Penang: The Passport Run destination for those unofficially residing in Thailand.
I’m in a good mood – feeling light-hearted and up for recommending some places to hang out. It’d appear from my promenade through George Town this morning that I’m walking through the 1930s. It’s like being in one of them elegant Chinese smoking adverts. I haven’t been invited into any opium-dens yet but still, its early days.
I might have clocked some shadowy curtain-twitching, though – maybe it’s the ghosts of dapper gents and chiselled-cheeked ladies, their looks subtly westernised by the sharp partings of their well-coiffured hair and their 1930s-Hollywood-influenced clothes? Maybe I’m hallucinating from the heat. Maybe I’ve got the infamous George Town dengue fever. It’s trippy: this place hasn’t changed in 100 years. It’s a UNESCO Heritage site now. That means the bittersweet pill of ‘progress’ won’t happen here. Its preservation status is a remarkable achievement – change happens quickly in SE Asia.
Outside this square mile are the familiar sights of future-concrete-hell, but right here, on this deserted street, it’s just me, my parasol, and some smashing early-to-mid-20th-century architecture. A few mosquitos buzz around; I elegantly slap one against my arm, flick its squished remains away and move on, keen to get some stuff looked at in time for mid-morning coffee.
George Town was founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, a trader for the British East India Company. By ‘founded’ I mean he arrived in a big boat and waved his arms around, enthusiastically yelling, “All this is now mine – mine! (and maybe the Kings)”. He probably stuck a British flag in the ground somewhere too. His lazy crew weren’t quite as enthusiastic, though. So to encourage them to get to work and clear the forests he shot gold coins out of the ship’s canons. Someone should reuse this idea in a film. Or a book, or something.
HALF MAN HALF PAINTING: George Town Street Art (various locations)
Street art’s not really my thing, but I did enjoy the game of tracking down all the famous street paintings in George Town. I couldn’t find some of them, and the ones I did were usually obscured by iPhones. But I think watching how people interact with the pictures was more enjoyable than the actual pictures themselves. I guess that’s the whole point, and the difference between street art and gallery art. Street art interacts with its environment, whereas gallery art is understood on a much more private, personal and sensible level. Very rarely will you see a photo of someone throwing a finger-created moustache-shadow over the Mona Lisa for the benefit of an iPhone selfie. (I might now do that, though.)
THE CANTEEN / CHINA HOUSE / KOPIC CAFÉ: 153 & 155 Lebuh Pantai, George Town
In George Town, you enter a venue from one street, walk through a long corridor-style building, and exit into the neighboring street via a different venue. These shared spaces are illuminated by skylights, and there’s usually a courtyard and a water feature halfway through your journey. This is typically George Town. It can be disorientating, walking in via one street and exiting into a completely different one. Venue signage can be easy to miss and walk right past, given that the buildings are very long but with such narrow frontage. Places can be hard to find.
These single-storey buildings are stunning, though. Preserved in its original materials of wood and stone are The Canteen, China House and Kopic Café – a single building that comprises a live venue, a café, a restaurant and an art gallery. (And lots of cake.) As you walk through, the food, bar and exhibitions are all distractingly tempting, but really it’s the building that’s the big draw here.
NARROW MARROW CAFÉ: 252A Carnavon Street, George Street, George Town
Not for no reason is this called Narrow Marrow. It is indeed a narrow marrow and I couldn’t find it – a common problem here in George Town. But it was recommended to me by someone I trust, so I’ve featured it anyway and borrowed someone else’s photos. It’s a ‘cultural centre’ with food and booze and loads of cool eclectic stuff happening.
‘SON AND DAD’ BARBERS: 10200 Pinang, George Town
One of those old-school barber shops with a really charming hand-drawn sign. I’m going to guess it’s a nice and cool spot too, judging by the size of that a/c unit. They’re doing some pretty slick cuts but, as is the tradition, I didn’t go in – being a girl and all that. It’s a tradition I’m always happy to respect.
MING XIANG TAI EGG TARTS: Corner of Lebuh Victoria and Gat Lebuh Armenian
In the ’60s and ’70s Au Chee Teck and his wife Madam Chung Mooi* used a trishaw cart to carry these to the local town – hence their not-very-imaginative name, Trishaw Egg Tarts. They’re delicious, but the thing is, they are exactly like the Portuguese Natas I used to eat on Portobello Road, London. 16th century Portuguese traders in Goa used to stop off in Penang for water. Food history is all probably very interesting but I don’t know much about it. So I’m going to presume that that’s how the egg tart recipe got there. The tarts.
*I have now started referring to myself as Madam Chung Mooi
THE MUGSHOT CAFÉ: 302 Chulia St. 10200 George Town
It’s a bit suspiciously trendy with its chalkboard welcome sign, but seeing a little old man there (as seen in the photo) convinced me to give it a go, because little old men don’t care about flat whites and chalkboard welcome signs so he must only be there because the coffee is good. They sell these glass jar things full of yoghurt, dried apricots and honey that are delicious. Disappointingly, there are no actual mugshot photos to be seen.
DEAD BEAT STORE: Lot 2B-04-05 4th Floor, Komtar Penang
There are loads of psychedelic and metal bands in Penang. I wasn’t around long enough to get under the skin of why, but these are the bands – and the record store – that I’m now looking into…
A City Afire / Cakerawala / Thirteen hundred / Nonserviam / Coma / Hui Si Di Dai / West Skam.
THE BLACK QUAYS AND THE CLAN JETTIES: South of the Ferry Terminal, Penang
Straights Quay is north of George Town. Its entertainment offerings looked a bit ‘fancy’ for my tastes, so I headed instead to the jetties along the east-coast of George Town. Getting to them on foot is the usual nightmarish, traffic-dodging feat of human endeavour. It took me about 30 minutes just to figure out how to cross the road…
Each jetty is over 100 years-old and is named after – and still home to – a Chinese clan. These families don’t pay tax, because technically they don’t live on land. The jetties’ clan names are Yeoh, Mixed Clan, Lee, Tan, Chew, Lim and Ong. More time-travelling opportunities can be found here: squint and you could be back in 1900.
BEWARE THE FEVER OF DENGY!
I’ve been through all the local newspapers and made a list of all the recent outbreaks of dengue fever. I’ve marked these outbreaks onto a map, and by retracing my steps over the last three days I’ve plotted my proximity to the affected streets. I’ve undertaken this Herculean task in order to justify my paranoia that I may well have contracted dengue fever*. I’ve also done it because it felt like an appropriate colonial pastime, and the sort of due diligence a person might’ve undertaken in 1900 before venturing outside. This one is in the list of things not to do: #1: Don’t get bitten by the local mozzies.
So that’s Penang wrapped up. Me and my dengue vibes now leave the 1900s bound for Kuala Lumpur. With us we take great news from the newly established colonies and treasures aplenty (a cheap bottle of the local hooch and a packet of unidentified food with a funny name).
*I was being hysterical, of course – I left absolutely free of any mosquito-related illness.