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The new guests
Penang, Malaysia

Respite for the clan houses came in the form of the “Sin Kheh”, literally meaning ‘new guests’ – the fresh-off-the-boat Chinese migrants – speaking only the clan dialect, they were dependent on their community and most importantly, fiercely loyal. For the most part, they would arrive in Penang penniless and hungry and end up at a jetty owned by the clan, where they would disembark from boats launched from the bigger ships in port. Here, they would be processed, housed (tax-free as the jetty was technically not on land) and slowly find their way inland, with loans from the clan house. Many of the clan jetties have today become victims of land reclamation, but a handful survive and hold great historical significance for today’s descendants.

“Penang provides a step back into a past that has disappeared from many other cities of the same DNA – Singapore, Yangon, Shanghai even.”

To bring my family history lecture to a tragic close, suffice to say it was not a happy, coexisting household. My great-grandmother and her six children, including my grandfather were banished from the generous family ‘shop-house’ in Georgetown’s Muntri Street to a life of poverty just around the corner, where she could be watched but never held in esteem.

Meanwhile, Penang continued to prosper. Like Heng, thousands of other Chinese “Sin Kheh” worked hard, made it big and built mansions, colonial shop-houses, ostentatious clan headquarters and glamorous temples in the centre of Georgetown. Some made it colossal, like Cheong Fatt Tze and the Khoo clan, whose names are synonymous with Penang today, because of the architectural legacies they left behind. Other parts of Georgetown became famous in the annals of history for other reasons, like Armenian Street, which was home to the headquarters of Dr Sun Yet Sun’s revolutionary party the “Kuomintang”, who went on to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and kick-off what we know today as the Republic of China.

All these architectural gems and places of historical significance (both in national history and more humbly in my own family story) are now part of the UNESCO heritage zone, a status awarded in 2008. As a result, utilitarian condo-living and mall-culture development was halted in the centre of the city and the restoration of this beautiful island capital began. Thankfully, hundreds of examples of the shop-houses like my great-grandfather’s survived, and unify the streets of Georgetown – albeit in various different conditions. Some have been lovingly renovated into homes, businesses and boutique hotels. Others lie silent, in dilapidated grandeur, withholding their own dramatic stories within their walls. For me, Georgetown is one of the most unique architectural and cultural experiences in Asia, perhaps even the world. Penang provides a step back into a past that has disappeared from many other cities of the same DNA – Singapore, Yangon, Shanghai even.

I approach Penang’s architecture with a Chinese sensibility, but this would be selling it short. So I hasten to add that Georgetown is the very definition of a multicultural city. In what is a small core, you’ll find the greatest concentration of British colonial structures in Asia. You’ll also find, among its crisscross web of small streets and alleys, Moorish mosques, Hindu temples, Thai wats and Neo-classical churches, and their corresponding communities – living side by side on the same streets, next to each other, or at other times on top of each other.

“What really makes Georgetown so special is its inherent ability to take influences from other cultures and make them its own.”

Penang is the unequivocal ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Walking through Georgetown, your eyes will water from the incense of the Taoist temples, you’ll hear the call of the Imam at the local “Masjid” (Mosque) and see stone statues of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant God bedecked with flower garlands – and if you’re lucky, you’ll even see a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Jesus Christ with a red bindi on his forehead, being worshipped by women in saris. You’ll also hear the tick-tack sound of men playing carom, see women carrying bales of laundry on their heads, smell the sweet iced coffee, “kopi-peng” waft from the food halls, and watch people from all walks of life spend their wages on a chance to become millionaires from the four-digit lottery. It’s a cacophony of experiences, set in a majestic, built-up landscape, something that hasn’t really changed for centuries.

But what really makes Georgetown so special is its inherent ability to take influences from other cultures and make them its own, as it has done for centuries – and that evolution is far from over. Penang is also embracing of the new – amidst the traditional houses, you’ll find an abundance of street-art and versatile, sometimes unorthodox exhibition spaces – you’ll stumble upon one of Ernest Zacharevic’s awe-inspiring murals for sure. You’ll also find Australian-accented “Baba-Nyonya” baristas making artisan coffee and get a catchy K-pop tune stuck in your head from walking past a glitzy, flash-packer bar.

Every trip I make to Penang teaches me some new lessons. But what have I really learnt from my family history and my countless visits over the years? Plenty. To never, ever forget where I came from. That dreams can come true if I have the courage and tenacity to make them happen. To appreciate what I have, as the tide can always change and make me re-evaluate my priorities in life. To also appreciate what I don’t have, for the better, and understand that life is a journey of perspectives. Much more poignantly in today’s sad state of affairs on global migration, that diversity enriches my life and my understanding of others – perhaps why I most enjoy travelling to the world’s melting-pots. And the most important lesson of all? To live each day for what I’ve become and be accepting of everyone’s individual journeys as I move on to my next adventure – because I’m really only the result of where I’ve come from and the people and experiences that have influenced my life along the way.

Photography by Uwern Jong and Moto Moto (via Unsplash)

Get out there


… start your exploration at the water. At Pengkalan Weld, Fort Cornwallis kept enemies away and the buildings are a showcase of the city’s colonial past.

… visit the clan jetties; most are gone, but certain ones like the Chew, Tan and Yeoh jetties still exist and are inhabited.

… get lost in the old town. Look out for temples and clan houses. Mine can be found at King Street and has very unique features in its gabled roof. The Khoo Kongsi near Armenian Street is a must as it is the most opulent.


… miss out on visiting both the Cheong Fatt Tze (Blue) and Peranakan (Baba-Nyonya) House – guided tours at both are fascinating.

… underestimate Penang’s status as the food capital of Malaysia. Do a food tour, or just follow your nose. The best experience is on-street dining, but for some heritage flavours, try ‘Baba-Nyonya Cuisine’ on Nagor Street.

… forget to time your visit with the Georgetown Festival, which will demonstrate how the city is embracing and becoming known for contemporary Art.