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Penang

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PENANG MUSEUM

A particular quirk of Malaysian society is the prevelance of ethnic Chinese people, a culture I had seen here before but had failed to research. The museum revealed to me that they are called Peranakan or Straits born Chinese, who date from their arrival in the 15th century, whereupon men from southern China married local Malay women. This created a hybrid culture which retained a Chinese identity but adopted aspects of Malay language, dress and cuisine, also known as Baba Nyonya (Father Mother) heritage. The Peranakan of Penang converse in a tongue which combines Hokkien Chinese dialect, English and northern or Tanjung Malay. There were then another 2 successive waves of Chinese immigration, first traders in the 18th century, then labourers brought to work the tin mines in the mid 19th century. Thus a division evolved between the original Baba Nyonya and the "New Guests", who dreamed of eventually returning home. Another unusual trend was the arrival of many single Chinese women in the 1930s dubbed the Black and White Amahs, who normally vowed to celibacy and were renowned as loyal house servants. In their old age many of these women retired to the Kongsi or Clan Houses, associations which had evolved to support immigrant Chinese from the same district. Many provided welfare services and were typically laid out like temples since they were also a focus for worship. Many can still be found around Georgetown today. Up until the Brits banned it in the 1940s, the smoking of opium was popular and made good revenues for the government. Opium pipes and an "opium bed" were displayed with excellent wooden carving. There were also colourfull glazed spittoons, pots used for the spitting out of residue after chewing betel nut, very popular with the Nyonyas. Costumes showed that weddings were very elaborate and lasted 12 days!

After a brief foray to the Far East soon after its foundation in 1600, the English East India Company concentrated on the subcontinent until the 18th century when interest in Malaya was rejuvenated. This was inspired by the growing importance of tin and the desire to secure trade routes to China. It relied on the influence of independent English merchants to rekindle such a link, the last of whom was Francis Light. Having traded between India and present day Phuket commencing around 1765, Light became fluent in Thai and Malay and thus gained the respect of local chiefs. Light subsequently used his influence to persuade the Sultan of Kedah to cede Penang to the Brits in lieu of protection and an annual dowry. Light hoisted the Union Jack in Penang on 11th August 1786 for George III (hence Georgetown) and the East India Company, originally naming it Prince of Wales island. The present name Penang is derived from the Malay word for the Areca palm tree.

It was soon to prove a crucial link in the Spice Trade and increased links with China, from whence labour for plantations was derived. Light quickly established a primitive stockade later dubbed Fort Cornwallis and it was soon replaced by the present remaining stone structure designed in a star shape. The subsequent building of the settlement was aided by convict labour from India. As early as 1790 a track was cleared to the summit of Penang Hill for those who sought its cooler climes and a hill station was subsequently established, aided by the completion of the still functioning funicular railway in 1924. It was soon dubbed Flag Hill since the Union Jack was raised here to signal the arrival of the mail. Another notable event in Penang's modern history was the clash between Chinese secret societies, culminating in 10 days of rioting in 1867. There was also a story board to remind me of the Japanese occupation from December 1941 to 1945, Penang fell to them without a shot being fired.

There was little discernible chronology or sequence to follow but it was not bad for a local museum and I complimented it by then taking a promised wander towards the nearby headland where Georgetown had found its birth. There was a fine whitewashed church with a very tall daring steeple, then soon I found the City Hall staring out grandly across the Maidan. From here a short stroll led me to the aforementioned Fort Cornwallis, with its 1793 vintage walls not seeming much of a deterrant now with its original moat long filled in. Numerous large cannon still poked their noses out over the ramparts though. It now also housed a large lighthouse and flagstaff, and just along the road was another colonial remnant, a clocktower with notably Islamic influences built perversely buy a rich Chinese merchant to commemorate Queen Victoria's 1897 jubilee. It had been a particular icon which had stuck in my mind from my previous visit 5 years before and I had almost a sense of satisfaction at seeing it again.

There was a parallel disappointment of sorts just opposite however when upon checking out ferry prices at the agency offices I saw that the one-way fare from Medan, Indonesia back to Penang was a whopping 150 Ringit, the best part of 25 quid. Unfortunately there was a bullshit requirement from the Indonesians that in order to bag a visa you had to show a return ticket out. Planning on exiting overland into East Timor in all likelihood, that meant just booking the cheapest ticket to anywhere with fully the intention of not using it, but the cheapest still wasnt cheap. With more suitably grand edifices lining Beach Street, what had once been the seafront before land reclamation pushed it inland, I ended up at the familiar entrance to Little India and so just steered that course back homewards. It was on the way that I treated myself to an overdue haircut, where in true Indian fashion I got the full works. This was the first guy to use the familiar no.3 electric shaver to start it off with but the Orient shone through in his use of a cutthroat razor, talc, hair oil, then followed by a pleasurable head massage. This turned into a full upper body wrenching, made complete with a bone crunching snap of the neck in either direction. You had to wonder who first diiscovered that one. I walked away relatively unscathed nonetheless and then allowed myself a pleasant change I had spotted across the road and a personal scrummy favourite, samosas. They were cheap too.

Back in Chinatown, the excellent atmospheric neighbourhood of 19th century traders' 2 storey terraced mansions, I called in at a hostel to find that Hebrew Helen had already been there and gone, she had been staying just around the corner from me and I had sussed it too late. Silly cow. I knew where she had gone though, she was off to help on an archaeological dig on the mainland, I had even helped her out by spying the elusive bus she had needed running from Kuala Kangsar. Soulless Suzanne always seemed to land on her feet, but certainly not her back! Just to rub it in, after days of enduring cranky old guys on a visa run from Thailand, madmen and lone aloof wanderers, a few lone chicks showed up to add interest to spite my impending departure. That night, surprisingly even the nightlife of Georgetown proved underwhelming beyong the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants and a few overpriced tourist bars.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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