As our days in Malaysia drew to a close, our last stop was Georgetown. As our previous stop had been in our least favorite Malaysian city, Kuala Lumpur (KL), we had hoped that Georgetown would have us leaving the country on a high point. We were not disappointed.
Georgetown was founded in 1786 by the British colonial founder (Captain Francis Light) who acquired rights to Penang from a Malay Sultan and established it as a sheltered trading port on the Malaccan straits. He declared the city of Georgetown as its capital and laid out the original grid pattern around which the city was built. The city grew quickly as a trading hub. Then came the discovery of tin and and the American Civil War which fueled the tin market (America needed huge supplies of tin to package food for soldiers in the field).
The tin trade became so profitable that the Chinese clan fights over rights to the tin concession prompted something of a Malay Chinese civil war (the secret society wars of 1867) that almost overwhelmed the colonial government’s ability to restore peace. The tin trade, combined with the establishment of rubber plantations and a huge influx of new settlers–especially Chinese–created a population surge that caused the city to overflow its original grid. Swamplands were filled, the waterfront was extended and the city literally exploded into the largest and richest of the Malacca straits trade centers. It overtook Malacca before itself being overtaken by Singapore.
This resulted in a very wealthy city in which different neighborhoods had–and still retain–very different characters. for example:
- The Esplanade and Light Street are the oldest colonial sections of town.The port is dominated by a rebuilt version of the original Fort Cornwallis and many of the majestic early-19th-century administration buildings including, the Supreme Court, State Assembly Building, the Town Hall and the ornate Colonial-style City Hall (which is undergoing a much needed restoration).
- Lebuth Pantal (formerly Beach Street) whose head is marked by the grand Queen Victoria Clock tower, was the original colonial commercial district with grand bank,trail and department store buildings.
- Chinatown, with its shophouses, mansions of rich Hokkien Chinese traders and huge, clan temples which were the strongholds of the Chinese secret societies.
- Jalad Masjid Kapitan Keling (Formerly Pitt Street) is home to many of the town’s oldest churches, mosques, and Chinese and Hindu temples.
- Muslim section, around the Kapita. Sling Mosque – also, the Syed Alatas Mansion, now the Islamic Museum
- Little India, in the section around the Sri Maha Mariammen Temple, especially with all the fresh flowers and garlands (in celebration of the Hindi New Year) in the stores and stalls.
And, beyond the city center:
- Penang Hills, which people quickly moved to to escape the swamps, were initially largely reserved for important civil servants and citizens, with the peak becoming the site of the governor’s residence. Then, in the 1820s, the lower slopes were opened to lower level Malay and Chinese commissioners
We wanted to drill deeper into 2 city highlights but fait inspired against us as they were closed on the only day we were able to visit them:
- Penang Museum, which provides a detailed history of Penang and its commercial, cultural and artistic development; and
- Khoo Kongsi clan complex, which displays the grandeur and explains the history of the powerful Penang Hokkien clan, including its role in trade, as well as in preserving Confucian traditions and in shaping a unique Penang Hokkien culture.
Of well. Making lemonade out of lemons, we consoled ourselves by visiting two historic homes:
- Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, (aka the Blue Mansion) home of the wealthiest Panang Chinese shipping magnate. The expensive, painstaking restoration of the huge (built around five courtyards) original mansion (which won an UNESCO Cultural Heritage award) showed exactly the way it looked 1900s and the period furnishings, including some of the family’s furniture and clothes painted a vivid picture (especially with the original indigo exterior) of the period. The story of the family–the master, his eight wives and innumerable children–was also interesting; especially in how he incorporated only his seventh wife (his favorite) and six children in his will and mandated that the remainder of his vast estate be held in trust until the last of his other children died. We were surprised that none of the heirs tried to kill the last child in order to get the money faster. But while the heirs waited to inherit, the one relative who lived in the house “rented” portions of the house out to multiple families who caused a lot of damage. Fortunately, money can cure a lot of damage . This was also the place where the movie “Indochine” was filmed.
- Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which displays the Baba Nyonya home of a wealthy mine owner and the private collection of antiques and jewelry. Although it was not as impressive as the Malacca Peranakan Mansion tour. Even so, it did portray the lavish lifestyle of these wealthy merchants and emphasized the blending of Chinese sensibilities, Malay tastes and British lifestyles of this privileged class. It explained how the children of these merchants went to British schools and often returned for careers in the colonial administration. It’s easy to see why Perankan were known as "the Queen’s Chinese."
Hotel and Restaurants
Of course, no visit to any city for us is complete without good food and a comfortable place to stay. First, the hotel.
Seven Terraces Hotel is one of those boutique hotel gems that we periodically run into. The owners bought 9 old dilapidated 19th century Chinese shophouses in the middle of the UNESCO historic area in Georgetown and turned them into this beautiful small boutique hotel that won a UNESCO Award of Distinction for its renovation. It is called Seven Terraces because they originally bought 7 houses, but added 2 additional ones to it. The rooms surround an open courtyard, giving one the sense of space and peace. While it is mostly new construction (the structures on the properties were in extremely bad shape and there was little that could be saved), it has been constructed in a somewhat traditional style. Our room was 2 stories. The bottom floor is the “living room”, and bathroom. You then ascended a set of stair to get to a very comfortable bedroom loft. Beautiful hardwood floors, nice linens and comfortable bed. The mini bar was free and contained water and some juices. While we can’t say much for the comfort of the traditional wooden bench in the living room (we think it must be something one gets used to over time), we also had 2 very comfortable upholstered chairs.
The bathroom was really very interesting. It was a huge room that ran the entire width of the room. On one side was a sink, on the other side the toilet. In between was the rains-shower in the middle of the large room. One entire side of the bathroom faces the street with shutters that could be opened to let the light in as well as frosted glass to allow light in while still providing privacy
The owners and staff were extremely helpful and pleasant. When the owner saw Joyce looking for a mystery book on the book shelf, he offered to check his books at home to see if he could find an appropriate book. The only nits were very minor and would not prevent us from very highly recommending this place:
- For new construction, we were surprised to not find any spare power outlets by the bed to plug in our cell phones (which we use for our clocks)
- Call us old fashion, but we still like having a bar of soap. We understand why hotels supply liquid soap, but we had to break into our own bar of soap which we carry for such occasions.
In addition to the hotel, it also has an excellent restaurant Kebaya Restaurant and lounge (and Bar) (you knew we’d get around to the food and wine). The meal was a fixed price 4-course meal, where you could choose from several sections. We got to taste many things as each of us choose different items. Not surprisingly due to the pricing, it seemed that most of the guests were tourists. Many seemed to be staying out our hotel, but we did see several parties entering from the street—either they were staying at other hotels or were wealthier locals. Although more expensive that the more local spots, it was still reasonably priced for us, with the entire meal, including wine costing about $100. We had:
- Ban Xeo, crispy wafers stuffed with shredded chicken, bean sprouts, crispy tofu, dried shrimp and stir-fried vegetables with tamarind sauce;
- Miang Khan, shrimp, toasted coconut, lime, cashews and salmon roe wrapped in a Betelnut leaf;
- Grilled barramundi with lemongrass and garlic sauce;
- Wild prawns in turmeric and lemongrass curry;
- Vegetable tempura with sugar snap peaks, enoki mushrooms, yams and beans;
- Passion fruit and coconut panna cotta with candied pistachios; and
- Pandan creme Brulee with pandan essence and brandy snaps.
OMG. Everything was cooked perfectly, the sauces were delicate and the combinations divine. When you combine this with the atmosphere, the service, the live classical pianist and nice bottle of wine (Chilean Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc), followed by an after dinner single malt scotch (MacCallum 18) at the bar for Tom and more wine for Joyce, its tough to think of a better way to spend an evening. Best of all, we only had to stagger upstairs to our room.
As we were only her for a day, we only had one other meal available—lunch. We were told that many of the restaurants in town had a large local patronage. If the tourists disappeared, they would/could still exist. Those are the best kind of places to eat at!
Our hotel had suggested several different places to eat. We ended up at Sin Kheng Aun. This tiny eight tables place was very informal with plastic chairs and plates. The front area for guests, was open to the street and the kitchen was in the back. It was an Hainanese restaurant that was highly recommended by our hotel. But Tom never takes anyone’s recommendation at face value and always has to check out the menus of any place. When we stopped by the previous day and asked for a menu, the proprietor responded with a curt "no menu", and then turned away. OK, that was a little turn off, but our hotel urged us to return so we did. This time the proprietor asked us what we liked to eat, the level of spice and the type of sauces. He recommended (and we ordered)
- Pork fry with what tasted like a rich molasses and cinnamon gravy;
- Chicken with ginger sauce;
- Egg Foo Young (no, not that stuff you get in the US. This was very tasty).
True, the chicken had grizzle and the pork was not the best cut. However, service was fast and efficient and the sauces really made the dishes. A very good lunch for less than $10–including a large bottle of tiger beer, we couldn’t complain.