View Comments
Shining pearl of the Orient
Niall McIlroy Kek Lok Si Temple

There are few places I'd heard more about before visiting than Penang. Family, colleagues and friends talked of its colonial history, excellent and cheap food and great shopping.

But fellow explorer Francis Light was in the dark when he arrived in 1786 to establish the British Empire's first South-East Asian outpost.

Captain Light came ashore the day before the Prince of Wales' birthday and named the island for his royal highness. Neither catchy nor romantic, Prince of Wales Island never caught on and it reverted to Penang after the Pinang palm (Areca catechu) along its tropical shoreline.

The Prince's father King George III was a little luckier; Penang's capital still bears his name and I'm enjoying the many moods of George Town, a sprawling, stylish port perched on a promontory and tethered to the mainland by the 13.5km Penang Bridge. Swaddled by a perpetually wet breeze, Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, dangles in the balmy Penang Strait, looking west.

It had long been a hub of Asia's great trade route. The Chinese have been visiting for centuries and the Portuguese stopped off en route to the Spice Islands of the Moluccas. Under Capt. Light, George Town became a place to trade and take on provisions and modern Penang has been shaped by those who passed through.

At George Town's core is a collection of buildings so diverse the city was UNESCO World Heritage listed in 2008. It is adorned with grand, wedding cake-white colonial buildings framed by pillars and high arches, blood-red Taoist temples, shophouses and deity-heavy Hindu shrines blanketing the old trading port in an architectural melange. This diversity dances across the faces of the people and is writ large in Bahasa, English and Hokkien street names.

The exquisite Eastern & Oriental Hotel occupies a whole seafront block on Farquhar Street. Built by the Armenian Sarkies brothers in 1885, it charmed both Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward into residence. Streets away, the majestic Municipal Council, Town Hall and the High Court are all blindingly white against the gunmetal sky.

And there are edifices so colourful they seem to shout. Some, like the Taoist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy on Pitt Street, have been built in praise of a higher power. Hare Krishna devotees hand out food packets, shadows in the smoke spewing from two black braziers. Inside, quiet worshippers under red and gold lanterns wave joss sticks.

Kek Lok Si, the biggest Buddhist temple in South-East Asia and built into the foot of Penang Hill, is a beautiful and complex frenzy of colour and shape, pagodas and stupas, terraced gardens and statues of buddhas, goddesses and immortal warriors.

On a smaller scale is Cheong Fatt Tze's blue mansion. Self-made Cheong was said to have pioneered modern banking and railways in China and was well regarded by the British and the Dutch. He was thought to have had at least eight wives. Some say he needed the 38-room mansion, built in the 1880s, to house his wives and children.

All lived in opulent surroundings amid teak staircases, furniture and pottery from China, floor tiles from Stoke and finest Scottish wrought-iron works. The house fell into disrepair after Cheong's death in 1916 and by the 80s had become a squatter's camp. Restoration began in 1990 and after 10 years it received a UNESCO award.

But Cheong didn't have a monopoly on flamboyance, for Penang was home to a sizeable Peranakan population - descendants of wealthy Chinese merchants who had traded in the Straits and settled there and in Singapore and Indonesia. Men were known as babas, women as nonyas; they spoke a distinct Chinese-Malay dialect and impeccable English, living a colonial lifestyle in grand homes.

I've long been fascinated by this shoot that sprouted, blossomed and then was slowly re-absorbed into the greater Chinese community. The lime-green Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street is a reminder of their extravagant lives. The former home of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee is built around a courtyard with rooms filled with delicate rosewood chairs and tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl and marble. Mirrored portraits of generations of babas and nonyas stare from the walls above teak cabinets which hold multi-chained silver necklaces and gold hairpieces.

The nonyas were talented seamstresses and wore elaborate beaded shoes sewn with gold thread, blouses and sarongs. The babas were more staid, in three-piece suits, blending in for business with the English. Their culture is now confined to the museums of the Straits.

Thirty years ago, rickshaws were the best way to get around George Town and during peak hour their three-wheeled descendants are still the quickest and most pleasant means of transport. I hail a trishaw garlanded with plastic flowers from outside Capt. Light's first base at Fort Cornwallis and the driver whisks me into Little India's tangle of streets, which are packed with food-shopping families. Workers roll hessian sacks of rice from truck to shelf. Relentless Tamil film music pumps from speakers at the front of a DVD shop. This scene repeats around every corner. The music fades a final time and, as the trishaw rolls on to Cannon Square, it's as if I've been transported across a continent.

Sun fills the courtyard and reflects off the dramatic crimson wood and gold foil facade of the Khoo Kongsi clan house. One of five Hokkien clans on the island, the Khoo built their headquarters and meeting place in 1906.

True to Penang's mercantile soul, there are multi-storey malls around the island - in the south, Queensbay Mall dwarfs the airport. And much of the length of Gurney Drive is given over to restaurants, pubs and shopping complexes such as the nine-storey Gurney Plaza.

The pulse is strong after dark, when Gurney Drive clogs with traffic as locals descend on the Pasar Malam (night market) to eat the good, cheap street food for which Penang is famous. Bowls of laksa and curry mee with clam and cockles, satay, freshly spun roti and sweet teh tarik, all topped off with thick black glutinous rice. There are hundreds of metres of choice and dinner for less than $5.

On this typically balmy George Town evening, the casuarinas drip with fairy lights and cuttlefish hang like pink ghosts awaiting the wok. A wind-up Thomas the Tank Engine spins on a table cluttered with soft toys, while a caricature artist waits for his next subject as Barbra Streisand, Hitler and the Mona Lisa stare over his shoulder. And I'd take this bazaar over a boutique store any night.

Sun fills the courtyard and reflects off the dramatic crimson wood and gold foil facade of the Khoo Kongsi clan house.

The Lorong Kulit Market is at Jalan Lorong Kulit opposite the stadium's main entrance. It's open from 8am-2pm daily, except when it rains. Jumble galore Under a tarpaulin city set up next to the City Stadium, there's an incredible array of paraphernalia, both useful or otherwise, for sale at Lorong Kulit flea market. As with markets all over the world, Sunday morning is the best time to go. Allow at least an hour to wander between stalls selling everything from spanners and spare car parts to back copies of Majesty magazine, sunglasses, shuddering speakers that have obviously blown, phone covers, pot plants, socks, goldfish and mint condition Saddam-era Iraqi banknotes of dubious origin. You may not see anything worth buying but you'll have a lot of fun looking. On the other hand, you could uncover that hard- to-find two-pronged AV TV-to-video cable or Billy Walker's first vinyl album.