Malaysian northern star shines with hidden treasures.
Words & Photography: Vini Balan
I have been recording my travels with still shots of my feet from where I stand as an unconventional way to track my journey; and the heritage-laden grounds of Georgetown, Penang made a great addition to my photo collection.
Georgetown is one of the few cities in Malaysia that stands out with its well-preserved vintage-style buildings in this modern era of skyscrapers. Stepping on those vibrant floors somehow gives me a vivid feeling of the past, the present and a sneak peek into the future.
Did You Know
- Georgetown is the capital city of Penang, the smallest state island in Peninsular Malaysia.
- The rulers, the migrants and the traders from before the independence of Malaysia mostly influenced Penang’s building architecture.
A glimpse of Georgetown’s colourful past
I kicked off my feet adventure with the UNESCO Heritage Walk along ‘The Street of Harmony’. Mostly populated with places of worship, this stretch of street was named that to define the spirit of unity among different races in this little island of Penang.
- Cathedral of the Assumption – A World Heritage Church founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light
- St George’s Church – one of the oldest Anglican Churches in the region built in 1818 and also the grounds of Francis Light’s memorial.
- Kuan Yin Temple (The Goddess of Mercy) – the oldest Chinese temple in Penang with a history dating back to the 1800’s.
- Sri Mahamariamman Temple – the oldest temple built in 1833 with Dravidian architecture. Its creator is still a mystery.
- Kapitan Keling Mosque – built in the 19th century by Indian Muslim traders with Mughal architecture style.
- Khoo Kongsi (Clan house) – the grandest clan temple to mark the dominant presence of the Chinese in Penang built in 1851 by the Khoo’s, whose ancestry can be traced back to 650 years.
- Cheong Fatt Tze – a mansion built circa 1880’s by the merchant Cheong Fatt Tze for his favourite seventh wife with careful attention to the principles of feng shui.
- Ache Street Mosque – an Arab-style minaret with an Acehnese roof mosque, founded in 1801 by the traders of Aceh who settled in Penang by the invitation of Captain Francis Light.
Out of all these marvellous structures, Khoo Kongsi and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion stood out the most for me, as I managed to dig up some very unique stories during my walk.
Khoo Kongsi – The glory of the clans
Tracking down this clan house was somewhat like a maze. Hidden among shop-houses and terrace houses it was as if something rare and precious was being guarded. As I stepped onto the Khoo Kongsi compound, I was awed by the grand temple pavilion and vastness of the grounds.
Besides acquiring about 97,035 sq. feet in the heart of Penang, the glory of the Khoo dynasty can also be seen throughout the temple that was named Leong San Tong (Dragon Mountain Hall), after their progenitor’s village in China. The Leong San Tong used to be a bungalow which was converted into their ancestral place of worship in 1906 during the height of their wealth, reputation and popularity.
The intricate craftsmanship of the prayer pavilion rooftop, which infuses feng shui elements were painstakingly handmade from broken Chinese bowls known as the ‘cut and paste porcelain work’ by specialists from China.
It is best to visit the Khoo Kongsi with an experienced tour-guide as I had so many unanswered questions about the architecture and craftsmanship of this place. Nonetheless, one funny little story shared by a friend who visited the Khoo Kongsi before, got me on my knees, brushing my hands underneath a smiling monk statue all in search of a copper coin!
These two monk statues, one on each side of the stairway post, placed to represent the yin and yang balance in life.One is sad (yin) and the other is happy (yang) all becausea copper coin is jammed underneath its base. I suppose it’s clear now that money can buy happiness!
Like a curious kid, I went on to look for more hidden secrets and found out about the lucky sphere in the mouth of the guardian lion statues placed at the temple entrance. According to local folklore, he who rubs the rock will be blessed with good fortune.
I managed to sneak a few rubs before the guards caught me! Yes, it is now forbidden to be rubbing on those precious rocks, as there are only a few left for the Khoo generations to come, I suppose. And no, unfortunately the good luck charm didn’t work on me.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion – Blue, just like the morning glory
Named as one of the ’10 Greatest Mansions in the World’, this unique blue mansion was built by the legendary ‘Rockefeller’ of Asia, Cheong Fatt Tze. He was not only famous for his successful business ventures around the world, but also the list of eight wives he was officially married to and dozens other unknown mistresses he had! Even so, this masterpiece by him was built with careful attention to the principle of feng shui, with a twist of modern Anglo-Indian architecture that will get anyone fascinated to know more of his dynasty.
Lovingly built for his favourite seventh wife who was 50 years younger than him, Cheong Fatt Tze did a tremendous job putting the house together like pieces of a complex puzzle with all metal, timber, water, fire and earth elements fused into every inch of the house. For example, the pillars in the house are painted to look like wood to represent the earth element for good health energy and the water piping within ensures flow of the water goes inwards to represent the water element for overflowing abundance in the house.
I was fascinated by all the intricate details put into building the house but what I’ve learnt and liked throughout this visit, is probably the most overlooked element of the house–the ingenious ‘Stoke-on-Trent’ floor tiles design. ‘Stoke-on-Trent’ is a set of handmade tiles with techniques from medieval times. It’s made by flattening clay and cutting pieces into geometric shapes to fit into a square frame. It’s not easy but I definitely think it’s fun to put together!
With all that attention to detail, of course no one can miss the magnificent blue coloured wall itself. Made from mixing lime with natural blue dye from the Indigo flower; the La Maison Bleu (indigo blue) tone was born. Used widely during Colonial times, the dye was brought in from India by the British.
Not only beautiful from miles away, but the thought put into this mansion is simply brilliant and mind-boggling.
Modish café’s for the soulful travelers
Another thing I noticed about Penang, compared to the other cities in Malaysia, is how the old and the new merge to give that rustic feel within a booming urban lifestyle without trying to be too pretentious.
Trendy cafes and restaurants mushrooming around the island are mostly shop houses that were inherited by the owners and then beautifully altered into a refreshed vintage look and feel which I’m totally hooked on!
Here’s a list of cafes I wouldn’t miss in Georgetown and some cool tips;
- China House, Beach Street – serves all kinds of mood, this place is best to enjoy some wine, paintings and chill out live music, high tea with delicious desserts, or cold beer with beefy dinner in a poolside garden!
- La Boheme’, Jalan Sri Bahari – if you want to be reminded of your childhood in the 70’s to 80’s, then this refurbished house will be great as a hangout with some apple flower tea and scrumptious French dessert to top it all off.
- Chai Diam Ma, Lebuh Queen – this cute little cafe is perfect for a cup of coffee, home-grown products shopping like cool tote-bags or name tags with odd titles like ‘disco diva’ and some art inspiration on the first floor.
- Amelie Cafe, Armenian Street – here’s another unique little cafe with eco-friendly decor as they use recycled furniture. Great for coffee breaks, ice cream and cheesy pastas after a walk around Georgetown!
My experience of café hoping in Penang was just splendid especially with the aromas of luscious local, western and fusion cuisines accompanied by a cool vintage deco’s to lure the urbanites.
Oh how I can still hear the crackling noise from that gorgeous creamy crème brûlée that I had at the French patisserie, La Boheme´, alongside a generous pot of hot apple-flower tea. C’est Magnifique! (Simply magnificent!)
A treasure trove of books in Penang
Walking away from those cool nostalgic cafes, another favourite spot of mine in Georgetown is the second-hand bookstore in Chowrasta Market.
Residing on the top floor of this famous wet market is a trove of second-hand books from the world over. Piled with titles of new to out-of-stock prints, German to Japanese languages, catered for children and adults, the variety of titles available here is simply amazing.
My friends who came along already had a book in mind, so it was as easy as asking the shopkeeper for it. Besides getting you what you want, the shopkeepers seem to also know what you might need! So if you need time alone to go through those towers of books, let them know and they won’t bug you with “I think you would like this!” or “You should read this!”
Price starts from RM1 and every buy in this shop is really a bargain, especially for hard covers, travel guides, phrasebooks and dictionaries, which would normally cost double or more at regular bookshops. A trick I found out to get additional discounts on those books is by purchasing them in bulks! Bringing your own bag would come in handy too.
I’ve been here too many times and more often than not I’ll end up with a book that finds its way to me. Sounds a little weird but it’s all about spending enough time browsing through those stacks of books for your own Pulitzer in a mountain of literature. Time is key, so set aside a few hours or half a day if you’re a bookworm like me.
Did You Know
- You can also donate or sell your second-hand books here. It will help with your luggage if you’re travelling!
Well-preserved mansions, vintage-inspired fusion cafes, and a treasure trove of books; I’m just in love with what the Penang-ites have done with the city.
These unassuming places make great, unique getaways whether you have food, heritage, or culture on your mind, or to simply get to know the well-kept secrets of Georgetown. There is just so much more to uncover and with frequent direct flights to Penang with AirAsia, my foot trails will be covering more of the island soon enough!