Simon Wilcox - writer and editor
A bowl of noodles puts Simon on the trail of Penang’s cultural heritage
They emerged unsmiling from behind a veil of steam: the old Chinese woman soaking a steel ladle full of noodles into a cauldron of boiling water; a young man cutting the cooked noodles with a pair of scissors, throwing them into bowls which he then scattered with pieces of pre-cooked chicken, pork or shrimp before finally splashing in a large spoonful of pungent gravy.
The Hokkien mee stall on Chulia Street in Penang was doing a roaring trade the night I arrived on board a ferry with only two concerns on my mind – finding a bed for the night and finding something to eat. I found the first at the Malaysia Hotel, a functional 1950s-built hostelry which, nonetheless, afforded fantastic views of the terracotta roofs of Georgetown, Penang’s waterfront capital; and the second at the little makan (food) stall that had taken up its nightly position on the city’s main thoroughfare, jostling for business with all the other culinary delights of the hot, fragrant Malaysian night – fried kuay cheow, assam laksa, mee goring and that king of all fast foods, roti canai.
The reason for this amazing range of cuisine became evident from the place names on the tourist map of this small island suspended off the northwest coast of the Malaysian peninsula that I spread out on my bed the following morning. Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, the Khoo Kongsi temple, Kampung Malabar – a mix of different communities weaving themselves into the lush green fabric of this tropical island over the centuries. Armed with my map, I headed out into the morning heat.
Five minutes later, I was back on Chulia St. The name refers to the Indian people of the ancient Tamil kingdom of Chola who originally settled in the area in the early nineteenth century; but now the street is dominated by Chinese shophouses. Travel agencies, internet cafes, heritage hotels, coffee shops, backpacker hostels, book dealers, money changers – everywhere I looked, business beckoned.
Not everybody was doing a good trade. A rattan furniture seller was fast asleep on one of his chairs as I passed by; an old, well-weathered Chinese woman was smoking languidly behind a counter in her empty porcelain shop; and a heavy iron grill barred any attempt at entering the signboard and picture frame maker, Sengleys.
Still, the Lam Keong Textile Company seemed to be busy enough as it faced off its fabric rivals up the road, the Fazal Mohammed Brothers; and the Pak Hock coffee shop was heaving with lunchtime customers in search of its Penang Famous Chicken Rice.
Places of worship
The mercantile character of the street began to evaporate, however, when I reached its crossroads with Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. Keling is a reference to early refugees from the Indian kingdom of Kalinga, and the ringing of bells and burning of incense at a Hindu temple on the corner signalled that I had arrived in an area where the transactions were more spiritual than material. My map confirmed it, identifying that this little place of worship was on a street flanked at one end by a mosque and, at the other, by an old British colonial church, with various mosques and Chinese temples in-between.
Scores of worshippers were milling around the entrance of the Sri Mahamariamman temple that morning, some leaving, some arriving at the large doorway which was topped by a gaudy sculpture depicting, as I read later, 38 Hindu gods and goddesses, and four swans.
I moved on, lured by the magnificent minarets and domes of the Kapitan Kling Mosque, a hundred or so steps away; and shortly after that, I surrendered myself to the honeycomb of streets and different ordinations and shrines that surrounded it. One moment I was underneath the decaying plasterwork of a minaret on Acheen Street, watching troops of young girls in their burkas heading for prayer at the Friday Mosque; then, a few steps further on, I was mixing with the devotees of a Taoist temple, holding clumps of smoking incense sticks between their palms in silent ritual.
And then, suddenly, after stumbling into a passageway leading off Acheen St or Cannon St or Armenian St, I wasn’t really sure, I was in the courtyard of the Khoo Kongsi.
Two green stone lions in the middle of the square heralded what some say is the grandest Chinese clan temple in Malaysia – an ornate pillared structure reached by four flights of steps. Another staircase led to a terrace fringed with wrought iron work and embellished with scores of hanging lanterns and then, a little further on, led into the cavernous opening of the temple’s main hall.
I stepped inside, and found myself in a central hall full of black and gold and red: golden dragons climbing up black wooden columns; golden lanterns with red lettering on them; flying goddesses and lion faces peeping out of red wall projections; great black doors inlaid with golden panels; and black Chinese characters on plaques of golden leaf.
I hung around for a while, sauntering into the ancestral hall of the Khoo clan which had arrived on the Malay peninsula generations before they built their temple here in the mid-nineteenth century, until a sound suddenly broke into my reverie, soft and muffled at first, quavering in the far-off distance, but growing in resonance in each moment, something strange, something sonorous.
It was the call to prayer from the Kapitan Keling Mosque. I stumbled out into the daylight again, and back into the sapping tropical heat.
“Opera tonight, lah. It’s free. Come along,” said a middle-aged Chinese man who appeared by the opera stage at the far side of the courtyard as I walked past. And now behind the curtains on the stage I could see actors puckering their lips and raising their eyebrows to apply their make-up.
I returned at around eight that evening to find the temple looking even more beautiful than it had done during the day. Golden lanterns lit up the effulgence of carvings on the terrace. Above the terrace, in the darkness of the night, I could just make out the swoop of the majestic red-tiled, gable roof.
On the far side of the square, the Chinese opera was in full swing, even though only a handful of people had come to watch. On stage, there was a great banging of drums and clashing of cymbals. There was a graceful singer in blue chintzy robes, and a sort of mother figure dressed in peach who strode purposefully and rather menacingly up and down the boards, and then a clown-like character wearing a distinctive patch of make-up around his nose and eyes, who screeched and wailed a lot. I couldn’t make head or tail of it; but gradually the soaring spectacle and swirling musical prosidy of a language I did not understand began to weave some sort of spell.
I ended the evening eating roti canai – Indian flatbread served up with a curry sauce – at a roadside stall, my mind running over the day’s events. When I turned out the light that night amid the functional browns of the Malaysia Hotel and fell into a deep sleep, my dreams took me back to the tumbling reds and clashing golds of the Khoo Kongsi.
This article is based on a visit I made to Penang in 2011. It was my fifth visit to the island, which, due to its amazingly diverse cultural heritage, remains one of my favourite places on the planet.