Thursday, July 1, 2010

Penang Heritage City

I know that most of us associate Penang with the beaches, the iconic Penang Bridge and its glorious food. However, the capital city, George Town, has the most number of pre-war buildings in all of South East Asia which are still intact. That is why, the island is known as Penang Heritage City.

George Town (not "Georgetown"; as most people tend to spell it), shows the world that its heritage buildings, art and culture can co-exist alongside modern development. The recognition by UNESCO created awareness from all levels and soon, Penang Heritage City will regain back its lustre as the Pearl of the Orient.

The place is so rich with history. Since Francis Light drew out the plan of the city, it had born witness to the rise and fall of governments and ruling parties.

The city was coveted by many as a strategic and natural port. It was also the guardian to the northern entrance of the Straits of Malacca.

Before goods could be transported by airplanes, the one who ruled Penang, ruled the lucrative East-West trade.

The recognition by UNESCO to acknowledge George Town as a heritage city means that the initial heritage core zone and buffer zone should be preserved from further development that would change the skyline of Penang Heritage City.

The zones were proposed to UNESCO when the city was bidding for the title. Now, how do we balance the needs of prime real estate to the preservation of some old crumbling old heritage buildings?

The Streets of George Town

The city was laid out in a grid that segregated the races. It was a typical way of the British to deal with their colonies.

At the cape area, from Fort Cornwallis going south, along Beach Street, Bishop Street, Church Street and part of Weld Quay, was the Eurasians zone.

Going to the east, the zone included Light Street and Farquhar Street as well.

Now, however, Beach Street remains as one of the longest streets and is well known as Penang banking district instead. A lot of heritage buildings are now headquarters of premier banks in the state.

Hmm, do I see eyes twinkling with dollar signs now? Yes, Penang has quite a number of wealthy millionaires who made their fortune, especially by trading. Stories of rags to riches are quite plenty in this part of the world. For example, the story of Boon Siew, the Honda motorcycles multi-millionaire who started only as a boy washing buses. The rise of Cheong Fatt Tze to become a Chinese Mandarin is another Penang success story.

I know that young material girls would swoon if you were to tell them that their husbands-to-be are some tycoons from Penang. By the way, the colloquial name for a rich businessman is "towkay".

Material wealth aside, Penang Heritage City is rich in art and culture too. But then, please remember that this wealth made the patronage of art and culture possible for any civilization.

During the British rule, Chulia Street, part of King Street, Queen Street and Market Street formed Little India. The Chinese merchants were allocated China Street but later occupied part of Armenian quarters too. Besides these areas, small streets in between were designated as the guilds for various trades.

Most people forgot that Penang Heritage City is, first and foremost, a port. It still is a busy one until now. Even the creation of "nasi kandar" (one of Penang's most favorite food) originated from the needs to feed the multitude of stevedores who worked back in the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century.

Port Swettenham on the north of the Weld Quay is now the berthing place for cruise ships as well as ferries to Sumatra and Langkawi.

The newly renovated Church Street Pier is now a high-end waterfront place of leisure where a century ago, it was the main pier for small boats to unload their wares. Newly built Tanjung Marina Club next to it provides services for yachts from all over the world.

Since only a few of us can afford to own yachts, hire a boat or go on cruises, maybe the best way to experience Penang view from the sea is by boarding the ferry service that commutes from Butterworth to George Town.

This ferry service is a very important transportation mode for the people on the island.Before the Penang Bridge was built, it was the only way to get to the island on a daily basis (except for the flights that flew in to Bayan Lepas International airport).

People of Penang

We also should not skip the main factor that makes Penang unique is its people. Who are Penangites?

We are a nation of mixed blood so co-mingled, with ancestors from all over Asia and also the West.

Therefore, do not be surprised if I tell you that I am a Malay, though in looks many people would say I am a Chinese woman. And vice versa.

Without being arrogant, we could say that we ALL are fine examples of living heritage. The Baba and Nyonya descendants, the Indian Muslims (colloquially known as "anak Mami Tanjung, Mamak or Mami"), offspring of the South Indian Hindu Tamils, the Eurasians and the Malays from Acheh and others in the Malay archipelago make Penang their homes. In fact, some odd Jews also used to make their living here. It is a true melting pot where inter-racial marriage is common.

With the people, comes the food! We do have our special Heritage Food Trail. You are most welcome to enjoy an extensive range of traditional food and delicacies prepared by experts in their humble little shops. The trail can be followed easily on foot. What a great way to discover a heritage city!