Great Penang

Adrian Cheah loves Penang. He brings you an interesting insights on the UNESCO heritage city of George Town where he calls home.

Great Penang © Adrian Cheah


Penang Bridge – connecting the island to the mainland

Penang Bridge © Adrian Cheah

Before 1985, transportation between the island and the mainland was solely dependent on the state-owned Penang Ferry Service that plies between Butterworth and George Town. For using the ferry services in Penang, motorists need to pay toll fare while heading to the island. There is no charge for leaving the island.

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Penang ferry service

The famous heritage ride across the Penang Channel

Penang ferry © Adrian Cheah

Probably the most cherished and well-known icon of Penang, this ferry service which carries motor vehicles and foot passengers became operational in 1925, linking Butterworth on the mainland to George Town on the island. Prior to that, the ferries in the form of large boats were meant for goods and people only.

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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 moving.

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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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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 skirt 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 bead work for shoes with which the Nyonya is identified with is a comparatively recent invention from 19th century Britain and Continental Europe.

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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. Disocorides was also a botanist.

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My Kebaya shirt - a journey where novelty meets sublime beauty

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

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

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Malaysians – unique and united

Malaysians © Adrian Cheah

"The melting pot or mixing bowl images do not provide an adequate picture of Penang. The kaleidoscope, with its shifting patterns of colourful pieces, overlapping sometimes to make new shapes, some larger in one frame and smaller in others, offers a better metaphor for Penang's multi ethnic population and its changes over time." – Sarnia Hayes Hoyt Old Penang 1991

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Jalur Gemilang – the stripes of glory

Jalur Gemilang

Behind the simple and slightly derivative design, the Malaysian flag has, since its creation, served as a silent testament to the country's heritage and cultural mix, and upholding cherished values like freedom and justice.

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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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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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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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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 at 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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Ang Pow, a packet of good tidings

Ang pow © Adrian Cheah

A gift of money, ever so simple is practical, convenient and sure to be appreciated by the recipient! All over the world and for as long as anyone can remember, the Chinese have been giving gifts of money during auspicious occasions, like Chinese New Year, birthdays and weddings.

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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 opulent Nyonya Kebaya

Wearable art that knows no seasons

"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. The result of this union was the Peranakan Chinese (more commonly known as Babas and Nyonyas), a unique cultural class that flourished for centuries throughout Malaysia.

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The many uses of the "horse race" calendar

Introduction

It's pretty 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 the calendar?

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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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Silat – a Malay martial art steeped in tradition

Like other forms of Oriental martial arts, the millenia-old Malay silat is equally popular and effective in exhibitive, entertainment and sporting functions as it is for actual combat. The etymology of the word silat refers to movement of the body and the art itself originated during pre-Islamic times. Historically, silat reached its zenith during the Majapahit dynasty (1292-1478).

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Heritage buildings in Penang

Acheen Street Mosque

Also known as Mesjid Melayu, the mosque was built on land donated by Syed Sheriff Tengku Syed Hussain Aidid an Arab merchant-prince who came from Acheh in Sumatra. The vernacular style mosque from 1808 remains basically unmodified except for the Moorish arcade added at the turn of the century.

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