A cultural melting pot

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 10, 2022 - January 16, 2022.
A cultural melting pot
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Penang’s capital, George Town, was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. It was named after King George III and is one of the most interesting historical cities in Malaysia, with atmospheric streets lined with heritage architecture. We take a look at the George Town Heritage Trail, which highlights several tourist-worthy attractions.

1 Wisma Yeap Chor Ee

Built in 1922, Wisma Yeap Chor Ee was constructed by Chinese tycoon Yeap Chor Ee, who had business interests in tin mining, rubber and sugar. The three-storey complex has a whitewashed and rusticated exterior façade, allowing it to blend in with the colonial architecture prevalent along Weld Quay. 

Yeap was 55 at the time of its construction. According to penang.fandom.com, the complex, part of which faces the Port of Penang, used to house his offices. Over the following decades, it housed other mercantile offices that dealt primarily with the booming entrepôt trade.

The building was also home to the Rainbow Art Gallery, one of the few art galleries in Penang at the time. It served as a set for the famous espionage period film — Lust, Caution — in 2006. It underwent restoration works after the film was shot and now houses the Penang Science Cluster, a science-themed café founded by the Penang state government, according to heng-lee.com.

2 Town Hall

(Photo by Supanut Arunoprayote/Wikicommons)

The Town Hall was built in the 1880s and originally housed the Municipal Commission of George Town. It was also used for exclusive social functions, which Asians were not allowed to participate in, leading the local community to refer to the building as the European Club. Its administrative functions were taken over by City Hall upon the latter’s completion in 1903, according to malaysialife.org.

The heritage landmark is the oldest municipal building in Penang and currently serves as the seat of the Penang Island City Council. It is located on Jalan Padang Kota Lama, formerly known as Esplanade Road. Due to its immense historical and architectural value, the building was gazetted in 1982 under the Antiquities Act 1976, which was later replaced by the National Heritage Act 2005. It was one of the film locations for the 1999 Hollywood movie, Anna and the King.

(Photo by Supanut Arunoprayote/Wikicommons)

3 Pinang Peranakan Mansion

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion on Church Street is a ­museum dedicated to the Peranakan heritage in Penang. Formerly called Hai Kee Chan, meaning Sea Remembrance Hall in Penang Hokkien, by Chinese tycoon Chung Keng Quee, the mansion once served as his residence and office. Though he was not a Baba, his Chinese courtyard house was like a typical large Peranakan home of eclectic style, incorporating Chinese carved-wood panels, English floor tiles and Scottish ironworks, according to penang.ws.

The mansion was passed on to his descendants after his death in 1901. However, it gradually became derelict and was later acquired by a property developer in the 1990s, who repainted it green.

After its restoration, the museum now displays more than 1,000 pieces of Peranakan artifacts, antiques and collectibles. It also showcases Peranakan interior design and customs. Due to its unique architecture and interior design, which reflect the lifestyle of the Peranakans in Penang, the mansion has been featured in television dramas and reality shows, including The Little Nyonya and The Amazing Race Asia, according to pinangperanakanmansion.com.

(Photo by Christophe95/Wikicommons)

4 Goddess of Mercy Temple

Also known as Kuan Yin Temple, the oldest temple in Penang was built in 1728 by early immigrants from China in honour of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin.

According to holidify.com, the temple on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling is viewed as the ­mother temple for the Chinese Taoists in Penang. It used to be the place of worship of Mazu, a sea deity, during its construction in the early 18th century. With the shift in the economy from naval trade to urbanisation, there was also a shift in the values the people held as most important, and the Goddess of Mercy became the main deity in the 19th century.

The temple withstood many painful and even violent events over the course of its tempestuous history. It survived several terrorist attacks and the bombing by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, which added to local stories about the supernatural powers of the deity.

The temple is known for its classic Chinese architecture with carvings of dragons on the stone pillars, high ceilings and linings of the roof ridges. Its inner prayer chamber has a beautiful statue of an 18-armed Kuan Yin, and red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, according to sunwayhotels.com.

(Photo by Pufacz/Wikicommons)

5 Masjid Kapitan Keling

Built in 1801 by Indian Muslim traders, Masjid Kapitan Keling is located at the junction of Lebuh Buckingham and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. It used to occupy 18 acres but now only covers eight as part of the land was claimed by the government for road construction.

According to penang.ws, the Indo-Moorish structure was named after Cauder Mydin Merican, who was the headman, or Kapitan, of the Indian Muslim community back then. The word “keling” is derived from the ancient Hindu kingdom on the Coromandel coast of South India, and was also used for the people who hailed from there. As the Indians had difficulty in 

pronouncing English words, “Captain” was translated into “Kapitan”.

Topped with large Mughal-style domes, crescents and stars, the whitewashed mosque boasts architecture with Gothic, Moorish and Roman Renaissance influences as well as calligraphy panels and stained-glass windows. It houses a single, typical Indian-Islamic minaret from which the sound of the azan (call to prayer) can be heard.

In order to accommodate the growing population, the mosque was renovated in 1916 to increase its capacity, with additional Mughal domes and turrets, a large minaret and a madrasah, and ultimately became the largest mosque in Penang.

(Photo by Cccefalon/Wikicommons)

6 Masjid Melayu

Also known as Acheen Street Mosque, Masjid Melayu, with its Acehnese roof and Arab-style white minaret, is one of the oldest mosques in Penang. It was established by Tengku Syed Hussain Idid in 1808, an Acehnese aristocrat of Arab descent who moved to the island at the invitation of the founder of the British Colony of Penang, Captain Francis Light.

In 1792, Tengku Syed settled down in Lebuh Acheh and subsequently transformed the settlement into a centre for Islamic studies as well as an important trading base frequented by Malay and Arab traders. Most of the trading items then comprised spices, clothes, jewellery and perfumes that made the town prosperous, according to ­lexissuitespenang.com.

Due to the large number of people who came with Tengku Syed and the influx of Muslims from the archipelago over the years, Masjid Melayu served to facilitate the performance of congregational prayers by the community.

Following the death of Tengku Syed, the mosque continued to thrive. It was once referred to as the Second Jeddah because pilgrims would congregate there before departing for Mecca. The mosque is also filled with pilgrims and their families during the yearly hajj season.

(Photo by Supanut Arunoprayote/Wikicommons)

7 Khoo Kongsi

Khoo Kongsi, also known as Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, is one of the most distinctive Chinese clan associations in Malaysia. It is known for its extensive lineage, which can be traced back 650 years, as well as its buildings and magnificent clan house.

According to khookongsi.com.my, Khoo Kongsi, together with the Cheah, Yeoh, Lim and Tan Kongsi, were known as the five big clans (Goh Tai Seh) who formed the backbone of the Hokkien community during Penang’s olden days. Having identified their respective ­bases, they rooted themselves in an area stretching from Chulia Street Ghaut in George Town to the lower part of Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai) in the south, in the mid-19th century.

With the respective clan houses as the nuclei, these kongsi demarcated their territories with their own terraced houses on three or four sides of the perimeters. This adjoining, closely-knit and defensive model settlement is a rare form of congregation practised among migrant communities.

Khoo Kongsi now serves both as a temple and museum, and is a must-visit destination for those who are into history and architecture.