Culture and Heritage

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

Although the British were described as latecomers in a line of Western Colonialists in Malaysia's history, they arguably left the most enduring legacy, particularly in the form of legislation and the development of George Town into a modern city. Even a short gallop through the history of Penang will not be complete without mention of the arrival of the British in 1786, and the subsequent introduction of British rule in the day-to-day administration and governance of Penang.

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

One could conjecture that had there been no British authority in Penang, the shape and destiny of heritage conservation could have turned out to be entirely different. Shorn of British influence, the built heritage and living culture of the ethnic enclaves could very well come to the fore. Be that as it may, historical landmarks in Penang bear the inspiration of various influences. Many still stand to this day, although in the preface to the 2nd edition of Streets of George Town, the author lamented that "many heritage buildings have fallen."

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

George Town, the capital of the state of Penang, has one of the largest collections of 19th, and early 20th century buildings in Southeast Asia. It is a living historic city, with inner-city communities, places of worship, guilds, wet markets and bazaars, traditional trades and retail shops, trishaw peddlers and hawkers. Since 1948, George Town's heritage buildings had been protected under a Rent Control Act. A 1994 census showed that Penang had 12,453 rent control premises with 8,259 located in the heart of George Town. With the repeal of Rent Control at the dawning of the new millennium, tenants who have lived in the inner city for the last 50 years face potential dislocation. A whole historic environment, community and way of life may disappear forever. Penang's living heritage city is now facing a critical period following the repeal. The Penang State Government is doing all it can to ensure that George Town's heritage city and living culture will survive this transition. Getting George Town recognised as a World Heritage City will go a long way towards this goal.

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

Daily, hundreds of tourists both local and foreign, visit this vast preservation of treasures in George Town, in which may be seen and enjoyed the story of Penang's man-made heritage. As the starting point of Penang's multicultural community, the inner city of George Town has many houses of worship, guilds, mosques, temples, clan houses, district associations, sanghams and lodges which are Penang's 'open museums' of migration and cultural history. The many heritage tour guides are only too happy to reveal to the visitor the beauty and wonder, and the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind each building, each community and each culture including the scrumptious food and vibrant festival they offer.

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

A nimble amble through the historical sights in George Town: the first four streets mapped out by city fathers in George Town, namely Beach Street, Light Street, Pitt Street (now Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling) and Chulia Street are still very much relevant and bustle with traffic every day. Just around the corner from Beach Street lies the Colonial Quarter, where Fort Cornwallis, Esplanade, City Hall, Court-house, St. George's Church, Convent Light Street, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the Protestant Cemetery, and other historical buildings are situated.

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

A short distance away are what is described as the historic port settlements or 'ethnic enclaves' – the Little India commercial orb, Kapitan Keling mosque, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Mahamariamman Temple, Armenian Street, Acheen Street, Khoo Kongsi, King Street, Weld Quay and others.

Penang's culture and heritage © Adrian Cheah

Bedak sejuk, a trusted beauty secret of our grandmothers

bedak sejuk © Adrian Cheah

At dusk, when women with white sceptre-like masks ventured out of their homes to purchase a snack or visit neighbours, children would gawk while adults would shrug their shoulders in indifference.

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The elegant Nyonya kebaya – wearable art that knows no seasons

kebays © Adrian Cheah

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is an oft-quoted maxim about the importance of adapting oneself. Whether or not this bit of wisdom was known to the early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, some of them eventually married the local folk and adopted Malay customs while remaining quintessentially Chinese in belief and philosophy. The result of this union was the Chinese Peranakan (more commonly known as Babas and Nyonyas), a unique cultural hybrid with a cosmopolitan persona that flourished for centuries throughout Malaysia.

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Book review: Once Upon A Kamcheng

Lillian Tong and Jewel Tan

Once Upon A Kamcheng


This book is an anthology of Penang Straits Chinese Baba Nyonya memoirs, biographies, and collected stories. The compilation was inspired by life growing up in a Baba Nyonya home and the stories told to me by my mother, Tan Chooi Bee, and my friends. Beyond the nostalgia of resplendent gold and gilded lattice screens and gracious living are behind the scenes expose bothering on the ridiculous to the tragic, where antics, escapes, indulgences and misadventure reign.

Lillian Tong

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The upside-down tree – Penang's very own Baobab

Penang's Baobab tree © Adrian Cheah

According to African legend, the Baobab wanted to become the most beautiful tree of all. When it realised that this was not possible, it put its head into the ground, so only the roots pointed heavenward. Another legend holds that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it from moving.

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A traditional signboard maker in Penang

traditional signboard maker © Adrian Cheah

In this day and age of colourful and animated LED video billboards, digital displays for advertisements and other fancy forms of signage, one does wonder if there is a place, still, for the traditional, hand-carved signboard – the sort of signboard that is found in some Chinese homes and business establishments.

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My Kebaya shirt – a journey where novelty meets sublime beauty

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

Having grown up in a Chinese Peranakan household, I have always been intrigued by the beauty of the kebaya. It is not just about how the entire ensemble – when matched with a traditional floral sarong is wearable art, one that gives a veritable statement on the opulent cultural heritage of the Nyonyas.

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Nyonya kasut manek (beaded shoes) – timeless objects of beauty

Nyonya beaded shoes © Adrian Cheah

English influence

The British presence in the three Straits Settlement states had a profound influence on Peranakan culture. Suddenly, the hitherto unknown suits and skirts became à la mode for men and women respectively.

Western techniques also influenced the art and craft of fashioning Peranakan footwear. The style of embroidery, for example, once influenced by the Malays was in turn influenced by Western culture. The fine beadwork for shoes with which the Nyonya is identified is a comparatively recent invention from 19th century Britain and Continental Europe.

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The floral bath (mandi bunga) ritual

floral bath © Adrian Cheah

The Russian musician Igor Stravinsky might have composed Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring) as an exploration of nature and the rituals of renewal and sacrifice, but one could safely conjecture that the ritual and ceremony of the Malaysian floral bath was created for more personal (and less lofty) reasons. The two may be worlds apart, but both Stravinsky and the local bomoh share one thing – invoking the power and the mystery of nature and the elements in their work.

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People of the Five Rivers

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

As one ascends the steps of George Town's magnificent Chinese clan temple of the Khoo Kongsi, it is difficult not to notice a pair of huge images meticulously carved out of granite as if welcoming visitors in.

The two tall, life-sized figures of Sikh guards (above) stand imposingly on the ornate pavilion of the century-old complex, widely considered to be the grandest clan temple in the country.

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Sembang-sembang with Tan Choon Hoe

Tan Choon Hoe

Malaysians are a lucky bunch, always well known for their versatility in languages or dialects. Take for example my late father who was Chinese could converse fluently in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, Hindustani, Mandarin, Cantonese and of course, Hokkien.

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The exotic, aesthetic fading tattoo of henna

henna © Adrian Cheah

Staining the skin temporarily with henna can result in a beautiful work of art. In Penang, this practice is common among the Indian, Sikh and Malay communities. To them, it is a beautiful intangible cultural heritage evoking precious memories shared during festive seasons and wedding occasions. Having said that, tourists in Penang often join in the festivities and adorn their hands with henna designs as well. Since henna artists are available all year round at Little India, one can have it done for casual events anytime.

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The Sari: Queen of garments

sari © Adrian Cheah

The amazingly versatile sari (or saree) is more than just a length of cloth – six yards or more – for the traditional South Asian woman (and a few men) in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It is also a garment that covers all, yet is revealing, enchanting yet unassuming, serene yet sensuous. Suitable for work, leisure or luxury, the incomparable sari contains many such contradictions in its flowing folds.

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The 32nd International Baba Nyonya Convention in Malacca

Baba Nyonya Convention © Adrian Cheah

Sadhguru (Jaggi Vasudev), an influential yogi cautioned that the more we identify with something – religion, gender, race, ideology, money, et cetera – the more we will defend it, some even with our lives. Having said that, most of us feel the need to identify with things we hold dear, be it our family, heritage or even our social media status.

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History of Little India

Little India, Penang © Adrian Cheah

This meticulously regimented network was among the earliest parts of George Town planned under the administration of Sir Francis Light, the English founder of Penang. The area is hence now referred to as the "Francis Light Grid" – a rectangular network bordered by Leith Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling).

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Our bold and beautiful red Bunga Raya

Bunga Raya © Adrian Cheah

Let us pause for a moment and look at the name of Malaysia's national flower – Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. The English word “hibiscus” derives from the Greek word “hibiskos.” The flower received its name from the renowned physician Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40 – 90 AD). He was the author of "De Materia Medica", a 5-volume Greek encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances. Dioscorides was also a botanist.

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Penang's Cina Wayang (Chinese opera) – for gods and ghosts

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Growing up in Ayer Itam in the 70s was so much fun. Living near the wet market was even better since you could buy food easily any time of the day. Back then, we would bring our own tiffin carriers, even supply our own eggs to the char koay kak lady or Pak Dollah, the mee goreng uncle. Ah Heng, the rojak man, parked his cart in front of my house. He would string halved green mangoes on a lidi (coconut leaf) stick and top them with rojak sauce and crushed peanuts. Another favourite of mine was the sliced bangkwang (turnip), also topped with rojak sauce and crushed peanuts. Ah Heng eventually gave up the rojak business and sold koay teow thng. Everybody knew everybody back then. News even travelled faster than a speeding bullet. Before I could reach home, my mum would have known what I was up to. Mind you, that was when my house did not even have a telephone.

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The legend of the ferocious beast called Nian

Nian © Adrian Cheah

"Nian"' in Mandarin means "year". However, legend has it that Nian was also a mythical monster that terrorised humans during the New Year. It was so fierce that it threatened to destroy the entire race of mankind.

At a loss about what to do, the Emperor summoned his advisors to find a solution to this looming armageddon. Having devised an infallible plan, the advisors approached Nian and challenged this all-powerful beast to prove of its invincible strength by destroying all other monsters on earth rather than to erase the humans who were obviously no match for it.

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The many uses of the "horse racing" calendar

Horse racing calendar © Adrian Cheah


It is relatively easy to know which day of the week it is. Similarly, we can more or less tell the time of day merely by looking outside the window. But how many of us can tell the date without referring to a calendar?

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Ang Pow, a packet of good tidings

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

A gift of money, simply practical and convenient, is positively appreciated by all. It is common for the Chinese community throughout the world to present ang pows (red envelopes of money) as gifts during auspicious occasions such as during Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings. Although this humble offering dates back thousands of years, it is still prevalent to this very day.

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Sir Stamford Raffles and The History Of The Runnymede

Thomas Stamford Raffles was born in 1781, to Captain Benjamin Raffles and his wife Anne and in 1793 was sent as a boarder to the Mansion House Boarding school in Hammersmith, London. He joined the East India Company in London as a temporary clerk in 1795.

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