Penang Heritage Walk - "Street of Harmony"

In conjunction with the 1st Anniversary of Georgetown as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is a whole line-up of interesting cultural events happening this month such as heritage walk-tours, Bon Odori, Chingay competition etc.

Yesterday, Leo, Hong and I woke up early to join the free Penang Heritage Walk. So semangat! We'd gathered that we'd stayed in Penang long enough to warrant a deeper understanding of its beautiful heritage.

The group met in front of the Penang Town Hall at 9.00am. The "Street of Harmony" heritage trail is called as such because it passes by many historical places of worship of different religions. From the Esplanade -> St. George's Church -> Kuan Yin temple -> Little India -> Sri Maha Mariamman temple -> Masjid Kapitan Keling -> Armenian Street.

This is our tour guide. She did a great job on feeding us a lot of interesting trivia on the history, architecture and cultural significance of each place. Let me share some of them here.

Not the whole of Georgetown is gazetted as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Only part of the town, which is known as the "core zone" is gazetted, with a "buffer zone" that extends to the sea area, to prevent the heritage land from being reclaimed by developers, like IJM.

Our tour guide kickstarted the tour by repeating our textbook history of how Penang island was "cheated" away from the Sultan of Kedah by Sir Francis Light. Penang was originally a part of Kedah until Francis Light came to Malaysia looking for a base for the British East India Company. Francis Light signed a contract "renting" Penang from Kedah for 60,000 Spanish dollars but without the East India Company's knowledge, so when Siam attacked Kedah the East India Company didn't give protection to Kedah. When the Sultan found out he was pissed off and tried to take back Penang but by then he had already been "cheated". Later, the Sultan was again "cheated" when the rental of Penang island reduced from 60,000 Spanish dollars to a measly 10,000. Imagine for the rental of a shoplot you could actually rent the whole Penang Island from Kedah already! Talk about land scams. Now, the Penang state government still pays RM10,000 to Kedah every year as a gesture of tradition.

And did you know that the Fort Cornwallis was built as a defence, but was actually never used in war. Also, there's this mast high up at the fort that looks like a battleship mast, which was used as a bluff for enemy ships at sea so that they would think there was a real battleship at the fort and not dare to attack. Ingenious, I say.

The Town Hall was used by the British high society and officers as a social gathering hall for parties and dances. Oh, how I wish I could go back to those lovely bygone days...

At the middle of the picture is the Logan Memorial. Aptly erected in front of the Penang High Court, the monument is dedicated to James Richardson Logan, a British lawyer who defended the non-British immigrants during colonial times.

Looking at this bungalow, the balconies were not glass-paneled during the colonial days. The wide, extended structure of the balconies were to prevent the heavy tropical rain from blowing into the main hall. Nowadays it is air-conditioned, of course.

We arrived at Jalan Bishop. The street was named Bishop because the Bishop was carried from his house to the street behind in a sedan whenever he needed to go to the church, because it would be disrespectful for the bishop if he had to walk himself around using his own two legs. It's also called "wood-painting street" in Chinese (漆木街) because the sedan was often re-painted in one of the shops on the street.

St. George's Church, the oldest Anglican church in Penang - I always thought this church looked a bit creepy to me and now I get to stand in front of it and take a long look at it in broad daylight. It's beautiful!! I hope I get to take some of my pre-wedding photos here. (OK, I admit I had some "ulterior motive" of joining this walk which was to check out some possible heritage sites for pre-wedding photoshoot. :-P) Perhaps I'll take part in their church service at 10.30am one Sunday.

The Francis Light Memorial. This was built in a Greco-Roman style to impress upon others the greatness of the colonial ruler.

Another interesting architecture trivia. See the rounded tip of the roof where a bird is standing upon it? That's called a gable. There are five different types of gables according to the five types of Chinese elements - metal, wood, fire, water and earth. Rich shop owners who lack an element in their stars would erect a gable representing that element to give them better fortune. Usually see these type of gables on Chinese shophouses.

Old man having a pot of tea

We reached the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin) temple where the air was filled with the overpowering scent of incense from the many devotees praying in the morning. Did you know that inside the temple there is actually three wells? Two wells were believed to be the blessing from the Goddess of Mercy (水源) while the third well is the "third eye", also believed to be the "heart of the temple". Our guide told us that when you make a blessing and put your ear to the well, you can actually hear the throbbing heartbeat of the temple. Creepy!!

The temple is also devoted to Ma Zu (妈祖), which is the goddess of the sea. Usually temples near the sea will have Ma Zu in it.

After that we walked to the row of shops behind/near the Kuan Yin Temple where we saw one of the UNESCO "living heritage" - the incense-maker, who with his skillful hands, showed us how he shaped and kneaded a mixture of 100% pure Australian sandalwood and soda powder into incense sticks. The incense is pure and not added with artificial ingredients unlike manufactured ones. Many tourists buy it for aromatherapy purposes instead of as a burning incense. This dying trade is mastered by few others. This "living heritage" guy is given an endowment of RM2,000 a year by the state government as an encouragement and recognition of his skill.

We walked to the front of Kuan Yin temple, completing a round, where our guide pointed out a cross-cultural idol of worship, at the base of a tree. Three trees curled and twisted into one, actually. One is a fig tree, another a bodhi tree, another one I forgot. Both Chinese and Hindus pray and give offerings to this idol, which is one of the Hindu deities.

We also passed by some flower shops that mainly sold to those going to the temple to give offerings. My baby gave me a beautiful blooming red rose there that wilted at the end of the walk tour because the weather was TOO HOT! :-(

Our route passed through Little India where our guide pointed out yet another interesting fact which is easily overlooked due to its mundaneness in daily life - the shophouse. A practical invention of South East Asia countries, the ground floor of the shophouse is used for commercial purposes while upstairs is used as a living quarters. The upstairs louvre windows (百叶窗) function as a privacy guard against passers-by on the road, so that they can't look up and see into the room easily.

At Little India a special type of stall has popped up, more as an adjoining feature to the main shophouses. (I forgot the Indian name for it, which means "stuck-on stall".) These stalls usually sell magazines from India, newspapers and sundry.

Another dying trade - the Chinese signboard maker - which is all handmade, not by machine. The Penang Heritage Trust has an apprentice program which attaches apprentices to the trade in order to preserve this "living heritage".

There is another Indian goldsmith just across the road who can't speak any other language except Tamil, therefore our tour guide has to find him a Hindu boy.

At the Sri Maha Mariamman temple, the tour guide introduced us to this painter painting the temple opposite the street. I think he has been painting there a long time, if not why would the tour guide know him? He's French and speaks Mandarin cos he learnt it while he was in Beijing. He even paints with chinese calligraphy ink! Note the exquisite details. He's also going to have his art exhibition in Penang soon.

We arrived at the Masjid Kapitan Keling mosque, a grand mosque built by Indian Muslims who first came to Penang. Till now I still don't understand the controversy about the word "keling" which some perceive to be a deragotory term. It seems that there is a place in India called Kelinga? And also I always thought "keling" simply meant Indian (吉灵), and don't see no other meaning to it.

At the ground floor of the minaret is an info center, which non-Muslims can enter to gain more information about Islam. Hmm... maybe I'll also pay a visit there someday if I have the chance.

At the Acheen Street mosque, we noted the details of the mosque which had some Chinese details on it - the "ba qua" and pagoda lookalike features. We went into the compound, and were surprised to see a small kampung in the middle of it! Amazing... so well hidden. Our tour ended at the Muslim cemetery inside the kampung at Tengku Syed Hussein's grave.

One of the Indian girls remarked, "Oh, we're ending here?" while another replied "Isn't this where it's all supposed to end?" Haha... so ironic.

This is our group at Cannon Street. Half of our group consisted of young adults, while the other half were aunties and uncles. There was an Indian guy studying in USM who did a lot of explaining on the Indian cultural heritage part to the group, and three of his female friends who're from Maktab Perguruan, and some engineers as well. All of them are local. Where are all the foreign tourists? The Penang Tourism Board needs to do more to promote this Heritage Walk to more tourists.

The keyword here is free. The Heritage Walk is free for this month. There's another walk tour this Tuesday (21st July). Meet at 9.00am in front of Penang Town Hall.

For more info, visit Heritage Trail Georgetown.


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