In Georgetown, Penang

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June 11th 2011
Published: June 12th 2011
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Cheong Fatt Tze MansionCheong Fatt Tze MansionCheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Called "the blue mansion," for obvious reasons
Penang is an island off of Malaysia, in the Melacca Straits, the narrow, strategic passage where all the shipping has always moved between Asia and India / the Middle East / Europe. I’ve been visiting the city of Georgetown, or George Town, which is the main city on the island and one of the larger cities in Malaysia.

Georgetown is a fascinating mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian culture. Its culture feels much like the diversity I described in the blog on Kuala Lumpur, a few weeks ago.

Georgetown’s history is similar to the history of Melacca, which May, Jordan, Ella and I visited last year. May and I wrote a blog about Melacca last year. Much of what we wrote there applies to Georgetown as well. Actually, Patsy the Purple Cow’s (Ella’s) blog on Melacca is particularly funny, honest, and insightful. If you haven’t read it, google “Patsy the Purple Cow” and go to the Melacca entry. It’s a hoot. When I re-read it recently, I laughed deeply. It felt good.

Georgetown was found by the British in the late 1700s, to gain a toehold in the spice trade. They invited in Chinese and Indians, who eventually merged with Malay culture to form the rich cultural stew that makes up so much of Malaysia.

Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that the UN has recognized that it’s a unique place in the world, and worth conserving. It was granted World Heritage Site status because of its mix of cultures and the way the historic center has preserved its traditional architecture.

Bollywood to Cantonese opera, in a block and a half. The historic center of Georgetown is fascinating. You can walk a few blocks and go from Little India, which I find more entertaining than the places I visited in India, to Chinese parts of town that feel much like China (but almost more so).

In some ways, Chinese culture in Malaysia has survived unbroken in a way that it hasn’t in China. In China, Mao and his colleagues wiped out Chinese culture for 40 to 50 years. Chinese culture is coming back in China, but it’s mostly being re-created, because nearly every aspect of Chinese culture was decimated during the Cultural Revolution.

In Malaysia, Chinese culture has flowed along without interruption since the 1700s and well before. Chinese culture in Malaysia

Here is the new wife, signalling that she's ready for some Cantonese kissy-kissy.
feels different – more traditional, more vibrant and alive – compared to China.

In the Cantonese opera, I believe she cut his penis off. One night I ate some delicious tandoori chicken (see photo) in Little India. I had a mango shake for dessert, sort of a mango icee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Yum.

Then I wandered through Little India, and just took it all in. It's fun there. I like it. People were strolling, and Bollywood music was blaring, and there was color and delicious smells everywhere.

Just a block and a half from Little India is one particular Chinese temple that's really active. It’s an aging, heavily-used temple. It's frayed around the edges compared to all the super- nice temples that have been restored. But it's always crawling with worshippers and clouded over with incense and burning offerings.

There was a stage set up in the temple courtyard, and a Chinese opera playing. I always thought Chinese opera was supposed to be boring, but it was hilarious.

There were tons of little scenes in the opera, and I could generally follow what was going on, even though they sang in
The HusbandThe HusbandThe Husband

He thinks he's gotten away from her....
Cantonese. They had Chinese script of what they were saying flashing up on a little monitor, but that obviously didn't help me much.

Anyway, in my favorite scene, the male clown character, who was really funny and very much a ham, brought home a new bride. She had her face covered, which seems to be a Chinese tradition (because it also happened in other, more serious scenes).

When the new bride uncovered her face, she had black dots all over her face and she screwed up her face like a fish. He thought she was ugly.

She liked him, though, and wanted to have some kissy-kissies. So she chased him around and around, while singing in Cantonese, and tried to make Cantonese kissy-kissy with him.

He was having none of it. He kept running away, and ducking about, and avoiding her. It was quite funny.

Then she got mad. She grabbed some garden shears and chased him around, trying to cut off his penis. Everyone in the audience was laughing. It really was quite funny. They were both hamming it up.

Eventually I think she got his penis, but I'm not sure. It was
Going After Him, IGoing After Him, IGoing After Him, I

Here's where she tries to cut off his penis. She's just grabbed him here.
hard to tell. You can see her going after him in the photos.

Then in the next scene, they went to see the judge, I guess to settle the case. The judge passed out when he eventually saw the lady's face.

The lady got mad, and she took off her husband's hat and took it over to the judge, and the judge started throwing up. I'm not quite sure why he was throwing up, but it was funny. I think maybe the hat smelled really bad.

Anyway, it just sort of went on and on. It was my sort of humor. Subtle, tasteful, classy.

It wasn't all goofy like that; there were some drama queen parts too. But even they were interesting. And the funny parts were quite funny. I watched it for about an hour and half.

I always thought Chinese opera was staid, stiff, and boring. Who knew?

Baba Nyonyas, and other lovely people. Georgetown has great tourist sights, as good as any city in Southeast Asia that I have visited. I had a lot of fun learning about Penang’s rich history.

One of the most interesting places I visited was
Going After Him, IIGoing After Him, IIGoing After Him, II

You can see the blurry garden shears in this photo, if you look carefully.
called Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. This was a mansion built in the 1800s by a Hakka (Southern Chinese) businessman who became extremely wealthy. He was a one-man multi-national corporation, with business interests literally all over the world.

The woman who gave us the tour of the house (also a gorgeous heritage bed and breakfast) was Southern Chinese, as are most of the Chinese people in Malaysia. She was saying that her family has been in Malaysia for five generations.

These “old-timers,” the Chinese folks who have been in Malaysia since the 1700s or 1800s, are called Baba Nyonyas or Peranakans.

The woman who gave us the tour said that in some ways, the Baba Nyonyas have become Malaysian. Their food is spicy like Malay food, and they dress more like Malays, and their Chinese is so peppered with English and Malay that they can’t even really communicate when they go back to China.

The Baba Nyonyas are typically also the more well-to-do and Anglicized Chinese in Malaysia. They usually speak English perfectly, and they go to England, Australia, or the US for university, and they are almost as comfortable in English-European culture as Malaysian culture.
Going After Him, IIIGoing After Him, IIIGoing After Him, III

She got him. I think.

This is in contrast to the newer Chinese immigrants, who have remained deeply Chinese, and see Malaysia only as a place to come make money. These “new Chinese” tend to go back to China when they retire. Their roots are in China, unlike the Baba Nyonyas, who are fully integrated into Malaysian culture and society.

Anyway, the woman who gave us the tour is also the owner of the house. It’s an incredibly beautiful blue house (see the photos), and she did a great job making it come alive as she told about the restoration and how the house was used over the years.

You could sort of feel the history in the house, and hear the voices echoing through it. She really made it come alive. She was funny, smart, and passionate about historic conservation – without being overbearing or sanctimonious. It was a lovely visit, and I learned a lot.

The Khoo family ancestors. I also visited Khoo Kongsi, which is the Khoo family’s temple for ancestor worship.

When the Chinese first came in large numbers to Georgetown, in the 1700s, the various extended families, or clans, took care of each other and helped
Temple Entryway, Khoo KongsiTemple Entryway, Khoo KongsiTemple Entryway, Khoo Kongsi

You can get a sense of the almost overwhelming amount of incredible detail.
each other get started.

Eventually they built clan community centers, which were sort of like mutual aid societies.

These little community centers turned into larger ones, and morphed into temples, because much of what went on was the worshipping and honoring of ancestors.

Khoo Kongsi is the Khoo family ancestor temple, and it is flat-out stunning. I’ve seen a lot of Chinese temples, and this is one of the most stunning. The photos convey some sense of it.

Chinese ancestor worship is interesting, and you can see this a bit in the photos too. I saw evidence of ancestor worship a lot in Georgetown, in several temples and kongsis (clan centers).

Typically there was a room with a bunch of sort of flat carved slabs, with Chinese characters on them. I assume that these have the names of the ancestors on them. There’s a large altar that holds all these slabs, and it’s clearly set up for worshipping them and honoring them. You can see what I’m describing in some of the photos.

There’s usually a larger temple room too, a separate room, with some sort of statue or god. You can see this
Coffee Shop, GeorgetownCoffee Shop, GeorgetownCoffee Shop, Georgetown

I usually ate in a "Kopi Tiam" or coffee shop, a nice, open, fan-cooled space with 5-6 different food stalls and a place serving drinks. Pleasant and always delicious.
in the photos too.

It seemed like a good way to honor ancestors. It made sense to me. That’s a sort of worship that rings true for me. It sort of felt like ghosts, benign ghosts, watching over you and taking care of you (and helping you make lots of money).

Georgetown is a good place. Anyway, the descriptions above give a flavor of Georgetown. The photos do too.

When I first arrived, I wasn’t so sure I liked Georgetown. When I had come here before, 20 years ago when Jordan was two, May, Jordan, Blair, and I stayed in a brothel (without realizing it was a brothel when we checked in), and our room was crawling with mice.

At first, Georgetown seemed a bit sleazy and iffy to me on this trip too. The first night, without knowing where I was going, I walked through a girly-bar area, and slimy guys kept saying, “You want young girls, Chinese girls, Russian girls?” I hate that sort of thing. I got out of there quickly. It was a bit of a shock after Kuching, which was much more wholesome.

Then too Georgetown is firmly on what
Georgetown StreetsGeorgetown StreetsGeorgetown Streets

This is what most of the historic center looked like, rows of shophouses being used as both shops and homes.
May calls the “banana pancake” trail, the well-trodden backpacker trail that runs through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and (apparently) Georgetown.

I hadn’t seem many other white tourists on this trip (almost none in India), and suddenly in Georgetown’s backpacker enclave there were flocks of hippy, scruffy, dread-locked, pantaloon’d young white people, all just down from Thai beaches. It was like walking through downtown Asheville. It was weird.

But the girly-bar place and the backpacker neighborhood were just tiny, tiny drops in a large, ever-changing, very Malaysian, very diverse city. And it was Malaysia, so of course the food was fabulous.

So in the end, I enjoyed my time Georgetown. I did a lot, saw a lot, learned a lot, and ate a lot. It was all good.

Additional photos below
Photos: 63, Displayed: 29


Chinese StoreChinese Store
Chinese Store

Much of Georgetown was full of shops like this one.
Shophouse WindowShophouse Window
Shophouse Window

My artsy-fartsy moment
My GuesthouseMy Guesthouse
My Guesthouse

Even my guesthouse was an historic, heritage house. It was a lovely place. Malaysia has great places to stay.
City HallCity Hall
City Hall

There were lots of British colonial buildings sprinkled throughout Georgetown.
Lotus PondLotus Pond
Lotus Pond

At Georgetown's Botanical Gardens, a nice green escape
Two PuppiesTwo Puppies
Two Puppies

These two puppies were frolicking in a puppyish way. It made me think of Ella, so I included this photo for her.
Tandoori ChickenTandoori Chicken
Tandoori Chicken

Chicken and naan cooked in a traditional claypot oven. Yum.

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