PENANG: AN ORIENTAL LADY
Cities have personalities. Some, like Paris, are flirtatious and feminine; San Francisco has a playful insouciance, London wears a dignified air. With her temples and mosques, her white colonial style mansions and her Chinese heritage homes, Penang is a woman of elegance and grace-but with just a hint of mystery behind her dark, almond-shaped eyes.
She is also capricious. My tour guide, Sara Yeap, drives along a highway where sleek high-rise buildings, are stacked against the skyline like dominoes. Then, as we turn a corner, we plunge into a narrow winding lane flanked by seedy shops with rust-spotted signage advertising hardware, automotive parts and electrical gear. Above them, first floor apartments with paint peeling off their walls, have clothes lines looped like untidy streamers across their balconies. Barely five minutes later we are bowling through a broad avenue of graceful palms fronting palatial, impeccably maintained bungalows set within landscaped gardens.
"Penang is little bit of ever't'ing." Sara says. "Little bit of old-style kampungs (village settlements), little bit of Beverly Hills…" She gestures at the mansions we are driving past. "Also little bit of history, little bit mix-up of many different peoples-Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians-and big mix-up of many temples, churches and mosques." And you know what?" She rolls her eyes dramatically. "Penang has best Malaysian food in the country. Different." She pats my arm reassuringly "Don' worry, I show you ever't'ing!"
Which she does.
Our first stop is at two Buddhist temples on Burmah Road. The Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram temple has a 33-metre reclining Buddha. The courtyard entrance is ornate: two heavy-weight green-faced ogres guard the doorways, while a couple of sprawling mythical dragon-headed serpents rear their painted heads for camera clickers.
Across the street is the exquisite Dhammkarama Burmese Temple. It is remarkable for its intricately carved wooden ceiling and a huge standing Buddha set within a gilt filigree framework.
Nothing prepares me for the sheer opulence of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Built in 1894 it was originally owned by a wealthy Straits Chinese businessman, Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee and was in the family's possession for four generations. Abandoned during the war in 1941, it fell into disrepair until it was bought by Peter Soon, an architect and antique collector who spent RM 21,000,000 (approx CA$6,816,000) to restore the mansion to its former glory.
The mansion is emblematic of a time when Peranakan society enjoyed a lifestyle of sophistication and grandeur on par with European nobility, while retaining its unique heritage - a fusion of Chinese and Malay culture. This is reflected in the mansion's ceramic tiled floors, exquisitely detailed Chinese stained glass windows and intricately carved Chinese wooden screens overlaid with gold leaf.
There are well over 1,000 stunning objets d'art: rosewood chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs, needlepoint counterpanes in gold thread, an entire room filled with showcases of Venetian crystal goblets, vases and china, delicate jewellery, satin embroidered shoes, brocade tunics and bridal head dresses (some weighing as much as seven pounds) worn by the wives and descendents of the original owner Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee.
The Chinese wedding bedchamber, used for one night only by the bridal couples of the Kapitan's family, has an immense bed with satin bolsters under a silken canopy. I'm intrigued by a basket containing two stuffed birds-a cockerel and a hen-near the foot of the bed. My guide, Amin, explains that on the morning after the wedding night, the lid is opened, and the sex of the couple's first baby is determined by which bird flies out first. "What if they both fly out together?" I ask. "Ah, then…twins!" says Amin. "If birds stay inside basket, means no children." He grins impishly. "Then man can marry another wife!
Amin also tells me that a building adjacent to the main mansion is haunted. The wing encompasses a shrine devoted to the remembrance of the Kapitan's deceased descendents, as well as a reception-cum-meeting room (it was once used as an opium smoking lounge), a guest washroom, kitchen with antique equipment, shelves with old herbal Chinese remedies, a snack shop (perhaps once an apothecary's counter) and Amin's living quarters.
"Have you seen anything strange?" I ask. He shakes his head. "Nothing to see. Only something or someone moving about, opening doors, turning on a bathroom tap, rattling dishes in the kitchen, but when you go to look…nobody is there." He shivers slightly as he goes on to tell me that just the previous week, a voice in an empty room across the main building's hallway whispered "Terima Kasih" ("thank you") in a visitor's ear. "It scared her like anything!" he adds.
"You must try hawker food," Sara advises as we head back to my hotel. And where do I find that? I ask. "Right outside your hotel. The Shangri-La Rasa Sarang Resort is located just a few steps away from the night market on Batu Ferringhi Road," she says.
Malaysian cities' night markets are legendary. So, too, is the country's variety of hot fresh food cooked in open-air sidewalk kitchens. Penang is no exception, and the shops along Batu Ferringhi offer the usual tourist wares, ranging from trendy T-shirts, batik-imprinted cotton sarongs and straw hats, to pirated DVDs, electronic gadgets, leather goods and "genuine-fake" Gucci watches. However I'm here for the buzz, rather than any serious shopping.
I pause to eavesdrop on furious bargaining sessions, listen to sales patter, and watch a sidewalk chef in action. He rolls out a small circle of dough, pats it flat and then spins this around his forefinger (so that the dough flares out like a circular napkin), before slapping it down to bake on a curved iron hotplate. The cooked rotis are stuffed with curried mutton kebabs and handed out on paper plates to waiting customers. It is quite a performance. I opt instead for a plate of sizzling Szechuan-style fried spicy noodles mixed with shrimp, shredded crab meat and mussels.
On my last evening, as I drive through her city streets, Penang is a-glitter with thousands of tiny bulbs, looped like jewelled necklaces across her throat. Her sidewalks and Gurney Drive's outdoor cafes are thronged with families and friends chatting, laughing and enjoying the cooler evening breezes off the ocean. Waves whisper secrets against the seawall. Shadows deepen and the Lady draws the cloak of night about her shoulders.
IF YOU GO:
Penang is conveniently accessible by air, road and train from Kuala Lumpur. The train journey to Butterworth in an airconditioned deluxe first class carriage (private coupé and attached toilet/showers, toilet accessories, fresh towels and bed linen and light supper and breakfast served in your cabin by an attendant) is a definite must for railway buffs. Ferries and a dramatic 8.4 mile road bridge connect Butterworth with Penang island. See www.penang.ws/penang-info/gettingthere.htm
Things to Do:
Best Place to Stay:
Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort is the ultimate in sybaritic luxury. Guests in their Rasa Wing Premier Suite enjoy a separate sitting room, a private balcony and a soaker tub overlooking the garden and ocean. They are invited to avail of special privileges such as complimentary cocktails in the Rasa Wing Lounge, and an elegant high tea every afternoon.
The Rasa Sayang Resort is more than just a luxury hotel: with its timeless elegance, its serene gardens overlooking the rolling ocean, its attentive and charming staff and its gourmet cuisine, it is an unforgettable experience. Celebrate a romantic anniversary, or a special birthday. Or just pamper yourself just for the sheer joy of it.
To check out the full gamut of room rates and special offers, go to www.shangri-la.com/en/property/penang/rasasayangresort
Photos by Margaret Deefholts (except when indicated otherwise)
1. Penang Colonial architecture
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