Penang: Heritage in Hues Part 1

George Town, the capital state of Penang, Malaysia, is a modest and a laidback capital city at a glance. Mid 80s to 90s shopping centre and hotel architecture mingle with metal-roofed hawker centres, Komtar Tower -the highest skyscraper in town-, colonial style government buildings, churches, museums, Buddhist and Hindu temples, peranakan shophouses, mansions, mosques and a few recently built modern properties.

Despite major absence of modernity, George Town has been one of the cities preserving a remaining Southeast Asian legacy besides Singapore and Malacca. Once being a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian traders and European colonies, it has formed exceptional multicultural heritage. Since 2008, UNESCO has awarded George Town as one of the World Heritage Cities.

What fascinating experiences did my parents and I get in Penang, especially the Heritage City George Town? Here in Heritage in Hues Part 1, I emphasize on peranakan shophouses, mansions and language. Peranakan (Straits Chinese) refers to Chinese descendants who acculturate with the locals to form their own culture. I find Peranakan culture is the most distinctive multicultural heritage in this old town, a must to see!


One of my favourite peranakan heritage is the shophouses. These are some words I use to describe them: colourful, contrast, unique, damaged, faded, tarnished, restored, eclectic. Not all of them were in their best condition, but I find this imperfect beauty breathtaking, it’s “vintage”. Nowadays, many of them are commercial centres, such as driving school, dental clinic, cake shop, etc. Straits Chinese shophouses are everywhere in the old town George Town, from busy streets until every block and corner of the street. Trust me, they are very recognizable, you can’t get wrong!

Row of eclectic shophouses at Magazine Rd.

Detail of a Chinese door from one of the shophouses

Restoration undone?

Colourful and patterned tiles are also one of the peranakan signature styles, depicting the detail of the previous shop house right above this image.

This “1938” yellow building is a local snack shop where I got free home-made pia cake sample and bought my favourite dried ikan bilis (anchovy fish) snack .

Restoration (nearly) done

I’d rather call a tooth fairy to check up or take my tooth out than coming to this dental clinic….

Still at Magazine Road, I prefer presenting this picture above in black and white. It’s just more classy.

Another shophouse somewhere not far from the hotel.

Shophouses at Canon St, just across Khoo Kongsi clanhouse.


Enough with shophouses? Let’s move to the mansion, shall we?

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, the proprietary of the mansion built in 1899, applied peranakan style to decorate his lavish mansion using the finest materials from China to Europe, such as English floor tiles and Chinese wooden panels. After several decades of neglect, the mansion was finally restored to return its former glory. People come to the mansion for studying the old generation of Straits Chinese lifestyle, shooting films, photography sessions, special event venues or simply enjoying the beauty of Straits Chinese art. It reminds me of chinoiserie applied in European castles.

From all the colours used in both shophouses and mansions, green wall of Pinang Peranakan Mansion is very distinctive. It reminds me of old houses in my hometown Indonesia during Dutch colony period. Many other shophouses I saw in the Heritage City use similar type of green. Turquoise and salted duck egg-shell kind of blue were also popular in this era, then.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Unfortunately we could only see this magnificent rare blue mansion from outside the fence. We came after 3 pm on Sunday and it was closed. Cheong Fatt Tze, named after its owner, was built in 1880. It doesn’t only display antiquities and exquisite interior, but also provides rooms to stay. Each room has its own theme, designed by famous local designers. Above all, this mansion is known to have great Feng Shui.


Situated not far from Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, this former private residence and office of Ku Din Ku Meh is now a bungalow with typical peranakan style both exterior and interior.

Seems like a nice place to hang out

I took this picture from the bus window on the way to Khoo Kongsi clanhouse. The gates were closed, but the windows were open and looks unpromising. I’m wondering if this hotel still operates. After Bratislava, Rome and Vegas, I think this place is suitable for the next Hostel sequel if any 🙂


As we are also peranakan, Chinese-Indonesian descendants, the first thing we have in common with local people is the language. In general, Chinese Malaysian in Penang speaks Malay fluently and the main Chinese dialect they speak is Hokkien. We speak Indonesian, which is similar to Malay, but unfortunately we don’t speak Chinese. If we could speak one, Hokkien would be our dialect, too.

Having a Chinese look without the ability of speaking the language can sometimes bring discomfort to the beholder. The question “Why don’t you Chinese?” turned to be an endless discussion when I was in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore around a decade ago. Really, it happened more than twice. It seemed that they couldn’t accept a Chinese who can’t speak Chinese.

I was so glad nobody asked me that kind of question in Penang. Is it because they don’t care or they are used to with Indonesian people, never mind. Whatever the reason is, it made me comfortable. I noticed that the locals, especially drivers and vendors, preferred to respond our question in Malay every time we asked in English. Therefore I made use of my time in Penang to practice Malay (conversational Malay, not Indonesian), hoping that my Malay accent was still as good as that of 13 years ago when I studied abroad in Malaysia. In the beginning, I felt awkward since I mixed up a lot with Indonesian terms that are either never used or have different meanings in Malay. But well, I finally made it although it wasn’t that perfect. Hooray!

We used to have rickshaws in Jakarta before being banned. But no worries, street dogs are still not banned there until now

This is not the end of my sharing session with you yet. The heritage still have more hues to show in my next post…..