The International Steam Pages

Chinese Heritage, Penang 2009, Part 6

For convenience I have now grouped lifestyle illustrated features by topic:

After our visit to Burma and transit in Thailand, we had an extended visit to Penang - click here for the main index page.

Apart from its British colonial heritage, Penang (and to a lesser extent Malacca) probably has the best preserved original traditional Chinese urban buildings in quantity anywhere in the world. Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have all demolished theirs and in some cases erected replicas. In the case of Lijiang, China has even managed to secure World Heritage Status for the replicas which to my mind destroys the whole point of the listing. Much of the conservation area here is filled with rather mundane buildings, many it has to be said are now in poor condition - what I have tried to show here are the 'Jewels in the Crown'. Getting WHS for George Town is one thing, finding the money to conserve the buildings and restore the original vitality to an area whose original business purpose is now largely lost to the modern tower block plazas is another matter. There are simply too many buildings for more than a small percentage to become museums, bars, art galleries and other tourist traps. It needs young people who do not want to live in tower blocks to come in and make their lives there, to replace the current ageing residual population.

In Church Street is the Peranakan Museum, styled as dedicated to the Baba tradition - those Chinese originally from Malacca who gradually adopted the Malay language and lifestyle without converting to Islam. In fact, it is representative of the self-made entrepreneurs who arrived much later. This is the frontage and official entrance from the street, below right is the private entrance to the side of the property:

The original owner was Chung Keng Kooi (1821-1901) from Xuifudu (of Zencheng District in Guangdong, China) who, after a successful business and public career, acquired and rebuilt the property in 1894. The building has a central air well to keep it as cool as possible, the structure being ornate iron work with glass windows in the upper floor:

The present contents are indicative rather than authentic, an eclectic mixture of contemporary British and Chinese styles, I believe much of the furniture is a modern reproduction:

The upstairs is similar including the inevitable opium table and bridal suite - any connection between the two being purely coincidental!

Naturally the house has a small but ornate altar with what appears to be a small statuette of the inevitable 'Guan Yin' or 'Goddess of Mercy' - the first picture below. However, what marks this place out is the adjacent family temple (as opposed to clan 'Kong Si') next door.

Afterwards a visit to the 'famous' Goddess of Mercy temple nearby was in complete contrast as this is 'real' with a constant stream of supplicants of all ages who blithely ignore the tourists like us snapping away:

Of the 'Kong Si' or clan temples, the most justly famous is that for the extended Khoo family, it is quite simply magnificent:

It is not a temple as such although there seems ample opportunity to 'do the business'. However, much space is taken up with tablets commemorating the achievements of members of the clan:

The wall paintings are magnificent, recently and well restored:

I have shown just three special buildings, there are many more, not to mention those representing Malay and Indian cultures. Indeed a walk down any of Penang's busy streets will indicate that it is a veritable cultural crossroads. More information on these influences is available in the Penang Museum and, no doubt, elsewhere on the web. There are plenty of free maps available showing the highlights and It is easy enough to walk around the heritage area although it needs several sessions. What would help most of all would be to make key streets or areas 'traffic free' but at the moment that seems just wishful thinking.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson