Pearl of the Orient, City of the Pirates – My Penang Story
東方之珠、海盜之城 - 我的檳城故事
Penang(檳城), a state in northwestern Malaysia, lying by the Strait of Malacca(麻六甲海峽), the state capital is called Georgetown(喬治城). When I heard of Malacca Strait, the first idea came to my mind was dangerous pirates, hence, in my fantasy, Georgetown might be a city full of pirates in the past.
Also I recalled the history I studied in school, Admiral Zheng He(鄭和) of Ming-dynasty China seemed to have been to Penang in his expeditions to the South Seas in the 15th century. Besides these, I didn’t know too much about Penang, and I need to figure it out what’s out there nowadays.
Traveling is fun, because you never know what’s waiting for you to explore.
First sight of Penang
I took an overnight flight from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and then transferred another flight from KL to Penang in the early morning. It was 8’clock in the morning when I saw Penang the first time, it was a really lovely island.
I was lucky enough to join a trip organized by Tourism Malaysia, and first we were taken to a place called Chew Jetty.
During the late 18th century and early 19th century, Georgetown was the center of thriving ports and many immigrants, especially Chinese from Mainland China, came to seek job opportunities. They settled down with floating and stilt houses along rickety docks; these docking and home areas became known as the clan jetties.
Today the only jetty that retains communal activity is the Chew Jetty whose people come together once a year to worship their temple deity. It’s fascinating to see people still living in floating houses on the waters.
After Chew Jetty, we then went to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion(張弼士故居), known locally as blue mansion(藍色大宅).
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion(張弼士故居)
Built in the 1880s, Blue Mansion was built by Cheong Fatt Tze, one of the wealthiest local merchant traders at that time. This mansion mixes with Oriental and Western architectures, also exhibits many authentic antiques.
I learned a lot about this mansion from our tour guide. According to her, this site was chosen due to its excellent feng shui position. Blue mansion sits on the “dragon’s throne”, which means there is a mountain behind and water in front.
There are also many other interesting details to be revealed by her, such as untold gossips and mystery legends of Cheong Fatt Tze families. Wandering in this house, I feel like I could stay here forever.
Saying goodbye to blue mansion, we walked along narrow but lovely lanes to go to Khoo Kongsi(邱氏宗祠).
A kongsi is a clan house, constructed partly as a temple and partly as a meeting place for Chinese of the same surname. There are many Kongsi in Penang, and Khoo Kongsi, also known as the Dragon Mountain Hall(龍山堂), is said to be the finest and shouldn’t be missed by tourists.
It has colorful mix of dragons, hanging lanterns, beautiful paintings and ceramic tiles; there is also an exhibition on the lineage of the Khoo clan at ground level.
While experiencing the heat of Malay Peninsula in the morning, unexpectedly it rained cats and dogs in the afternoon. However, it’s another feeling full of atmosphere and make Khoo Kongsi well worth visiting.
Finally the tour came to an end, and it’s about time to experience real Penang Cuisine.
Due to the ethnic composition, food here mixed with Malay, Chinese and Indian flavors, Penang is acclaimed as the food capital of Malaysia. Best food you can find is from a portable cart or food center, as soon as I walked into the food center, delicious food smells linger in the air.
Luckily I tried many different foods, such as “Char kway teow(炒粿條)”, rice noodles stir fried with egg, vegetables, shrimp and sausage in soy sauce. “Curry mee(咖哩麵)”, noodle in a spicy coconut curry soup, served with sprouts, prawn, cuttlefish and mint. “Hokkien mee(福建麵)”, known as prawn noodles, has a very strong, spicy prawn taste.
I also ate spicy hot “Asam laksa(亞三叻沙)”, a fish soup with thick rice noodles, said to be Penang’s signature dish. After this dish I realized how spicy Malaysian food can be.
There do have problems about Penang foods though. They are too delicious and people eat really fast, when I suddenly think of taking photos, they were already finished. Mind you if you want to take food photos in Penang, do it as soon as they are served.
Fortunately I had my own Ice Kacang, a popular dessert among the locals. It consists of red bean, sweet corn and sugar syrup, with milk poured over the ice. It is very tasty and refreshing, especially after a hot, rainy day.
During my short time visit to Penang, I found out that she has mixed and vibrant multi-cultures due to its long history as an important trade distribution point and shipping center. Malay, Indian and Chinese influence are everywhere, this is something can’t be found in Taiwan.
Although I don’t comprehend Tamil(泰米爾文) and Malay, I am still able to communicate with locals in English, Mandarin and Penang Hokkien(檳城福建話). Signs with Mandarin on the streets make me feel like I am walking in Taipei, feel like home.
On 7 July 2008, Georgetown was officially inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as having a unique architectural and cultural townscape nowhere can be found in East and Southeast Asia region.
A fruitful land with warm climate, friendliness and hospitality is what you can expect here. I want to encourage more people come traveling to Penang, because it’s really a fascinating place to wander.