“The traveller sailing in from Europe stops by at Pulau Penang, an island slumbering in the green of the coconut palms”, anthropologist Paul Schebesta wrote in 1928, describing his first impressions of the island of Penang, and further: “The eye is captured immediately by the fresh tropical vegetation. The traveller hears the talking of paradise on earth, and full of desire to experience the splendor of the island, he rises to the land and undertakes a ride through the loveliest of islands. Long after then again the ship is expelled from the country, he looks back, as if bewitched, to the emerald isle. “
Today the romanticized description applies, of course, only conditionally. On the coasts, there are indeed still secluded spots, beaches and bays, which have been preserving the charm of bygone days. However, the sleepy village, that George Town had been in Schebestas times, has long since grown into a bustling metropolis, the second largest in Malaysia, with over 520,000 inhabitants.
The mysterious, exotic Asia has nevertheless remained alive: you find it especially in the narrow streets of the old town, characterised by the stalls of street hawkers advertising their wares, small workshops, where you can make a bargain or two, and countless food stalls which exude exotic scents and smells.
It is above all the street food there, that made Penang Malaysia’s top address for culinary delights — it tastes sensational and yet is not pricey. In Malaysia it is all about “makan”, as “food” is called in the country language; it is an obsession that all inhabitants of the multinational state have in common and that made for an extremely wide variety of cuisine — especially so in the melting pot Penang.
Apart from the food, the island is a tourist attraction because of its rich cultural heritage, which is manifested especially in magnificent colonial buildings. Proudly, Penang even today claims to be the “Pearl of the Orient”, and on top the former British colony achieved the status of an “UNESCO World Heritage” in 2008, together with Malacca which located about 500 km to the south. Both places are marked by the “multicultural heritage, which has its origin in the trade routes from Great Britain and Europe through the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Archipelago to China,” as stated on the website of UNESCO.
One of the more recent attractions are Penang’s myriad Murals, as the mostly large-scaled wall paintings and installations are called. They originated as part of the George Town Festival, which every summer offers artistic and cultural actions and shows that are performed by local and international artists and groups. Especially the paintings of the Lithuanian Street Artist Ernest Zacharevic, evolved in 2012, have caused a real boom, which made Penang one of the hottest addresses for street art worldwide. Local artists, too, benefit as Penang’s administration is far-sighted enough to pay for their image-promoting work. As a result, a thriving local art scene has developed.
The special thing about many murals is their interactivity. By incorporating plastic elements, for example bicycles or swings, the viewers are given the opportunity to integrate themselves in the artwork. Countless photos shared on social networking sites prove that the concept works — and contribute to an ever growing stream of tourists and visitors coming foremost from the neighbouring countries in order to also perpetuate resembling photos.
Meanwhile, other cultural institutions have adjusted to this trend: museums for interactive 3-D art are the latest craze. Here, visitors have the opportunity to pose in front of partly painted, partly plastic elements and to be photographed from a well-defined point — the resulting photos show them on flying carpets, floating in the air or on the run from monsters. The “3D Trick Art Museum” and the “Made In Penang Interactive Museum” have to be mentioned here, or the “Penang Time Tunnel History Museum” which specialises in historical motifs.
History buffs should have a look at other museums and galleries as well: The “Penang War Museum” displays relics from the Second World War. Set on the hill in Batu Maung, a better place for this museum could hardly have been found, being a former fortress with historical importance in its own rights: built in 1930, it initially served the British, before conquered by the Japanese occupiers.
Those who are interested to get acquainted to Penang life style of the 19th century will have a splendid time visiting the “House of Yeap Chor Ee”. It provides antiques, Peranakan furniture and old portraits that in the olden days belonged to one of the richest merchants of Penang.
Admirers of modern and contemporary art should not miss the the “Penang Art Gallery”. Located in an impressive building from the 19th century, which had originally been conceived as a school, it showcases paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photos and more, spanning from 1965 to the present.
Museums, Murals and Makan — just three good reasons to pay a visit to Penang, but by no means all. The next issue of MALAYSIA INSIGHTS features, among others, celebrations and festivals, mosques and temples as well as flora and fauna.