Once again the travel has gotten the best of us. Since October 10 I've been in Singapore for 7 days. First Germany, then the US, then Malaysia. Germany was work and the US was a wedding (Congratulations Kristen and Tim!!), both without Kyle. But Malaysia was together for fun.
We spent a long holiday weekend (Hari Raya) in Penang, an island off the Western coast of Malaysia near the Thai border. The island was formally handed over to the British East India Company in 1791 although the British had a trade presence there since 1771. The island was briefly the capital of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Melaka) but lost that honor to Singapore soon after. Like Singapore, the island was a major trade hub (especially Chinese opium) and at one time had a dramatic reputation for brothels, gambling, and Chinese secret societies.
The Straits Settlements were dissolved in 1946 and Penang joined the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and became one of Malaysia's 13 states in 1963. Today the island is still heavily Chinese, and its major town, Georgetown, is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
It's about an hour flight from Singapore, so it seemed perfect for a weekend getaway and a chance to expand our Malaysia experience, since so far all of it has been underwater. Our friends Amanda and Reuben (who have often generously loaned us their underwater camera) joined us.
We arrived late Friday night but were up on Saturday morning to explore Georgetown. We wandered around the city all day taking in various bits of culture and history. We goofed off at Fort Cornwallis, the fort established by Captain Light when he claimed the island as a trade post for the East India Company.
Cannons line the walls of the fort pointing toward the strait and the Malaysian mainland, but the most important cannon faces the north coast. It's named Seri Rambai and it was cast in 1603 by the Dutch and given to the Malay Sultan of Johor. At one point it was stolen by pirates and was sunk, but then floated (?!?) up out of the water and ended up at the fort.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion (not sure why it's spelled Pinang...) is a gorgeous restored home with an open courtyard in the middle. The house belonged to a 19th-century merchant, secret society leader and community pillar and his wealth is definitely on display. "Peranakan" or "Straits Chinese" or "Baba-Nyonya" are all roughly terms for the Chinese communities of the Straits Settlements. They were the descendants of Chinese traders that came to Malaya in the 15th and 16th centuries and then created their own unique rich cultural blend of Malay, Chinese, and Colonial British traditions.
The house had some really gorgeous carvings, porcelain, tapestries, and artifacts. This huge old music box was one of Kyle's favorites. It's the size of a piece of furniture.
From there, we headed to visit a few kongsis, or Chinese clanhouse, an overseas hub for members of the same clan or extended family. A kongsi is a compound, not one building, and served as assembly hall, civic and religious center. The Khoo Kongsi played a role in violent rioting in Penang in 1867 when a street war broke out between two Chinese secret societies. Cannons were fired from Khoo Kongsi down the street (Cannon Street now).
The Khoo Kongsi represents a wealthy clan and the wealth is evident in the temple, Chinese opera stage, carvings, and decor.
Apparently it was meant to be even more ostentatious. The roof caught fire the night it was completed in 1901--an event that was chalked up to divine jealousy.
From the kongsi, we wandered down to the jetties to see how the rest of the clans lived. As a world class port, a huge community grew up around the jetties on Penang's Eastern coast with communities of Chinese living in floating and stilt houses along the water, constantly unloading goods and people--both legal and illegal--from the junks crowding the water. Some of the clan jetties were destroyed by Japanese bombing during WWII, but a few survived and are low income, but still active, watery neighborhoods.
Of course there was also plenty of wandering though the streets taking in different aspects of Malaysia's cultural mix--Indian, Malay Muslim, Chinese--ducking into shops, soaking up the sun, and eating.
After a gorgeous day and over a huge Chinese dinner on Saturday night, Reuben decided to "face his fears" (his words, not mine). Which meant Sunday we were getting out of town...