit-down meal in an old heritage building, long-established Tek Sen Restaurant (18 & 20 Carnarvon Street. +6012 493 9424) and Foong Wei Heong (23 & 25 Sri Bahari Road. +604 261 1918) will not disappoint.

The UNESCO listing has definitely brought more visitors into all the food outlets within the zone. It has also encouraged a new breed of restaurants and there’s been a rash of young couples opening their own places. Check out Soul Kitchen (102 Muntri Street. +604 261 3118) and Amelie Cafe (6 Armenian Street. +6012 496 7838).

Ng Kee Cake Shop (61 Cintra Street. +604 261 2229) is the place for pepper biscuits and warm meltin- your-mouth coconut tarts, but save these for later and head to dim sum at De Tai Tong Café up the road (45 Cintra Street, +604 263 6625), where trolleys pushed by white-capped aunties keep your feet firmly under the table. For vintage back-to-back bench seating and traditional Minangkabau grub, head to Restoran Nasi Padang Minang at the Kedai Kopi International Hotel (92 Jalan Transfer) and get your vegetarian fare from Ee Bing Vegetarian Food (20 Dickens Street. +604 262 9161).

You’ll want to work all this off, but forget the gym and jog through the heritage zone. Circumnavigate the core and buffer zones by Fort Cornwallis and the civic buildings on the Esplanade, stop to view the impromptu but exciting cricket matches between teams of Indian workers on the Padang, and watch the cruise liners come in whilst you practice tai chi, stroll, or fly kites against the setting of Mount Kedah. And don’t forget to smile at passersby. People are at the heart of this place and their way of life in amongst all this heritage makes up the experience that is George Town.

Tags: Features