I had a few days between collecting data for my project and like in the U.S., this is testing season in Singapore, so I had little to do at my school attachment. I decided to take the advice from three new friends who told me I might like to visit Penang in Malaysia. There are a lot of Malay speakers in Singapore as this island was once part of greater Malaysia. In fact, Malay is the national language of Singapore, but English is the most commonly spoken language. Singaporeans and Malaysians also share a cultural heritage that I have been researching and learning more about. I’ve written about my experiences with Peranakan food and much of my architecture related photos are of Peranakan influenced buildings. Penang has a number of Peranakan and colonial mansions and a long history, so I booked a cheap flight and made my way there to see the sites and compare the food.
Malaysia is made up of two large regions that span across the South China Sea. Western Malaysia is bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore. Eastern Malaysia is located on the northern part of (Indonesian) Borneo and surrounds the tiny Kingdom of Brunei. Like most of this region, the numerous and historical Kingdoms of Malaysia found themselves under the thumbs and authority of the British, Dutch, and Portuguese at one time or another. The French were also influencers from nearby Indochina.
Malay is the national language and English is commonly taught as a second language. I was surprised to learn that the Malay language has many regional dialects, some of which cannot be understood by fellow Malaysians. As mentioned before, Singapore has many citizens of Malay heritage and it is common to see and hear the language spoken. The national anthem of Singapore is traditionally sung in Malay. This diversity of cultures is one of the many things I truly love about Singapore.
My flight was late taking off because the airline I was flying on, Silk Air, has a large percentage of Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft that are grounded. Like many Asian airlines, they are struggling to find replacements while Boeing figures out what is wrong. It was a short 1.5 hours in the air — and I was served a meal and a beverage! I splurged and stayed at the Marriott property known as the Macalister Mansion. It is a restored 100+ year old colonial mansion named after Sir Norman Macalister, one of the first British Governors of Penang. I had a wonderful stay and one of the finest meals of my life in the French inspired restaurant. A marvelous 8-course meal with a bottle of wine for $90. That is an outlandish price for Malaysia, but this meal would have been 3x the price in the U.S. and worth every penny.
As my flight arrived late, I spent the late afternoon taking a long walk into the old neighborhood of George Town. My strategy was to hit the western portion and then save the eastern for Monday and Tuesday. It was a good strategy as I needed the exercise and was able to get situated on Sunday.
On Monday, I connected with an AirBnB experience host and meet him for an evening stroll throughout the center of George Town. Vic is a pharmacy student, just a few months from graduating. This seemed an ideal job as he could study and attend school during the day and provide these tours and make a few bucks in the evening. We hit it off quickly and the time just flew by. I took lots of photos and we shared street food as the rain showers kept us busy. It is the beginning of the rainy season and it was interesting to watch the subtle adjustments everyone makes when the rain begins. Californians tend to drop everything and don’t know what to do when the rain comes. Folks here just get on with business. Of course, with the heat, it doesn’t take long to dry and I’m used to being a bit damp for awhile.
Penang has had its ups and downs associated with economic fluctuations like any city. Like Malacca to the south, this was a colonial powerhouse. Today, Malaysia has a British inspired parliament and retains many traces of its colonial past. The national religion is Islam, but other religions are allowed. We passed multiple mosques, churches, and temples in our journey. There is a sizable Chinese population as well as Indian. Today, Penang’s economy is on the upswing and it is striving to become a regional technology hub. There is a housing boom as well. Multiple tall condominiums are going up, but Vic told me that they are being purchased as investment properties by Singaporeans, Chinese, and Europeans. They are priced far out of the reach of the locals.
I spent Tuesday at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. I had planned 2-3 hours there and ended up spending 6. It was an extraordinary experience. Unforgettable. The mansion has been lovingly restored and filled with priceless antiques. I got a spirited tour and then the guide told us we could go wherever we wanted. It was like being told you were able to walk through Hearst Castle on your own. This was better than Hearst Castle. Real people lived for generations here and the house warmly embraced each visitor. The deeply rich Malaysian woods, Italian glassware, French linens, Scottish ironwork, British customs, and Chinese heritage all blended together perfectly.
Peranakans, also known in this part of the world as Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women) are acculturated Chinese that arrived along these straights centuries ago. They still practiced Chinese customs, but also incorporated colonial lifestyles and the local Malay ways. The mansion was built in the late 1800s by Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee. He was a wealthy man who spent lavishly. The word is that “some” of his wealth came about by illegal means. This was a time of Chinese clan wars and you had to know your way around to survive. His descendants no longer own this property, but the family that owns it now has allowed it to become a showcase for Peranakan culture.
The layout includes a central, open to the air, courtyard, carved wooded panels, mother-of-pearl inlayed furniture, porcelain, jewelry, and gold gilded accents in bedrooms, dinning rooms, a gentlemen’s den, kitchen, and music rooms. I took many large format photos trying to capture it all.
These images represent just the main portion of the mansion and I will share more in part two of this adventure. The mansion contains a museum of exquisite jewelry and the most beautiful collection of beadwork I’ve ever seen. I’ll be sharing that as well as photos of Nyonya Peranakan clothing that are inspired and timeless.