Travel: Heritage jaunt

Penang’s heritage drive is commendable but SUBHADRA DEVAN feels it should extend to all areas, not just houses, food and artifacts

THE hospitality industry in Penang is one of the biggest revenue earners for the State. And heritage is a major draw, thanks to George Town’s listing as a world heritage site two years ago by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Penang and Malacca will celebrate their second anniversary as Unesco World Heritage Sites next Wednesday. I decided to revisit the island ahead of the celebration.

Glimpses Of The Past

As my group and I rode on the free, air-conditioned airport shuttle, Magazine Road, en route to Komtar, caught my eye. Along this road is a row of terraced shophouses built in the 1920s and 30s. Currently undergoing a facelift, the houses boast a colourful facade with flowers, birds and carved wooden doors.

This bus ride is fun. Remain on-board until the last stop at the jetty terminal and you can check out the changes Penang is undergoing.

Suffolk House

Our impromptu heritage tour called for a stop at Suffolk House, in an enclave on Jalan Ayer Itam that boasts the Goethe Institute and the Methodist Boys School. The school once used the house as its canteen. Today, it’s noisy during recess time as the school is still next door!

Suffolk House stands on what was once a pepper estate owned by Captain Francis Light, who took possession of the island for the British.

With the help of the Penang Heritage Trust, the State Government, HSBC and restoration architect Laurence Loh, Suffolk House was restored to its original 1800s glory as a Georgian manor.

The leaflet states that it stands as the finest Anglo-Indian mansion outside India. Today, it’s sought after as a themed venue for events. The restaurant is fine dining.

By the way, taxis didn’t go by the meter in the past and taxi drivers in Penang only started doing that last month.

Little India

Except for the restaurant, Suffolk House is closed at 7pm, so we went off to Little India, a much-vaunted heritage area. I bought an early Prem Joshua CD and wandered off to dinner at Karaikudi’s on Market Street. The food is Chettinad — terrific and cooked fresh. Dessert was a sizzling brownie with ice cream. That was a first for me!

Walk To Remember

You must remember that May is hot in Penang. I had promised my group that I would not take them out between noon and 3pm, but the E&O Hotel proved too relaxing. So, we sweated buckets in the noon day sun while checking out the Arulmigu Mahamariamman Temple with its sculptured gopuram boasting statues of Hindu deities on Queen Street.

It’s a narrow, busy street and one driver rolled down his window to say “hi!” What, no ride?!

That walk led on to a row of newly-painted Chinese heritage shophouses on Stewart Lane and Armenian Street. It’s a project undertaken by Bon Ton Langkawi.

A group of tourists in singlets and shorts at the entrance didn’t seem inviting enough so we went on in search of the Peranakan Museum on Leith Street.

The map said it was round the corner, but we passed through Harmony Street with its Kuan Yin Temple, another Hindu temple, a church and the Masjid Kapitan Keling.

We called it quits at Pitt Street and took a trishaw cycled by a friendly, wiry fellow who easily rode against traffic and over bumps (for which he made sound effects), and the museum loomed right before me in no time.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Our guide, a friendly Nepalese, said the Pinang Peranakan Mansion was the typical home of a rich Baba a century ago. It’s been recreated to offer a glimpse of their opulent lifestyles, customs and traditions. Built at the end of the 19th Century, it once served as the residence and office of Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee.

The visit offered some respite from the heat as did the Hainanese corner restaurant with its value-for-money meal.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

We wandered until we reached the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Leith Street. The famous Blue (and what a cobalt blue!) Mansion is also a boutique hotel. I remember it as a broken-down house in the 80s, reportedly haunted by addicts.

It looks resplendent today.

Restoration work on the mansion began in 1991. The restoration work won it the “Most Excellent Project” Unesco Asia-Pacific award for cultural heritage conservation.

The mansion was built by a rich Hakka, Cheong Fatt Tze, and was home to his third, sixth and seventh wives. Cheong was a feng shui believer, and everything is symmetrical inside the mansion. The direction of the wind, and how water was channelled as it passes through the house to ensure that the wealth is retained, were explained by the guide.

However, the guide was a bit too informative, especially about the marriage rites. Was it really necessary to talk in detail about the virginal state of the bride? The bridal bed was interesting enough, as it was dismantled till the next firstborn’s betrothal night!

Yeng Keng Hotel

A friend told me about Chulia Street’s newest hotel, the Yeng Keng Hotel. It was a bright, cheery place with its orange, emerald green and — again— cobalt blue shades. Very Indian for a Chinese clubhouse, I thought. Hotel manager Jacky Chun thought that was funny.

A bubbly, wiry person, he happily traipsed all over the hotel and showed off almost every room despite a light, and welcome drizzle.

I remember this hotel as a RM5 place to stay. In the 80s, it had small cardboard partitioned rooms available for, well, an hour’s pleasure!

Today, after its RM3 million upgrade and conservation by present owner Hoo Kim Properties Sdn Bhd which started last year, it is a stylish boutique hotel.

There is a history to be felt in the way the nooks, open-air courtyard and decorations have been conserved.

Chun says it is one of the oldest surviving intact buildings on this road. It was originally built in the mid-1800s as a private residence. The Anglo-Indian bungalow initially belonged to Shaik Eusoffe Shaik Latiff.

In 1897, trustees of the Cantonese club, Yin Han Pit Shu, bought the building on behalf of the association, later donating it to the trustees of the Straits Chinese British Association in 1939.

In the early 1900s, the building was leased to Yeng Keng Hotel, a trend for houses on that road then, as small places of lodgings conveniently reached from the harbour were in great demand.

To add grandeur, an impressive traditional Chinese entrance gate was constructed. It boasts painted swallows, among other motifs.

Chun says it is believed that swallows and other birds choose a safe place to fly to and nest in.

What stayed with me was the quaint charm of the Yeng Keng and Chulia suites. Each come with a small living room, a warm ambience, and plenty of history such as flower tiles and its opium heyday!

All 20 rooms have flat screen TV, en suite bathrooms, and king-sized beds. Five-star finishings and furnishings, but I found that the cobalt blue and emerald green in some of the rooms takes getting used to!

The new look Yeng Keng Hotel opened its doors this month, with room rates starting from RM350. Chun says there is a special rate till Aug 31.

Sorry End

We got a ride to the airport. But there was a last stop, at Brown Garden, to reveal a living heritage being destroyed at Kampung Buah Pala. It was terrible to see cattle left to starve as the last cowshed was demolished. All but nine of the temporary occupation licence holders received double-storey houses. But hey, where would the cattle go?

I left feeling that Penang’s heritage drive needs to extend to all areas, and not just houses, food and artifacts. Such a sorry end to a wonderful stay.

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