Saturday, October 13, 2007

Return to Penang

It has been many years since I was last in Penang. I was there in 2001 (on work), and some 4-5 years before that, I was there for my great-grandmother's 100th birthday. That was indeed a memorable family visit. I went with my father's brothers and sister, and we spent a most enjoyable 3 days there. We did not go sightseeing around Penang (my relatives had seen it all before). Rather, the fabled hawker food of Penang was the main object of our stay.

I remember especially how some 6 of us piled into my father's cousin's car, and how he took us out of the city centre and drove us into the surrounding hills and countryside of Penang, looking for durians (didn't find any) and the best Penang Char Kway Teow, chendol and laksa (ate lots of these). Then that evening we went to a beachside restaurant for the birthday dinner - dish after dish of fresh seafood and extremely tasty food. My favourite was the steamed fish served with bee hoon that had completely absorbed the flavour of the gravy....

Of course, it was also extremely awe-inspiring to meet my 100 year old great-grandmother again (not that she could really recognise me any more) and to see my cute little second cousins (or whatever they are called). And to visit our family home where I took this photograph of an amazing family photograph of 3 of my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandmother!

Now, my father's father's father married a Penang girl. They are the two seated on the left of her mother, the old matriarch in the middle of the photo. Then, their oldest son married his cousin. Her mother is seated third to the right of the matriarch. Theirs was a Penang peranakan family, as can be seen from the kebayas worn by the ladies. And perhaps by the little bow tie around my great-grandfather's neck. My grandparents are not in this photo, unfortunately, and I do not see my father either.

I do not have many memories of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather died when I was 1 year old, his wife when I was 6. And my other great-grandmother lived in Penang. I remember her visiting us in Singapore when I was very young and us visiting her in Penang a few years later. Similarly, I did not see my other Penang relatives regularly, except for one who came down to Singapore every now and then.

Last weekend (5-7 Oct), I went to Penang with my cousin. She had not joined us on our happy holiday the last time round and was looking forward to a similar foodie experience. Whilst my great-grandmother passed away (I think at 102 years), my cousin still wanted to see our ancestral home. We felt a little diffident, however, at ringing up and saying "Hi! Guess who?", given that we had not seen our relatives for years.

We had booked ourselves a suite in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, the Raffles of Penang. Now this may not seem like typical behaviour for either of us (pair of skinflints). But we thought we had a good deal with the hotel's "Return to Elegance" package. Indeed, when we checked in on Friday evening, we truly appreciated our beautiful suite with its high ceilings, comfy sofa and lovely bathroom (with its two separate sinks). When we opened our window we could hear the sound of waves pounding against the seawall.

The next day, we went on a walking trail around the old part of Penang. We walked down to the Padang area. One side of the Padang is bordered by the sea, and the Esplanade. On the other three sides are the State Assembly house, the Town Hall, the City Hall and Fort Cornwallis. Indeed, the British do build to a plan. The commercial street, Beach Road, leads off from the Padang and some banks still have their presence there today.

We walked down Beach Road through the small little roads - Market Street, or the "Little India" of Penang, Chulia Street, King Street, Lebuh Ah Quee (? not exactly a typical name for this area) down to Armenian Street and Cannon Street, down to Malay Street. We walked to our family home on Malay Street and stood in front. We had debated earlier whether to knock and go in but were advised that the house had been sold following my great-grandmother's death. So we just took a few photos, had a cup of coffee and some lor bak in the coffee shop across the road.

We then went back to Armenian Street and visited the recommended "vanishing trades" shop there, which sold Nonya beaded shoes or "manek manek". Now these shops are very common in Malacca. They are ready-to-wear, and there are many designs, many colours to choose from. This was the image in our mind when we walked down Armenian Street. We did not expect to find a small shop with two men sitting and chatting in it. It did not have any distinguishing features whatsoever, except for a small cabinet on the side of the room, which, upon closer inspection, did have a few pairs of beaded shoes in it. We were to learn that in Penang, the shoes are customised for each person. No ready-to-wear and with no immediate plans to return, no point ordering either.

As I walked through the streets of old Penang, the similarities and differences between Penang and Singapore struck me. The two cities must have been so similar in the 1920s and 30s. The street names, the shophouses with their very similar architecture, even the very layout of the city. But over the years, Singapore has undergone a process of urban rejuvenation. Many of the old buildings (too many, perhaps?) have fallen victim to the wrecker's ball and modern skyscrapers have replaced them. Whilst there are many old shophouses left, particularly in the Chinatown area, they are now completely different - filled with retail outlets. In Penang, this process of rejuvenation has yet to take place. Time has stood still and alas, the main feeling is one of decay. It is difficult to walk along the five foot way because they are used in many instances as a parking lot for motorcycles, just as cars park along the narrow streets. Except for Little India, the shops were not bustling - largely quiet and in some cases, the shopholders seemed surprised to see us peering in. Heritage markers have been erected here and there, pointing to an active tourist authority, but the hard work has yet to be done.

Of course, this was just in this particular part of Penang. Other areas, for example the Penang Road stretch, bear visible signs of being made over. New pavements, in one place a pedestrianised road with restaurants on each side. And of course, down Guerney Drive, the new hawker centre and Guerney Plaza, and the new "g" hotel, are indeed bringing in the crowds. (We came away from Guerney Plaza with tonnes of shopping!). So it will be interesting to see what changes are made the next time I get round to visiting Penang.

P.S. More Penang photos here!

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