Lessons from Penang

I was not surprised to see Penang drawing tourists like magnet when I visited it two weeks ago. I’ve seen how well they market their tourist attractions back in Singapore. From international events like the Penang Island Jazz Festival to architectural heritage tours, their vibrant and diverse food scene. You see their ads everywhere—tourism is the economy’s mainstay.

The Penangites has successfully restored most of their English colonial buildings including the old British fortification, Fort Cornwallis, in George Town. The oldest English structure in town. These people understands what looking after heritage and promoting it can do for local business and their lives in general.

Everywhere there are hotels, restaurants serving local and international cuisines, tourist friendly bars and walking tours. If you want a do-it-yourself tour, pick up a brochure and a map at the airport and just spend a day walking (or rent a bike) around George Town. It’s not hard to do. The locals are very accommodating.

I felt secured walking the streets. I visited the brightly lit colonial shop houses at night and they were impressive. Like Macdonald’s in Dato Karamat Road; an English era building called the Birch House now leased to the fast food giant. Some of these buildings and shop houses has been around for a century. They contribute greatly to the charm of old George Town. The town is an example of why there’s more value from reusing old buildings than replacing them with bleak concrete and glass structures.

The old City Hall, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (Singapore’s Raffle’s sister hotel, older by 2 years), the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee watch tower and Fort Cornwallis; the beautiful Georgian and Victorian colonial buildings that houses Standard Charter, Southern Bank and HSBC, you can see all of these architectural treasure on foot. They’re clustered in what is known as the heritage core of the town. The oldest Catholic church, the Assumption, in Love Lane (called as such because millionaires used to house their mistresses in the area) is not far from another heritage church, the Anglican’s St George in Lebuh Farquhar.

The local government is also promoting some of the houses that Sun Yat Sen visited when he was in Penang. Turns out that he had supporters in town and that he had an office along Jalan Macalister, not far from where I stayed in Jalan Rangoon. This Chinese revolutionary not only was contemporary to some of our country’s founders but had known them personally. He helped Filipinos acquire arms from Japan during the revolution. Mariano Ponce is a very close friend of Sun.

Like Manila, Penang was mostly abandoned after WWII. The Chinese “towkays” and Europeans moved out. Squatters from other places started to move in, occupying the old buildings of George Town. Its story reminds me of Intramuros.

But this all changed in 2008.

There was a drastic shift when their leaders started investing on infrastructure. They developed their port to accommodate large cruise ships. Tourism started booming. They improved their airport, the long bridges to the hinterlands also contributed in increasing tourism traffic. The shorter bridge was constructed in the 1980’s, the longer one, 24 km long, in 2006.

Then George Town was designated a  UNESCO World Heritage Town—this made the locals go full blast in restoring what’s left of their heritage. The declaration made the town even more appealing especially to those hearing about it for the first time. The rest as they say is history and a visitor seeing this entire place now would be surprise that this transformation took so fast.

But for sure, behind this remarkable achievement is unity to accomplish a common goal. Never easy but never impossible. They did it so why can’t we? Just imagine Manila drawing tourists not for its casinos, girly bars, shopping malls and fancy hotels but because people wanted to get acquainted with its history.

If you’re a foodie type, well, Penang’s food hawkers are all over the place. The best food is street food. We all know this right?

We ate char kway teow as if it was staple food. Word is Penang’s version is the best. I ate this fried flat rice noodle in Singapore and in other places in Malaysia. They all taste the same. I guess I’m not a good char kway teow judge but Singaporean friends attest that Penang’s better than those made here. Must be the water, but everything is tastier, greener, better on the other side of the fence.

The food is plentiful, remarkably good, and cheap. I have written a blog about our food experience in Penang here. What I enjoy most about George Town is that food hawkers are not that hard to find. Well, not ideal I guess if you’re trying to curve your calorie intake but in these stalls you get to taste authentic local food. Our cab guy, Ibrahim, told us to go for hawkers instead of restaurants. I told him that I always go for local market and hawker food. For me this is where the best local cuisines can be savored.

Another curious phenomenon in George Town are its graffiti.  Tourists stop by them like pilgrims. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We should borrow a page from Penang’s handbook. I don’t know of any place that experienced such a rapid economic transformation without losing its important historical structures.

“When you come back, 5 years from now, there will be better infrastructure, less traffic than now,” Ibrahim said while driving us to the airport.

We can learn from these guys.

Efficient. modern airport. Getting a taxi is a hassle-free. Clearing immigration was fast. Not the biggest airport but it works just fine.

Chinese temples and ancestral houses everywhere. Well kept and accessible for tourist who wants to see what’s up with these colorful structures.

 

Tried following the heritage trail of Sun Yat Sen but was too ignorant about his history. There are several houses in town linked to the man. This one, near where I stayed, is in Jalan Macalister. He stayed here for a brief time. It serves now as a historical center for everything Sun.

An example of an ancestral house that belongs to some of the pioneer families in town.

Shop Houses are everywhere. These are shops that doubles as residence for shop keepers and owners. Fascinating is how these structures stood the test of time. Some of them are a hundred year old building. Interesting historical artifacts that are still being utilized to this day. They’re still mostly shops by the way.

This is one of popular hawker places in the area. This is in Lorong Selamat. Food stalls like this are known to serve the best Penang dishes. It can’t be beat by expensive restos I tell you.

 

You can go around by bike here. The weather’s very similar to that in Manila though. Get ready to have your armpits wet.

The most famous graffitti in town. These folks was having their pictures taken with the “Little Children on Bikes”. And just look at that shirtless old dude on bike, pausing so this family can have their photo taken. What a courteous fella.

Cute board signs in Chinese that made little sense to me of course.

A scene from one of the clan jetty. These are areas were historically appropriated to coastal families. The descendants still occupies the area and it has become tourist attractions. There are rooms that can be rented here.

 

I just love the scene. Busy food stalls. At night, everything comes alive.

An old building now a fast food resto.


4 responses to “Lessons from Penang

  • LGL Mom

    Hi! Did you get to see the Tseong Fatt Tze Mansion (The Blue Mansion?) It was restored very meticulously to its original by an architect and his wife, and was a B&B we spent a night in. There were guided day tours also of the mansion, but those joining are not allowed to take photos indoors. We however were permitted to take as much as we wanted, as overnight guests, provided we did not use the photos for commercial profit. Also, the very friendly owner was there (they served her own homemade jams for breakfast), to tell us a lot of stories. She also said that before they renovated that mansion, they came to the Philippines, to Vigan, which she admired greatly.

    I remember when we checked in, the manager was on the phone, snapping at whoever he was talking to that “NO we do NOT have a television in the room!”…he then sighed afterwards and vented to us about how annoying it was to have potential guests complain about not having any tv. We agreed with him that we definitely did not want a tv in the room!

    • Arnaldo Arnáiz

      I heard about it and considered staying there. I just found the place we end up getting much cheaper and convenient. I like their idea. I did not know that Vigan inspired some of their concept. We have so many of these heritage and we are squandering them like thrash. So sad. Thanks for your comment. – A

  • John Earle

    As a British man who has been to the Philippines numerous times and who has lived in the Western Visayas, I would be very interested to know your opinion as to why there is no investment in promoting Philippines history and heritage. I can fully understand why the very poor put tomorrow’s food as a higher priority over promoting heritage but why is there limited governmental commitment to such investment when the evidence all around is that it does interest and attract tourists?

    Of course, I have my own ideas but I am not Filipino so it is not my place to comment. Nevertheless, I would be very interested to understand a Filipino perspective on this issue.

    • Arnaldo Arnáiz

      I’ve been asking that same question for a long, long time my friend. Sadly I think the attitude of Filipinos in general towards “heritage” and history has a lot to do with it. These Asian neighbors of ours are catching up, they get it now, nationalism must not mean destruction of colonial heritage. Will Filipinos realize the same, I don’t know. Anyway, there’s very little left. We’re running out of time.

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