Why George Town and Melaka, the two 500-year-old townships, seem like beautifully curated open-air museums

Two historic Malaysian settlements

By Sandip Hor

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Published: Thu 28 Jul 2022, 7:38 PM

While connecting with the history, culture, art and architecture of George Town and Melaka, I could sense a bit of harmless rivalry between the residents of these two 500-year-old Malaysian townships on the Straits of Malacca. Recognising their multi-cultural heritage, both were declared Unesco World Heritage sites at the same time in 2008 and the rivalry stems from their claim of one being better than the other. However, that didn’t matter to me at all. Both struck me equally impressive as two wonderfully curated open-air museums with leftovers and cultural treasures of the early settlers — Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Europeans — mainly the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

Both settlements are strategically located on the Straits of Malacca and evolved around the 16th century as bustling trading outposts connecting the East and West. The architectural setup that greets eyes today and the cultural medley that drowns visitors bear testimony to a living heritage reflecting the fusion of cultural elements from the Malay Archipelago, India and China with those of Europe, to create a unique architecture, culture and townscape.

George Town is the capital of Penang, an island state of Malaysia in the country’s northwest. While trading alongside the Chinese, Indians and other Europeans for centuries, the British East India Company laid claim to the island in 1786 through political negotiations with the Sultanate on the mainland.

Named after King George III, George Town was developed as a colonial settlement with fortifications, monuments, churches and white façade government buildings. Among the most photogenic are the Town Hall and the City Hall buildings and the Victoria Clock Tower while the most historical is the 18th century-built Fort Cornwallis.

Best of the British leftovers still exist alongside the architectural ensemble developed by the other settlers, mainly the Chinese and the Indians. Some of the mansions built by the Peranakan Chinese migrants, who gave birth to the Baba-Nyonya culture, are architecturally stunning and display the extravagant lifestyle of the wealthy traders during the outpost’s heyday.

Not everyone lived in lavish dwellings. The early Chinese clans lived in houses built on slits over the sea. Called Clan Jetties, those houses still stand with families living there, demonstrating George Town’s cultural legacies. So do the domain’s thousands of two-storied colourful shop houses, some lovingly restored while few exhibiting old age with the paint peeling off the walls. The best way to browse them is by exploring the townscape on foot with an experienced guide who would be able to tell the hidden stories behind them. It’s important to know them because it’s the people who gave the city its soul. Many of the shophouses still belong to traditional traders like rattan weavers, jewellery artisans, flower garland makers, shoe designers, stonemasons and others. They have their shops in the ground floor while living with the family upstairs.

A striking feature of George Town is the harmonious coexistence of diverse religious emblems introduced to the land by the settlers of different faiths. As a result, the tiny townscape is packed with Catholic churches, Islamic mosques, and Buddhist and Hindu temples. While walking along the kilometre-long Street of Harmony, I visited the Kapitan Keling Mosque, Shri Mahamariamman Temple, St George’s Church and the Goddess of Mercy Temple and wondered why this peaceful sharing of space doesn’t happen in every corner of the world.

Melaka also evolved as a trading port connecting the East with the West and portrays centuries of history and cultural heritage, the European tints coming predominantly from the Portuguese and the Dutch. The town is two hours away from Kuala Lumpur, the dazzling capital of Malaysia and can be covered as a day trip from there.

On arrival, most visitors congregate in the town centre where a series of salmon-red buildings built by the Dutch greet eyes. Most significant there is the Stadthuys, a 17th century edifice that demonstrates the finest example of Dutch woodwork and masonry. Once home to the colonial governors, this oldest Dutch building in the Far East is now a museum.

As European traders, the Portuguese came to Melaka first in the 16th century, but nothing remains from their time other than one of the four entrances to the A’Famosa Fortress. During the British occupation of the Malay Archipelago, this gate survived demolition orders due to timely intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles who had an intense passion for history.

Though the scale is smaller, Melaka, like George Town, is also crowded with old mansions and colourful shophouses alongside churches, mosques and temples of different faiths demonstrating its historical and cultural medley that inspired Unesco to stamp it as a World Heritage Site. While both settlements stand on similar footings, I give George Town extra mileage because of its elaborate street art and food culture.

Penang is well-known as the birthplace of ‘Nyonya’ cuisine, which is a blend of Chinese cooking ingredients with distinct Malay spices, reflecting an emblem of cultural mix. Their two most celebrated epicurean delights are Char Koay Teow — a flat rice noodle dish made with prawns and ‘Laksa’, a coconut curry soup. The trip to Penang can be a waste if leaving its shores without tasting these two items. Almost every eatery in George Town serves them, but the distinctive charm of the destination lies in trying them with locals as ‘street food’ from the roadside vendors at the hawker centres, located in every corner of the town.

I have seen street art in many other cities, but the displays on George Town walls are different. Some of the paintings can be interactive with the onlooker. For example, one painting shows a boy and a girl stretching their hands through a roadside window, where physically lies a bicycle. An onlooker can sit on that bicycle with one hand extended towards the stretched hands of the kid. The composition, when captured on camera, looks like the person bidding goodbye before paddling off by touching one of the kid’s hands.

Besides the colour paintings there are quite a few artworks that are wrought iron sculptures on walls. Each of them depicts a piece of the town’s heritage. To fully appreciate the art, it’s important to read the accompanying descriptors. I liked the one on ‘Nasi Kandar’, which is now a popular Penang cuisine of rice served with meat or vegetable curries. The art narrates its evolution from Tamil Muslims hawking cooked rice and curries contained in metallic pots slung on both sides of a wooden pole resting on the shoulder of the hawker. Browsing through some of these art descriptors, it became easier for me to understand why Unesco included this townscape in the coveted World Heritage list.


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