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Chinese temple in George Town

Today I visited George Town, the main city in Penang (which is itself a state of Malaysia). This required a bus ride, on a local bus – but as ever with these things, it was all absolutely straightforward and easy. And cheap, too – the cost of the rid, about 20 kms or so, was MR2.70, or around 50 pence, each way in an air-conditioned bus.

George Town is a strange place. You could say that it was “nearly Singapore”. Like Singapore (and Malacca), it was one of the Straits Settlements, and in fact was claimed by the British (or by the East India Company) almost 40 years before Singapore. For much of the 19th century George Town (and Penang) was at least as important to British interests as was Singapore. I believe that it was only in the 20th century, with the development of the naval base and associated land defences at Singapore, that that city got ahead of Penang in economic and political terms. And in the end, of course, Singapore ended up as one of the world’s city-states, free to put the interests of the city at the heart of the nation. George Town wasn’t as fortunate. That said, it’s apparently still the second most important area of Malaysia, economically-speaking. It has a city population of 700,000, while the urban area that it commands has a population of 2.5m. Much of downtown George Town is dominated by all the paraphernalia of a modern eastern city – high rise apartments and hotels, and shopping malls.

But that’s not what I was there to look at. I was interested in the George Town World Heritage area. This consists of a labyrinth of small streets close to the old port area where formerly the traders, merchants and craftsmen (and women) of George Town made their living. Essentially the streets consist of terraces of buildings, the ground floors of which were given over to business while the first (and sometimes second) floors were given over to living quarters. The enterprise on the ground floor could be anything – a workshop, a small warehouse, a merchant’s office, a retail or wholesale premises, somewhere that sold food and drink – whatever economic activity could be fitted into the structure and from which people could make a living. As I said, it’s very reminiscent of the older parts of Singapore, and i believe that the term ‘shophouses’ applies to the premises in George Town as well as Singapore.

By the 1970s & 1980s things had moved on – the new technology of trade (containers, global networks) rendered much of these old premises redundant, and the older area became very run-down and dilapidated. But the area was declared a World Heritage site in 2008 and various protection measure put in place to preserve the architecture, and it’s become a major tourist attraction.

One problem is that because it’s remained a working area, it’s very difficult to get good pictures of it – the streets are very busy, there are cars parked everywhere, and of course there are endless streams of motor bikes zooming around. So no great pictures, I’m afraid. (the 90º+ heat didn’t help, of course.)

One interesting aspect of the area is that there are a number of Chinese temples. These too are historic (late 19th century in some cases) but I have a feeling that the actual buildings may have been renewed since then. A few of them are very grand.

I also visited one of the Clan Jetties. These are structure that were originally based on boats joined together and projecting out from the shore into the sea, by more than 100 yards. On this structure were built houses and some business premises, and later shops. They were built by the Chinese and each of the jetties was built by a specific clan or extended family. I visited the Chew jetty and I gather it’s the case that many of the current residents (they are still lived-in) are members of the original clan.

Finally, I must report that while in George Town I ate local. I visited a tandoori shop in George Town’s Little India for lunch. Formica tables, simple menu, and I was told what to order – Tandoori Chicken with plain naan. Delicious; and incredibly cheap. The chicken and naan cost me the equivalent of £1.50, and, big spender that I am, I bumped it up to £2.50 by adding a glass of really thick mango juice.

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