I arrived in Penang (that’s Pulau Pinang to locals) by plane. I was there on a long weekend from Kuala Lumpur, specifically to see for myself the Penang street art that had recently exploded in popularity.
By the time I write this, Penang street art has acquired national, and then global fame. In the coming years, it would inspire artists to continually add to it, and the images of those artwork are now all over the internet.
So that’s not what this article will be about. Not exactly. This article is meant as an account of a long weekend trip to Penang, including a Malaysian’s snapshot of what the sentiments were like in Malaysia about murals and graffiti art, before and just after Penang street art became famous.
- I try out flashpacking digs in Penang
- British Penang Origin Story: An Irreverent Summary
- The first of the famous Penang Street Art
- A look back through Georgetown streets
- General tips for posing with Penang street art
- Stay in Georgetown, or wander further afield?
I try out flashpacking digs in Penang
I debated making it a road trip. But as I only had a long weekend, I did not want to waste time on the road. Besides, everything I wanted to see was mostly in Georgetown, in the UNESCO Heritage Area. Georgetown has notoriously hard-to-navigate streets for someone not local to it, and the Penang Bridge traffic is infamous. It is far more convenient to visit Penang car-less.
This was the year when I had vowed to travel every single long weekend in the year. I would by default be travelling solo. By this time it was clear that if I did not travel alone, I would not be going at all.
It was the time for doing things differently (even if only a tiny bit different, in hindsight). So I opted for unconventional digs, for me. Not quite backpacking – more like glampacking. Or was this flashpacking?
I chose to stay at Muntri Mews, a charming boutique hotel that was once a carriage house, right in the middle of the Heritage Area.
It is very cool. They did a very effective and tasteful job of lifting Penang nostalgia and Peranakan culture, into present-day comfort.
British Penang Origin Story: An Irreverent Summary
Readers of my Malacca guide would recall that here on this blog, I’ll give you the side of Malaysian history that the tourist brochures usually skip over. As someone who had a phase of reading of real history books written by actual historians of the land, both English and Malaysians (and secondhand Portuguese), I retain a stronger sense of academic historical narrative that you’d normally find among travel bloggers.
I think real history is often way more amusing that the sanitised versions they tell tourists for fear of distracting people from spending tourism money. So you can rely on me to pass on irreverent takes on things, which are nonetheless very much grounded in fact. And surely, you can’t go to Penang without getting a little bit of its backstory!
How the British got the Straits Settlement of Penang
Pulau Pinang – together with Melaka some ways away to the south – is a UNESCO Heritage City due to the mixed Nusantara-Chinese Straits settlement culture that sprang up around a thriving seaport within the very lucrative trading route of the Straits of Malacca.
But Penang became a seaport only after Francis Light obtained permission from the Sultan of Kedah to settle his men on the island, which he promptly interpreted as colonisation in the name of Britain. Thus Penang became the first of the Malay lands in the archipelago to fall under the British crown. In a way, you could say he swindled the Sultan of Kedah out of the island.
It’s actually a pretty common theme across the Malay peninsula when it comes to the British. The Portuguese captured Melaka with much blood spilled, in several waves of assault, and uncounted lives lost, and then suffering numerous (unsuccessful) re-capture attempts by the exiled royalty. The Dutch after them also took the southern port city by force, expelling the Portuguese entirely from the peninsula.
Instead, the British did not gain any of the territory they controlled during Malaysia’s colonial period by military conquest. India received the brunt of the ‘attention’, leaving the folks tasked to acquire the peninsula towards more imaginative methods. So they made do with some kind of dishonesty, backed with just the threat of military conquest.
P.S: A short while after, Light also extorted from the Sultan a matching piece of agricultral land across the strait, called Seberang Prai. You know, so that they would also have a secure grain supply in case Kedah tries to starve them out. Together they form the present day Malaysian state of Pulau Pinang.
P.P.S: Oh, why did the Sultan let him keep both bits of land? Sorry, forgot that bit. British gunships. Basically, whenever tourism brochures say European ‘persuasion’ , it is safe to substitute ‘gunships’.
The Peranakan culture of Penang
I am always torn between feeling irked over the unglamorous way we were colonised, and a grudging acknowledgement that – if colonisation was an inevitable fate – at least this way minimised local casualties.
But something different and unique sprang from it, when the dust settled. That’s the thing with human history – it is rare that something is ever wholly a blessing or wholly a calamity, given enough time.
Unlike Melaka, where the melting pot Straits culture had flourished from when the city was a world trade centre under the sultanate rule, Penang’s mostly came to bloom after British administration of the island. Nonetheless, together with British port #3 of Singapore, this hybrid culture called ‘Peranakan’, or ‘Baba Nyonya’, is new and recognisably distinct from others in the region. (Peranakan culture has survived only in Malaysia.)
The first of the famous Penang Street Art
But I didn’t go to Penang for the Peranakan culture and history. (However, if you are, but don’t want to put in too much effort, snippets of the past is easy to review through a series of cartoon wire sculptures scattered across the Heritage Area).
I had come for the charmingly interactive street art that was – through what I must assume were a near-miraculous series of events – created in 2012 by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharavic for the Heritage Area.
To appreciate why I say ‘miraculous’, I must tell you something important that millennials do not remember, and boomers do not speak of. Yes, that’s what us Gen X are for.
The sober Malaysians
We Malaysians did not typically play – at least after childhood, and certainly not in public (except for sports – sports are ok). There is verbal levity and slapstick humour, but as for whimsy, this is not really a thing.
This was a strain on someone like me, who stubbornly kept to her computer games and Dragonlances well into young adulthood.
True, we are rich in artisanal crafts. They decorate our heritage buildings, and sometimes private homes and other structures. But painting on publicly visible surfaces? This is either done for practical purposes, or else by hooligans (aka graffiti) and totally frowned upon.
Occasionally painting on public walls may be allowed for non-practical purposes, but this would typically take the form of an officially sanctioned mural.
No one can resist the endearing street art
But the 2012 Penang street art – this was when public whimsical play became socially acceptable.
I don’t quite know why.
Was it due to how faithfully the artwork resonated with Penang nostalgia? Was it its sheer accessibility? The semi-3D nature of it draws you to interact? Or that it simply coincided with the rise of high quality smartphone cameras, making spontaneous photography more likely?
People posed with the artwork in wonderfully inventive ways*. Malaysians travelled from near and far – to play with the semi-graffiti, semi-sculptures. Images began to go viral on social media – perhaps Malaysia’s first Insta-boomed destination**.
Gradually, in the coming years, homegrown artists and/or local small business began to imitate it, creating art of their own, with their own meanings.
Anonymous people paint around random things in the public space like bollards and Chinese prayer altars and a dismantled pipe, and make art.
A coconut ice cream man painted a semi-3D piece of art by his stall. (Yes his ice cream is delicious and very welcome in the heat, too). And of course there’s the 101 Lost Kittens series.
Art is now something the public participates in, without authority deciding what they would be about in advance.
On the trail of the original set of Penang street murals
I limited myself to only the original Ernest Zacharavic artwork and wire sculptures, so that I was only managing one map (the one on the Penang Tourism website). I thought about picking up the 101 Lost Kittens as well. But in the end, I decided to allow myself the spontaneity of encountering them by chance.
I found all of them bar one. One of the Zacharavic murals – the one within the Clan Jetties – was already basically gone, worn away by the blistering Malaysian sun. I noticed that many of the other works were also beginning to fade and show signs of wear compared to photos I had seen on the internet. It was only 3 years, but the harsh Malaysian weather proved quite equal to the task.
The ephemerality of street art
You could say, it’s an inherent element of this kind of art. The play and interaction, and being out there exposed to the city air and punishing equatorial rays. Use. Use wears things out. I wondered whether they would be touched up. It would kind of be a shame to lose them.
But wouldn’t the alternative be immortality by petrification? We’re good at that, us Malaysians. Clinging to the form, freezing our arts in its heyday past, instead of allowing present-day artists spin our craft into new iterations.
How would it even make sense for street art? Taking the playful art out of reach of the playing public, away from the bustle and commerce of the city that inspired it. Away from its own heart. This isn’t the kind of art you shutter away in the name of its protection, to be looked at but never touched.
Perhaps it is better to let them ebb eventually away. Other spinoff street art that they have birthed grow now all around them, alive, and living in the minds of future artists yet to paint and build in Penang’s streets.
Immortality by letting go, and evolving. Something, in this age of global change, we desperately need to learn. Or risk losing the core of our cultural heart to the sweep of the times. Left holding only sacred empty petrified shells.
A look back through Georgetown streets
The Penang Heritage Area is quite rewarding for a casual ramble through the streets. This is true even if you’re there on a Malaysian long weekend, which means that the old city heaves with tourists.
What things would you encounter?
Straits settlement clan houses
You should visit one of these if you’ve not been. I’m Melaka-born, and so obviously partial to the lavish Peranakan homes there. But while in Penang, pick at least one – perhaps the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion (mainly because this one showed the excellent taste of being blue!).
Indian Muslim culture
Then of course there are the non-Peranakan parts of Penang culture (*gasp* what?? there’s another hybrid culture in Penang??). Hey, you don’t get called ‘melting pot’ for having fused like, just 2 cultures! Indian traders had come to settle as well, and also formed a pretty distinct Penang Indian Muslim (‘mamak’) culture.
For instance there is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, built by Indian Muslims. Try one of the many mamak shops selling delicious south Indian breakfasts and nasi kandar lunches.
Kopi tiam and cafes
And then of course there is the iconic kopi tiam. These are distinctly a Malaysia-Singapore style Chinese coffee shop. Distinctive features include such touches as marble round tables and stools (sometimes marble-topped), and mosaic tile floors.
Tip: Order toast with butter and/or kaya spread.
Penangites insist that their food is the best in the country. I’m not a foodie, and moreover a southerner, so I excuse myself from this debate for diplomatic reasons!
Aside from the traditional kopi tiam (Chinese coffee houses), hipster cafes have popped up as well. They sometimes with oddly inspiring signage – and sometimes with devastatingly cheeky ones.
Chew clan jetty
Then there’s the Chew Clan Jetty, which you would easily come across while looking for Penang street art around Lebuh Armenian. Long and shaded, the wooden walkway stretches on high stilts, flanked on either side by homes similarly propped over the water.
Far to the end, the walkway emerges into sun. From here you can see the iconic Penang suspension bridge in the distance, one of the milestone infrastructure projects of the Malaysian ’80s. Before this bridge was built, mainland crossings were by ferry only.
There are shops on either side selling local snack foods and general confectionary. I bought a set of local northern white coffee packaged for individual servings in a box made to look like a shophouse. (This was before I went to the Blue Temple, and before I took the No Plastics April challenge. Today I would likely make a different purchasing decision.)
General tips for posing with Penang street art
*Penang street art tip: If you’re intending to take those whimsical Instagram-worthy photo ops, I strongly advise not doing Penang as solo travel unless you’re the kind who will, say, immediately bond with random like-minded travellers at a hostel.
**Also, try to avoid Malaysian long weekends. You’ll have to wait for every photo op, and it’s hard to get in a really fun mood when there’s a line of people waiting for you to wrap up. In the interests of abating overtourism, check out an alternative Malaysian town for Zacharavic street art.
Stay in Georgetown, or wander further afield?
In theory, if you start out early, and are reaaaallly dedicated, you could do all the above in a day. If instead you prefer to soak it in, it’s an easy couple of days.
But there are other things in Penang than the UNESCO Heritage city. Depending on what you gravitate to, there’s
- WW2 wartime history
- Balik Pulau countryside
- beaches at Batu Feringghi
- hiking at the Penang State Park
- and more.
For a lovely take on the rest of Penang island beyond the street art, check out this article: Highlights of Penang.
For a more serious guide of Penang sightseeing over a long weekend, check out: The Essential Guide to Georgetown, Penang (and Tips for More!)