One visitor returns to Penang after 40 years and is warmly welcomed by both old comforts and modern changes
Recently, I returned to Penang with my spouse to rediscover the island. It’s been 40 years since my last visit. Penang was a favorite of my parents. They honeymooned here and, later, brought my sister and I to Batu Ferringhi on family holidays.
Penang today is an intriguing pastiche of new and old. On the cab ride from the airport to George Town, we saw spanking new high rise condominiums sparkling like stalagmites in the sunlight. There are the ubiquitous shopping malls populated with well known fashion brands. Ah, we thought, Penang has not escaped the blight of modern real estate development. We were not a little disappointed.
As our cab approached George Town, things looked more hopeful. The narrow streets and old shophouses looked untouched by the march of time: the covered walkways alongside the rows of shops with the treacherous, uneven floor; the open drains adjacent to the walkways; the idle shopkeepers perched on wooden stools looking as if the slightest effort was too much in the tropical heat. The entire scene looked familiar and nostalgic. If time travel were possible, it would be like this. I would press a button and be transported 40 years back in time to George Town.
Not surprisingly, even in George Town, there are patches of modernisation. Many boutique hotels dot the old town like Campbell House where we stayed and Seven Terraces where we had dinner. In both establishments, the owners have lovingly restored the buildings, preserving the look and feel of elegant living in old Penang. Ceilings are 15 feet high, doors and windows are shielded by wooden latticework, and, in the case of Campbell House, luggage is hauled up three floors from lobby to guest rooms by a rope and pulley system.
If George Town was the epicenter of human life and commerce in old Penang, then Penang Hill was where the denizens of old Penang went to escape life and commerce. Up on the peak, the temperature is mercifully cooler and bricks and cement are replaced with monkeys and lily pads.
We ascended Penang Hill late one afternoon so we could take pictures in the soft dusky light. Today, the ascent is accomplished by a state-of-the-art funicular that climbs the hill in a speedy 5 minutes. Along with a throng of holiday-makers, we spilled out of the funicular and immediately felt soothed. The air was fresh and cool and there was greenery everywhere. We headed to Strawberry Hill where we had high tea at David Brown’s. Sitting on the outdoor terrace, looking out on a pond filled with lilies and tall rushes, and sipping Darjeeling tea, we fancied ourselves English lords at our country estate. That is until the mosquitoes started to bite as the evening light faded.
Every friend we told we were planning a visit to Penang uttered the same 2 words: “The Food!” Indeed there’s food everywhere in Penang, but the best local food is found in the most uncomfortable places.
Sharon, manager of Campbell House, tipped us off on a cluster of local food vendors located on a side street off Jalan Penang. In a cramped shop with pockmarked floor can be found some of the best local fare: char kway teow, popiah, pai tee. As we approached the shop, the fragrant smell of garlic sautéed in an open wok over a charcoal fire told us we were on to a good thing.
As good as the food is in the shop, the real action is outside the shop at a street cart. Billing itself as a seller of Teochew chendul, this cart is a star attraction on the local food scene. I freely admit I patronised this cart every single day of our visit; so enamored was I of the sweet, cold, creamy dessert it sold.
On each visit, there was a line of customers waiting patiently to be handed a bowl of chendul by the cheerful, bantering seller. Bowl and spoon in hand, customers would step to the side and eat standing on the street, oblivious of the surrounding traffic and heat. With dessert this good, ambience and comfort are of no importance.
I grew up in Singapore and now live in San Francisco. I visit family in Singapore regularly. The city is a modern metropolis, transformed beyond recognition from the island of my boyhood. The Singapore I knew is lost forever, but when I visit Penang, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time to the place Singapore was 40 years ago. I feel like I’ve come home.