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