The Colourful, Multicultural Charm of George Town (Penang)

Historic centre, George Town, Penang

*Note: All photos in this post were taken with my phone camera.*

Picture this: you’ve just arrived in George Town, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang. You’ve done some research before arriving; not much, but enough to kind of know what to expect: “a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.”

High praise, right? That’s literally how UNESCO, who listed this city in 2008, describes George Town.

If you read this and, like me, are a keen photographer, all the memory cards in your backpack are quaking in anticipation; your computer and back-up disk drives are going weak at the knees, wondering if they’ll be able to take the flood of gigabytes coming their way.

In short, you know it’s going to be a long, exciting, hopefully productive day, photographically speaking.

So you almost rush to check into your guesthouse, drop your luggage, freshen up, and hit the streets as soon as possible.

Colorful houses in George Town, Malaysia

And then it happens.

You remember how stiflingly hot and humid it was outside, on your way to the guesthouse; you begin to feel the consequences of a very early start in the morning, back in KL (that’s how I heard quite a few expats in Bangkok refer to Kuala Lumpur: “KL”; so I’m going to go with KL to try and sound both cool and knowledgeable here).

You look at your daypack and your not-so-big-and-heavy-but-not-that-light-and-small camera.

And you think, “Nope; can’t be bothered today”.

This is what happened to me, and in my case, it should amount to sacrilege. I travel for many reasons, but making photographs is high up there on my list of priorities. So how can I go to a city like George Town, of all places (remember: “a townscape…without parallel any-(frigging)-where in East and Southeast Asia”), and decide I won’t be lugging around my photo gear?

In my defense, I should say at that point I’d been travelling in SE Asia for over 3 months, making loads of pictures along the way. Several dozen gigabytes and counting. Some weeks I’d make photos every day, which really is my dream occupation, so I should not complain.

But just like you will feel “templed out” in SE Asia sooner or later, you will feel burnt out from travelling and everything that comes with it, specially dragging along your luggage every two or three days, and carrying a daypack almost all the time (that’s what I do, at least).

Luckily, these feelings don’t last very long, unless you travel really long-term (as in years), which I have not been fortunate enough to do yet.

Trickshaw and driver, George Town, Malaysia

So, it was one of those days. I decided I couldn’t face carrying anything on me in that heat, and the camera was staying in the room.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t worried. For some years now, smartphones have been able to provide more than adequate image quality, comparable to that from dedicated cameras, particularly in good light.

So I went out. The minute I set foot in George Town’s wonderful historic centre, I knew I was in for a photographic feast. It was time for my phone camera to shine.

The mix of cultural and architectural influences in George Town is nothing short of astonishing: colonial Dutch, Portuguese and British, Chinese, Indian, Muslim… Here you can find a mosque almost next door to a Chinese temple, and just a few blocks away from a Hindu temple and a Victorian mansion.

Traditional shophouse, George Town, Malaysia

Traditional shophouses, George Town, Penang

Painted wood blind, George Town, Penang

Façade detail, George Town, Malaysia

Shophouse front with painted blind, George Town, Malaysia

In much of George Town’s historic centre the streets are lined with traditional two-story shophouses, their frontages painted in ochre, indigo, green or blue, and protected from the scorching heat by bamboo or wooden painted blinds, each quainter and prettier than the last. Go to the harbour area and you’ll find the British fortifications, and the magnificent colonial administrative buildings and mansions, most of them in an excellent state of conservation.

Colourful façade, George Town, Penang

Colonial house, George Town, Penang

Town Hall, George Town, Pulau Pinang

Majlis Perbandaran, George Town, Penang

As you explore the city centre, the covered walkways also provide some much-needed relief from the sun. I was basically moving like some sort of commando, from one arcade to the next, braving the intense sun every few steps to take a picture and marvel at the façades.

Man rides a bike in front of a shophouse, Penang, Malaysia

Colourful two-story houses, George Town, Penang

Palm tree and Little India sign, George Town

Flower garlands, Penang, Malaysia

Man and typical dresses in Little India, George Town

The Chinese heritage in George Town

Penang has an important contingent of population of Chinese ancestry (over 40%), collectively known as Hokkien or Baba-Nyonya. They are the descendants of Chinese traders and businessmen who started to settle in the region five or six centuries ago, and for the most part married and mixed with the local population over time. The whole thing is terribly complicated to understand, though.

This is pretty obvious from looking at the shophouse signboards and blinds, many of which are written in Chinese characters, along with the Western ones for English and the local language (Bahasa Melayu).

Chinese clan houses (kongsi) are another sign of the strong Chinese influence in George Town. These kongsi function both as places of worship and as social and community centres for Chinese families sharing a surname.

Chinese kongsi, George Town, Malaysia

Votive candles at Chinese temple, Penang

Chinese temple, George Town, Malaysia

Chinese kongsi, George Town, Malaysia

Interior of Chinese kongsi, George Town, Penang

Before travelling to Malaysia, I’d read that the status of Baba-Nyonya and other minorities, like that of Indian descent (10% of the population), in the country was a touchy subject, and I had a couple of conversations with Chinese Malaysians during my stay in Penang that confirmed this.

They told me there’s a set of policies and practices in place that favor “ethnic” Malays, which make up around 40% of Malaysian population. As a result, many Malaysian people of Chinese and Indian descent, going back many generations, feel like second-class citizens in their own country. As I said, it’s a controversial issue, and I’m not going to pretend I understand it well, even though I did some research afterwards. But something’s going on for sure.

Striking street art and wrought-iron caricatures

If the amazing architecture was not enough, George Town has another great attraction for its visitors. Scattered all over the historic centre, you’ll find an amazing collection of several dozen mural paintings and wrought-iron figures.

Most of the murals are all painted by the same artist, apparently, and thus follow a similar style: light-hearted, slightly surreal and very colourful, often playing with architectural features and objects placed against the walls they’re painted on. From what I’ve read, it’s still an ongoing project, so more murals should be added to this rather unique, city-wide exhibition.

Mural painting, George Town, Penang

Mural painting, George Twon, Penang

I’m ashamed to confess I had not done my research properly, and I only found out all this by chance, as I walked around the city centre. I didn’t even know there was a map charting the location of all murals and caricatures, so I only saw but a fraction, but I absolutely loved those I run into.

The wrought-iron figures are humorous creations explaining different aspects of George Town’s history, such as the origin of street names, local customs and traditional occupations, and all sorts of interesting and fun facts.

Wrought-iron figure on the street, Penang, Malaysia

Wrought-iron figure on the street, George Town, Malaysia

Wrought-iron figures, George Town, Penang

Wrought-iron figures, George Town, Penang

Wrought-iron street art, George Town, Penang

Wrought-iron figure, George Town, Penang

Wrought iron caricature, George Town, Penang

Wrought-iron installation, George Town, Penang

The nice people of George Town… and Malaysia

One thing I really liked about Malaysia (other than the delicious food, the multicultural vibe, the… you get it: I quite liked Malaysia), and about George Town in particular, is how open and chatty many locals were.

It obviously helps that most people speak quite good English, due to the significant British influence and the fact that everybody learns it at school.

Young women on the streets of George Town, Malaysia

But it’s not just that. People in Malaysia seem to have a very open and curious disposition, and love talking to foreign visitors, at least in my experience.

In just over two days in George Town, I was approached twice by people who saw me making photos and wanted to talk. Four other people, men and women of different ages, greeted me while walking around.

Just like that: they were not standing in front of a shop or a restaurant, nor trying to sell me anything as far as I could tell. They just smiled and said “hi” as they walked past me. And two bar and restaurant owners came over for a chat while I was grabbing dinner or having a beer.

For this and many other reasons, I clicked with Malaysia and its people

Over the next day and a half, all I used to take photos was my phone. As you can see, the phone camera was more than adequate for the lighting conditions. Had I wished to do some street photography at night, things would have been very different and I’d have had to use a more capable camera, like the ones I discussed recently here.

It doesn’t really matter which camera you choose to bring to George Town, as you will enjoy the visit anyway and end up making lots of photos, that’s for sure. As far as historic centres go, George Town ranks very high on my list, and I would love to come back some day.

Turns out those guys at UNESCO knew what they were doing…

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