Georgetown, Penang

Singapore and Malaysia have a history of mutual distrust. Nevertheless, being only a kilometre apart, the two nations have strong cultural and social ties, and a lot of Singaporeans have family in Malaysia. On a personal level, both my parents were Malaysian before leaving to find a better life in Singapore. I’ve spent a lot of time in Malaysia as a kid, but I’ve not experienced much of it. It was never different enough to pay too much attention to, and having family there made it even more home-like.

Locals enjoying each other's company by the Esplanade seaside. Georgetown, Penang.
Locals enjoying each other’s company by the Esplanade seaside. Georgetown, Penang.

Leaving for Australia at age eighteen tempered this perspective plenty. I’ve been away for long enough that my old home often feels more foreign than anywhere else I’ve been, and my relationship to my parents’ nation of origin is one of general confusion: the occasional familiar scene is mixed with memory rendered inexplicable by the trajectory of a distant, unrelated life. A constant renegotiation, if you will.

An alley off Armenian St. Georgetown, Penang.
An alley off Armenian St. Georgetown, Penang.

My sister now lives in Malaysia with her family (her husband is a Penang boy, incidentally, though they live in KL), and Dad spent many years fishing around the islands in the South China Sea. My frequent visits across the causeway in younger years, were either to Malacca, Kuala Lumpur or Pulau Aur (only place in the world one could spend 5 days fishing marlin for SGD $200).

Last week I finally got to play tourist in Malaysia.

Trishaw riders gather to rest in Jalan Penang. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.
Trishaw riders gather to rest in Jalan Penang. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

The whole Penang thing started because Mum wanted to stay at The Blue Mansion, a UNESCO heritage listed hotel, in Georgetown. It turned out to be a little too steep for the pocket, but by then we were fixated on Penang, so off we went, having found reasonable flights and accommodation.

I knew nothing about Penang, but for some inexplicable reason, I imagined it a smaller, seaside version of KL.

Boy was I wrong.

New car, old shophouse. Georgetown, Penang.


Upon arrival, I discovered that Georgetown, Penang’s capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Old architecture is preserved, from Peranakan shophouses to the colonial mansions and administrative buildings, many of which now serve as restaurants and hotels. There is still an abundance of street food hawkers that sell their noodles, rice, fruits, juice and other edibles, from a cargo bike.

A Street Hawker's bike. Georgetown, Penang.
A street hawker’s bike. Georgetown, Penang.

Much of Georgetown reminds me of Singapore before it became the wealthy, super-urban metropolis it is today: the relaxed disorganization of traffic; bamboo-slatted awnings with person sized cut-outs pulled low over shopfronts, keeping the midday heat at bay; old men taking afternoon naps in unlikely places; two friends idly nursing a cup of kopi like they had all the time in the world.


Georgetown proved very pedestrian-friendly, so we spent hours everyday walking around, soaking it all in, stopping for ice coffee and tea when we needed a break. Penang’s famous street murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic took us three days to track down in this leisurely manner, and strategically placed as they were, meant we inadvertently ended up seeing a lot of the historic sections of the city.


Kudos to Mum who kept up with the long legged Scandinavian and enthusiastic ambler who were her holiday kaki, though the hours of walking around town and stair climbing at Kek Lok Si temple. Untroubled by problem knees, she would have out walked us both with ease.

Trishaw Mural. Georgetown, Penang.
Trishaw Mural. Georgetown, Penang.

For me, an unexpected highlight was getting to visit the clan jetties of Penang. These jetties, staging areas for maritime trade, were settled by the Chinese immigrants that came to Penang in the 1800s, eventually taken over and named for clans that had the clout to claim one for their own: Tan, Wong, Chew etc. Chew Jetty is where most visitors go, but we, lost as usual, stumbled into Tan jetty first. Many of the homes and structures have been re-developed or improved, but a glimpse inside others would give you a pretty good idea of what living in one of these would have been like.

Looking out from Tan jetty. Georgetown, Penang.
Looking out from Tan jetty. Georgetown, Penang.

It was an enriching few days for all of us. I greatly enjoy coming into contact with tangible history of ordinary lives through the ages, and this is hard to find in Singapore where restoration = make it shiny and perfect. This is not a bad thing, but I appreciated the patina of age and wear in a lot of the buildings we walked into. It felt like walking into a space that remembered its past.

I love Mexico City and Copenhagen for this access to physical history, but Penang, so close to home, offers the possibility of a history that an ancestor somewhere in my family’s unknown tree could have had. My own family’s history is mostly lost, but it doesn’t stop me from imagining what life would have been like for a made-up great great cousin twice removed.


Despite spending only 3 full days there, I found Penang amazing. The vibe was relaxed, the food was delicious (for anyone spending US, Australian or European dollars, it’s also cheap), the city fascinating, relatively safe to walk around in at night, and for photographers, accessible visual abundance.

I’d love to spend a full month there, reading and working by the drowsy heat of the day and exploring on foot after sunset. I’m totally sold.

A young girl rests in the five foot way at night. Georgetown, Penang.
A young girl rests in the five foot way at night. Georgetown, Penang.

PS, it felt great to go back to shooting stills with the little X-E2 and 35mm!


  1. Penang was a very pleasant surprise. KL is the only Malaysian city I know and I expected something similar on a smaller scale. I love how walkable it is, how they seem to have just the right mix of old and new – being a world heritage site probably helps with that. Food was amazing too, the coffee at the Armenian house was outstanding (think I’m still slightly high from those 2 x espressos in 10 mins!). Yes, definitely need to hang out a month here soon.

    1. Charlene says:

      You can get a double shot of expresso several times a day! That’s got to be some kind of heaven in your book ay? ;)

      We gotta go back.

      1. Must go back! Also, at Red Gardens, best keyboard player in the world. Ever.

  2. Erin Wilson says:

    Your lead image is fantastic, Charlene. Could look at that for hours and not find the edges of it.

    1. Charlene says:

      Gracious, amiga :)

    2. This really is Charlene in her element, even with the little bit of time we had for photography, she still managed some awesome shots, most of them I’m standing right next to her and don’t know how she does it. Magic! And a really good instinct and eye for street shooting.

      One day, one day, when pigs fly, I shall do a documentary about Charlene and follow her around when she’s street shooting :D

    3. Charlene says:

      Pigs will have to do better than fly, I’m telling you….

  3. walker says:

    I like a lot these photographs!


    1. Charlene says:

      Thanks walker!

  4. Thank you, I was there in 1966 and you photo brought back many fond memories..

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