April 10, 2020

Penang: Where the streets have many names

Penang. Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The UNESCO World Heritage City of George Town in Penang is a place where the streets have many names. Charming. quixotic and evocative - and in Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and Tamil. These colloquial nuggets make for a perfectly quirky way to explore its rich multicultural streets.

Words: Eugene Ng. Reproduced with kind permission of Malaysia Airlines

Penang Street: Yeap, he's rich

The reason why the local Hokkiens call a section of Penang Street kau keng choo (nine houses) is a testament to the Chinese reverence for wealth and status. ln the '1 8BOs, a row of nine opulent townhouses stood at the northern end of the road. This was then considered a prestigious address, as it was close to the 'European District' and thus a status symbol. Yeap Chor Ee built nine houses here. ln a row. Hence the name of the street. 

Today, only three of those nine shophouses remain in its full Straits Eclectic splendour and they front The House of Yeap Chor Ee (4 Penang Street Tel +604264 50BB Opens 1 1 .30am-3pm, 6-l0.30pffit6.losedSundays), a museum gallery set up in tribute by one of the founder's grandsons, Dato Sri Steven Yeap. The family once lived in these very houses but they now contain the family's ancestral tablets and some fine examples of Straits Chinese furniture and antiques. Yeap Chor Ee was the only man to have ever single-handedly funded the establishment of a bank in that era, Ban Hin Lee Bank. 

You have to enter the museum through The Sire, located at the back on King Street, as only diners at this fine-dining Western restaurant are allowed free admission to the museum upstairs. And as if to further underline Yeap's legacy on the island, this section of King Street used to be called kau keng choo au (back of the nine houses). 

Back to Penang Street, do pop by Water Drop Tea House (1 6 Penang Street Tel +604 263 5300 Opens 9am- 5pm, till 3pm weekends, closed on Monday) for a vegetarian meal, tea or some Buddhist literature, As you walk south, you will come across a couple of smaller clan temples, then sadly, the now-defunct Yin Oi Tong (82A-82C Penang Street), the oldest Chinese medical hall in South East Asia (1796) before the street takes on a distinctly Indian flavour. The locals used to ll this section chetty kay (Chetty road) for obvious reasons, 

Right at the end, almost tucked away from sight, is the Nagore Shrine, a Tamil-Muslim memorial of a South Indian saint. And on the left of the shrine on the side of King Street, you can buy a traditional songkok from OSM Mohd Shariff (1 57, King Street Tel +604 263 1290), who still makes this religious Islamic headgear bent over an old-fashioned sewing machine; Haji Mohideen is the last songkok maker on the island 

Queen Street: let's get literal

It should be obvious by now that the Hokkiens were not particularly imaginative when it came to street naming. At the same time, it is not hard to be charmed by just how endearingly literal they could be. Queen Street used to be called chapiee keng choo (12 houses) for the 12 identical shophouses that apparently once stood here. The Malay name for the road, gedung rumput or grass warehouse, hints at another facet of its past. 

Queen Street today is a vibrant living street. lt ts predominantly lndian and has been for over two centuries with the epicentre being the Arulmigu Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, an 1833 South lndian Dravidian-style temple with a colourful gopuram (tower) that peeks out from above the rooftops. 

The street is also home to a couple oi the islandS surviving, craftsman of yore. M Thana's Goldsmith (36 Queen Street) still hand tools gold jewellery in traditional Indian designs. The jeweller, M Raju (who named the shop after his wife), is another dying breed, as unlike machined tooled jewellery, each piece that he creates is a unique labour of love, skill and passion

Peer into the workshop of Kok Ying Chow (41 Queen Street Tel +604 262 9754) and it might seem that time has stood still. In a darkened room, Chinese calligraphic wooden plaques lay stacked flat on the floor or up against the walls. At the front, the wizened signboard maker 'demonstrates his craft (if he is there for those who care to watch You can order one bearing your name (in Chinese) for around RM150. The calligrapher was one of the recipients of the Penang Heritage Trust-HSBC Living Heritage Treasure of Penang award so it will be a little bit of history in your hands.

Muntri Street Stewart Lanes: The streets illicit

As many of these street names are only remembered through oral history, there are a few whose origin or context are still debated about. Case in point: Muntri Street and Stewart Lane. Both have been referred to as 'Mistress Lane' though neither with any certainty or conviction

Walking from the west on Muntri Street, you will first come across the modest Hainan Association & Temple that dates back to 1895. This is a quiet street, with a lot of empty shophouses though many still have beautiful their Straits Eclectic facades intact (from the late 1800s and early 1900s). Jin Xiu Art Gallery and Tea House (58 Muntri Street) is housed in one of these shoplots Gorgeously restored, it serves Nyonya cuisine and is also in the business of promoting local Penang artists as well as specialty teas and its related paraphernalia

This street is also where two major Penang hospitals were founded. The first, Lam Wah Ee, was built in 1883 but destroyed during the Second World War but the older generation of Hokkiens still call the street Lam Wah Ee kay (street) in memory of it. The other, Adventist Hospital (1924), is now a hotel. Many trade guilds and associations like the Association of Chinese Physicians (71 Muniri Street) also made their home here as did famous 19th-century Baba-Malay novelist Chan Kim Boon or Batu Gantong (1851-1920) who lived in No 75.

Muntri Street leads straight into Stewart Lane whose main and only - point of interest is the fabulous new boutique hotel Straits Collection (47-55 Stewart Lane, 89-95 Armenian Street Tel +604 263 7299 www.straitscollection.com.my). Owned and managed by the folks from Bon Ton Resort and Temple Tree in Langkawi, this is the perfect way to completely immerse yourself in the whole George Town experience. Comprising nine shophouses in all (with four at nearby Armenian Street), this part of the hotel features three three-bedroom suites, all a paragon of good solid restoration work and perfect examples of how modernisation and old-world charm can co-exist. Two others have been converted into The Reading Room, and Kopi Cine, a modern cafe serving coffees, frappes, cakes and fusion bistro-style dinners.

Armenian Street: A walk in time 

While Armenian Street's Hokkien name may be a little mundane, pak thang'a kay (copper beating road), this two-part street is one of the most charming in all of George Town. The four units of the Straits Collection here provide a far more quaint experience than at Stewart Lane if for the mere fact that this area is still active with the sights and sounds of normal everyday life. Of the four, the middle units are both complete houses while the two bookends have one-bedroom apartments above two retail outlets Bon Ton The Shop and China Joes.

The Sun Yat Sen Penang Base (120 Armenian Street Tel +604 262 0123 Opens 10am-2pm, closed on Sunday Admission RM3) is a major highlight here. It was only discovered as recently as 1992 that this very building was used by the 'father of modern China' Sun Yat Sen as his headquarters while here planning the Canton Uprising in 1910; an intriguing stop where hours can be spent as secrets and political intrigue from the past come tumbling out. 

The Penang Islamic Museum (128 Armenian Street Tel +604 262 0172 Opens 9am-5pm, closed Tuesdays Admission RM3 www.penangislamicmuseum.net) and the extraordinarily ornate Yap Kongsi and Ciji Temple (corner of Armenian and Cannon), are also worth a visit. The museum traces the history, development and influence of Islam in Penang, in and around the area of Acheen Street. The building in which it is housed the Syed Al-Attas Mansion - is also a fine example of mid-1800s Islamic architecture and was believed to have been used as a secret base for the Achehnese leaders during their fight against the Dutch. 

Khoo Kongsi (Tourism Malaysia)

Take a short detour onto Cannon Street to view the poster child of Penang tourism, Khoo Kongsi (18 Cannon Street Tel +604 261 4609 Opens 9am-5pm www.khookongsi.com.my), the most lavish and breathtaking of all the island's clan houses. Then continue along Armenian's wending ways and explore a host of new art galleries.

Or if you rather, get a further glimpse of Penang's golden past by making a pair of Nyonya Beaded Shoes (4 Armenian Street Tel +6016 454 3075) or get a shave at Hwa Bee Barbers (unnumbered, same row as Hock Teik Cheng Sin or Tua Pek Kong Temple) by possibly Malaysia's one and only lady barber who fiercely stared down our numerous requests to photograph her with a flick of her wrist.

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For guided walking tours of the island's major heritage sites, contact the Penang Heritage Trust (26 Church Street Tel +604 264 263'l www.pht.com.my), or simply pick up the ubiquitous George Town World Heritage Site Map, easily available from just about everywhere and explore by foot on your own. If you would like to know more about the old vernacular names of George Town streets, look out for the blue signboards (posted by the Penang Heritage Trust) at the start/end of each street which list all the known versions in various languages. 

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