Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Friday, April 03, 2015

21. Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia

“The Pearl of the Orient “was the name given to Penang, an island just off the
Coming Into the Penang Habour
Peninsula of Malaysia with a good harbor for large vessels. We booked a tour around the island to give us an idea why this spot was so popular in colonial days. The main town, Georgetown, has a UNESCO city center and it is impressive. Many elaborate colonial homes, in the European or Chinese style, are still in use today. If it were not for the cars and scooters, one could make believe this was the year 1850 to 1898. Even on the outskirts of the downtown area, large mansions with large properties are kept in good repair, the whole of it oozing old style wealth. There were polo grounds, race tracks, golf clubs, tennis courts, prestigious schools, houses of worship, parks, arboretums, and everywhere signs of opulence and wealth abound. Definitely this was and still is an island of the rich. Old style mansions and office buildings are now used as government buildings. The area was well-to-do, no doubt about it.

Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee
The money came from the sale of spices, rubber, tin, rice and opium. Opium was a large part of the trade then. It commanded nice profits and made the dealers rich. In colonial days it was a legal, respectable business. Almost all business in colonial days was done by the Europeans using Chinese business connections. The Chinese connections only helped the British in Georgetown. Even today, Penang is almost 60% Chinese, 32% are Malay and only 7% are of Indian descent. The one percent left are the Europeans. Business in colonial days was done with the help of the Chinese Kapitans who were leaders of clans that commanded the larger Chinese community. Those Kapitans were the kingpins behind most trades in Asia at the time. Secret societies were formed by those Kapitans and all business flowed through their hands. Their wealth was legendary, their mansions and business offices, opulent.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

We visited the restored house of one of those men, the house of the Kaptain Chung Keng Kwee. His house, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, today holds over 1000 antiques and is a museum right in downtown Georgetown. There are other such houses such as the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion which received a UNESCO award in 2000. Another is the Khoo Kongsi. Chinese societies were plentiful and made lots of
Pinang Peranakan Mansion Dining Room
money. British businessmen had no problems with the Chinese workers or even the Malay or Indian worker. All the dirty work, all the labor issues, all the punitive actions were handled by those Kapitans, those Baba-Nyongas. The British dealt exclusively with their Kapitans. Finding the right secret society among the Chinese was the key to a successful British business. The clubs, golf, polo, tennis, etc were very helpful in making contacts. Deals were struck at those and other places.
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Naturally there was some infighting among the Chinese clans to secure British contacts, but that is another story. For me to see the display of colonial wealth, the greed and business acumen of years gone by, was mind blowing. I liked this part of our tour. I was intrigued by the concept and wonder if those practices of doing business in Asia have really been abandoned today. Why do I say Asia? Societies like these could still exist for some businesses and could even be
Pinang Peranakan Mansion
applied world wide. I think I am still very naive. Or I can not think in those terms well enough, especially with today's internet connections so freely available.

She Spoke No English But Was Happy
To Show Me Around

Beautiful Stained Glass Windows
Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Another Antique at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Outside Statuary so Some Weather Damage Evident at
Pinang Peranakan Mansion

More Antiques

Kek Lok Si Temple

The Kek Lok Si Temple was our next stop and 150 steep stairs led up to the complex. I huffed and puffed in the 34 C heat. So did Carol. I am not used to running up stairs, especially in humidity and blasting sunshine. This temple is situated on the side of a mountain with a wonderful view of Georgetown. The stupa, a 100 foot building, was built with funds from China, Malaysia and India. It represents the main ethnic groups now residing in Georgetown and their religious heritages.
Kek Lok Si Temple
Kek Lok Si Temple

Kek Lok Si Temple

Turtle Pond at Kek Lok Si Temple
Again, most Buddhas were painted gold and again there were hundreds of them in all kinds of poses, standing, sitting, sleeping and so on. This temple is one of the largest in South Asia and very colorful and extensive. The surrounding gardens are tranquil and hold a large turtle pond and some shrines. We had to climb down those stairs again to get back to the bus. Groan!
Golden Sands Resort

All this walking and climbing made me hungry. So luckily it was time for our buffet luncheon at the Golden Sands Resort along with other passengers on excursions today. This modern and impressive place was perfect for us; we ate the delicious food in a large dining room with a view of the beach. Driving up to the northern part of this island where all the hotels and new, expensive buildings are, made me realize that this part of Penang is the tourist area today.
Golden Sands Resort
Beautiful hidden beaches, hotels at the water’s edge, the latest designer looks from around the world, make this an international destination. Here among the newest posh, the latest fashion is the new Penang. Proximity to Kuala Lumpur via a new bridge makes Penang a great get-away today, a get-away from urbanization and a retreat into history. The drive to Kuala Lumpur is about 90 minutes without traffic, if such a thing exists in crowded Penang. Still people travel like this, even work in KL and live in Penang.

Butterfly Farm

Then off again to a butterfly farm. Thousands of flopping, winged creatures amid flowering bushes and trees greeted us. So active was this place with all the butterflies feeding all at once that it felt almost like frenzy. None of the insects would hold still for a good photo. All were busy fluttering about, searching for food. I am not an entomologist so I can not write much about the butterflies. For the right person this place however could be a 
Walking Stick Insect at the Butterfly Farm
goldmine in their search for the right species. The museum attached has a huge display of pinned butterflies in groups and assorted sizes and colors.

Butterfly Farm

Beautiful Gardens

The final stop on the way back to the ship was a “fruit” stand. Its specialty was  Nutmeg oil. We were given a small demonstration of the use of this oil for our health. Yet the smell alone would not be acceptable to most European or American noses. Even other oils, like clove oil or camphor did little to entice anybody to buy.

Durians were for sale, too. This fruit is an acquired taste. I tried a small piece of the durian and could not manage to like it. It is sweet but also stinks like rotten cheese. The saying here is that the sweet taste is like heaven and the stink of the fruit is like hell. To my taste it tasted like Limburger Cheese with a slight sweet flavor. Yuck!

I guess I like history, the Chinese Kaptain’s house was my best experience for the day.
Hey Buddy, Nice Tie
Penang is so large and so diverse; it would take serious study to understand all of Penang.

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