Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Lions and Dragons and Horses, Oh My!

A week of aural sensory overload:  sound, colour, taste and smell made for a fabulous welcome to a new bustling and cosmopolitan Malaysian city.

Colour and crowds for Chinese New Year celebrations
Gong Xi Fa Chai (Happy Chinese New Year) from Penang! We were part of the island-wide party ringing in the lunar new year of the horse. Festivities included the china town shutdown for the parade, arrival of government dignitaries, dances, martial art demonstrations, Chinese family tree history-tracing booths, art & craft stalls and the lane of food stalls. The island city ground to a halt, with businesses closing for up to two weeks. This is the one well celebrated holiday where people visit their family in distant locations or go on holiday. From what we experienced in Langkawi, many Chinese work 7 days a week, but come Chinese new year everything changes while the Chinese take their well-earned break.

Being here you could be mistaken for being in a southern province of China, with 41.5% of the 1.6 million inhabitants being Chinese (almost double the proportion of Malaysia), the languages being spoken, food being eaten and the signage is a dead giveaway that Penang is a very different piece of Malaysia.

Walking to China town, we had to pass through little India, where Bollywood music and movies blare from tv screens lining the streets. Glittering sari’s and sweet shops adorn the shopping strip as we make our way to the Chinese section of the old town dodging cars and motorbikes that weaved their way through the pedestrian masses. Upon arrival in China town, we became part of the thousands of people forming the crowds watching the performances. While there was a schedule of events, this is Malaysia and time is ephemeral really.  

Lion prowling amongst the crowd
We saw not one, but three lion dances over the festival period. The Lion dance is a traditional dance where two young men don a lion suit with one guy being the head and operating the eyelids, ears and mouth, while the other wags the lions rear along with the percussion beat being played by a three person drum and symbol troupe. The dance is performed to rid evil spirits and give blessings for the year ahead. The most impressive dance we saw was performed on stilts, where the lion was jumping between platforms elevated 2m above the ground. The whole dance is very athletic with lots of jumping onto precarious tables or balancing on a high wire.

Hugh snubbed by street art
We continued on our journey through China town and ate at the myriad of food stalls with Chinese, Malay and modern fusion dishes being the orders of the day, while squeezing through crowds of people in the packed streets to watch the performances.

Penang has an interesting history, also considered to be of strategic importance to the trading that dominated the Malacca Strait, in 1771 the Sultan of Kedah signed an agreement with the British East India Company for military protection from Siam (Thailand) in exchange for trading rights. Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company took possession of the island in 1786 and established Georgetown, a town which today is largely intact and protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. Georgetown features narrow streets with two-storey shop houses, impressive colonial architecture and footpaths under covered walkways. The town was promoted as a duty-free port and people from China, India and Malaysia flocked here to start their new lives. The protected area is a relief from the new development as pedestrians can walk on the footpath (not the road as in other sections), there is a cycle path and public art adorning walls.

Luxury high density apartments on the northern side
of Penang, seemingly under construction 24/7 
Elsewhere there is rapid development, with high density luxury apartment and shopping developments underway throughout the city. Areas along the northern and eastern shores of the island are covered in construction sites or impending developments. The demand for housing here has pushed the cost of development up, such that it is 1.2m RM ($400,000 AUD) for the most basic of units in a high density development one hour commute from the city centre. But Penang is the place to be ranking highly in the GDP earnings of the country, fast becoming the place for cashed up expat retirees and the Malaysian elite. Units on the northern shore of the island are often owned as holiday getaways for Malaysians living in other cities.

English is more proliferate here and spoken well by many locals and it is often the language that unites the many different races. This means that we are able to be let in on some really thoughtful discussion about Malaysia, where it is headed and what role Penang plays in that future. Penang is host to the country’s up-and-coming IT centre with high level manufacturing for electrical and electronic goods and a number of multinational IT companies locating their offices here, both fuelling the other big business – silicon chip manufacture. There is also debate about whether Malaysia will make the self-made target of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

Indian feast
We didn’t waste any time in taking the opportunity to feast on excellent quality Indian food. We started to call a number of eateries our ‘local’, indulging in rice, curry, raita, dahl and my personal favourite the freshly cooked roti’s. My order rarely comprised less than 2 roti’s and I was at risk of girth expansion due to these culinary experiences. 

We needed to get out and do some exercise, so we visited the Penang War Museum. It was located on the southern point of the island atop the hill at a former British fort that was built in anticipation of the Japanese War. Unfortunately for Malaysia it was promptly taken over by the Japanese for use as a POW camp with the surrender of Malaysia early in the campaign. Barracks, ammunition store rooms and an underground tactical centre located in concrete bunkers were fascinating. Also interesting to experience was the escape tunnels and ladders from the gun stores with a concrete tunnel 50cm high and 5m long that you crawled through to scale a vertical ladder up 9m to ground level, all creating a challenging route in event of an emergency.

We also took the physical challenge of scaling Penang Hill, a gruelling 5km uphill push in 33C to the 830m peak providing uninterrupted panoramic views of Penang Island. After the hot walk, we grabbed an ice tea with milk (my other addiction) and caught the historic 1923 built funicular back down the hill. Apparently you are supposed to catch the funicular up the hill and walk down, but we didn’t get the memo.

Penang was a fabulous island city to visit teeming with culture, history and things to do. It made for a great break from the boat ahead of commencing our slow trip back down the Malacca Strait.