“Neither the mainland nor the adjacent islands attracted any interest in this country till the East India Company acquired Pinang in 1775, Province Wellesley in 1798, Singapore in 1823, and Malacca in 1824. These small but important colonies were consolidated in 1867 into one Government under the Crown, and are now known as the Straits Settlements, and prized as among the most valuable of our possessions in the Far East.”
Isabella Bird, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither
Echoes of Singapore
There is an eerie familiarity to Penang. From the street names, to the facades of its buildings, to the diversity of peoples that populate the state capital of Georgetown, one is reminded of Singapore, albeit a ghostly version existing in a kind of alternate reality; almost as though, when British colonial rule ended in 1957 and the Federation of Malaya was formed, the clocks in the city simply stopped ticking, and the entire city was left in state. The impression one gets when walking the streets of this one-time jewel of the British Empire’s territories in the Malay Archipelago, is that Penang is the Singapore that could have been, however one wishes to interpret these words. Penang’s story is indelibly linked to that of Singapore, though the reverse is not necessarily true. At least not any more.
Thankfully, this does not mean that Penang is the inferior cousin. Although if you ask most Singaporeans, they would probably tell you Penang was “stuck in the ‘60s,” that “things don’t change there,” and that “Penang has nothing Singapore doesn’t have,” except (and this one exception they admit most readily) “much better food.” The reality is that Penang is its own fascinating creature, despite, or perhaps because the soul of Singapore haunts its every street corner, where this same soul has long since disappeared in Singapore itself. Penang is an immensely more complex, dazzling and beguiling Singapore. Where Singapore has become a product, a lifestyle and a brand, Penang remains an experience, a journey, and a history.
With its wealth of traditional and colonial heritage both built and intangible, Penang has a much stronger claim to being a microcosm of Asia than its brash cousin down South. You see this richness everywhere. Each time you turn a corner on its marvellously chaotic streets, you stumble upon a Chinese temple, a Hindu temple, a mosque, a church or all four. When you look upon the faces of passers-by and read the names of the streets and the buildings around you, you find evidence that every creed and ethnicity Europe and Asia have to offer have quite possibly passed through these shores. In 2008, Penang, together with Malacca, were recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, due to their being exemplary examples of multi-cultural trading towns with many layers of history. In particular, emphasis was placed on their being showcases of living heritage – embodied not just in the continued daily use of many heritage buildings, but also in the observance of many traditional customs, practices and lifestyles of the various ethnicities that share the city. Incidentally, Penang, Malacca and Singapore were once part of a triumvirate of British colonial port cities along the Malacca Straits, collectively known as the Straits Settlements. Singapore’s exclusion from UNESCO’s recognition goes far to underscore just how different its priorities are from its once-sister cities and how deep Singapore’s estrangement from Malaysia continues to run.
Penang lives up to its living heritage mantle. Strolling along the crumbling, often deserted, but always fascinating five-foot ways, one gets the feeling that behind the closed doors and the walls with their faded paintwork the Penangites live their age-old lives and worship their ancient deities, with scant regard for the occasional tourists that peer nervously through inadvertent cracks in the façade. One intimates that the city is a trove of (hi)stories handed down from generation to generation, but privy only to citizens, born and bred. A calm, somewhat aloof reticence pervades, bolstered by a palpable though under-stated sense of self-confidence and assurance. This is in stark contrast to Singapore, where everything is laid out before you in garish combinations of neon, glass and steel; where an increasingly towering and aspirational urban landscape belies a deep insecurity about the meaning of “Singapore” itself. Asia’s Global City! blares Singapore’s promotional machinery, while the Penangites watch silently, bemused, as if to say: Sorry, I believe Penang still holds that title. But go ahead and pretend if it makes you feel better.
Singapore is simply too transparent. Singapore, you can see right through. Penang, however, you may scrutinise lingeringly, repeatedly, over the course of years, and yet only manage to catch but furtive glimpses of the truth behind the colour and shadows. If Singapore were personified, he would be a professional in his early 30s, dressed in a business suit and accessorized with spectacles, briefcase and a nervous tic. And Penang? She – for it would always be she in my mind – would be a matriarch in the prime of her life, stunningly accoutred in a green and gold kebaya – the traditional dress of the Straits Chinese – with a matching pearl necklace and hand-embroidered bead slippers. The very picture of elegance and authority, she would wield a firm hand over a household of wayward sons, of which the suited-up Singapore would be her eldest. Penang’s story is that of Singapore, but only because Singapore was made by and through Penang, whereas Penang, well… there simply isn’t any equivalent.
My Grand Tour of Southeast Asia thus starts here in Penang precisely because of the complicated, entwined mother-son relationship the two cities have; because my final destination being the son, it is appropriate to begin with the mother; and because the story of the fabled colonial hotels of Southeast Asia actually begins here in 1885, with the Eastern & Oriental Hotel – also the mother to that most quintessential grand colonial hotel of them all – the Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
 Five-foot ways, a traditional architectural feature of colonial era shophouses in all three cities of the Straits Settlements, are a recessed, sheltered pedestrian walk-ways on the ground floor, that are so-called due to their being supposedly five feet in width.
 The Straits Chinese are the descendants of sea-faring Chinese who emigrated to the Malay Archipelago in the 14th century (during the Ming Dynasty), along with the fabled treasure fleets of Admiral Cheng Ho. Having inter-married across the centuries with the indigenous Malays, they have evolved a kind of hybrid culture and language that mixes Chinese and Malay traditions. They are also known as Peranakan or Baba / Nonya, Baba referring to men and Nonya to women.