Georgetown is a city that needs to be walked in. Penang’s capital, more like a big town than a city, is a compact collection of neighbourhoods that melt into each other. Rather than big landmarks or natural wonders to work through, it is the World Heritage listed streets and buildings that make this place so appealing. A visit to Georgetown is one big walk, soaking up the little details; the smells and colours of Little India’s shops and restaurants; the dark stone, imperial red and sombre gold carvings of a Chinese clanhouse; the spotless white majesty of old colonial mansions.
Penang’s districts are ‘ethnic’ neighbourhoods that lump a lot of very different people groups together. Towards the north of the city is the colonial district, the old administrative heart of a long vanished British administration. The area is dominated by the padang, the clean rectangular playing field where polo and cricket were once played. Every colonial town I visited in Malaysia – and there were quite a lot, given my Anglo-obsessiveness – had a padang. Stately courthouses, town halls and governor’s residences line the edges of the field with great dignity, overlooking the sea.
But the real point of interest here is Fort Cornwallis, the ruddy brick remains of a largely empty fortress. The rusty 9-pound cannons point blindly out from the star-shaped walls – a design that gave the fort more angles of fire – and the thick walls are covered in grass. Fort Cornwallis is testament to a colony whose early military fragility was soon replaced by an administration built on trade and racial co-existence. No battle was ever fought here.
If the colonial district is the white-wigged judge or the Lord Mayor of Georgetown, Chinatown is its wealthy merchant, wrapped in silk robes and gold – the crowded mercantile counterpoint to the colonial district’s pompous administrative role. Chinatown is full of Buddhist and Confucian temples of varying orders, reflecting the diverse nature of Penang’s Chinese population. Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Peranakan, the name Chinatown is misleading, rather like saying all Indians are Hindus or calling every white man an Englishman.
The best buildings here are the clanhouses, or clan associations. Part temple, part office, part recreation hall, the clanhouses – or kongsi – are the community centres for overseas Chinese clans. A clan is made up of people related by ancestry, a common home-land or dialect, and a shared surname. The clanhouses were, and in some ways still are, places were migrant Chinese came together, practiced their culture and helped each other out in business. They were also the official headquarters for the famed ‘secret societies’ that warred against each other for control of trade and business opportunities, and which gave the British administration incredible headaches during the Penang Riots of 1867.
The term secret society sounds ridiculous considering that the clanhouses are some of the brightest, biggest and most heavily decorated structures in Georgetown. Think carved columns with twisting, bearded dragons, bright tiled reliefs, gold-dripped altars and sunny courtyards where the sensation of cold stone on your bare feet mingles with hot light and the sweet bite of incense. They’re impressive sights and hard to miss, but the buildings around them are often just as interesting.
You can’t walk through Georgetown without talking about shophouses, they’re the real key to the city’s charm. A shophouse is basically an urban terrace house, square in shape and facing the street, thin, tall and long at the back, often containing internal courtyards or high-walled back gardens. They’re classic, colonial and Chinese all at once, decorated with red lanterns and patterned tiles around the doorways. Their plastered exteriors are painted with bright aquatic blues and greens, and sandy yellows, balanced with white wooden shutters, or the reverse, painted in cream offset with coloured columns. A street of shophouses is striking, repeating basic architectural designs with an endless variation in colours and individual decorative flashes.
The third neighbourhood in Georgetown is, like Chinatown and the colonial district, an essential part of a big Malaysian city. But it still manages to stick out like Lord Krishna at a Catholic funeral – Little India. It’s a place full of the smells of Indian food, the pumping sounds of Indian pop, the shouts of street vendors, the holy raucous of temple worship, the sonorous cry of the call to prayer. The mosques and temples here are a mix of styles, again reflecting the diversity of Penang’s Indian population.
As my first real experience of Malaysia, Georgetown, and Penang itself, was something of a miniaturised version of the best of the country. It had all the food, the temples, the mix of peoples, the colonial buildings and Chinese shophouses, which I would see again and again throughout my short trip. I’m not saying Georgetown is the perfect microcosm of the Malaysian city – beware ye traveller’s limited observations. I certainly didn’t really see much of the traditional Malay side, or the natural beauty of Malaysia, until I reached the mainland. But nevertheless, Georgetown stands out as a highlight in a country that has plenty to boast about already.