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.
- Flashpacking in Penang
- British Penang Origin Story
- The first of the famous Penang Street Art
- A look back through Georgetown streets
Flashpacking in Penang
This was the year when I had vowed to travel on every single long weekend. By default, I would be travelling solo. By this time it was clear to me that if I did not travel alone, I would not be going at all.
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.
The trip could have been a road trip, and I debated making it so. 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.
It was a time for doing things differently (even if only a tiny bit different, in hindsight). So I opted for unconventional digs, for me. 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. Not quite backpacking – more like glampacking. Or was this flashpacking?
Muntri Mews 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
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, English and Malaysians (and secondhand Portuguese), I retain a stronger sense of an academic historical narrative than 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 (then and now).
But unlike Melaka, 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 rather than vassalage to Kedah. Thus Penang became the first of the Malay lands to fall under the British crown. In a way, you could say he swindled the Sultan of Kedah out of the island.
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.
How the British got all of the Malay States
It’s actually a pretty common theme across the Malay peninsula when it comes to the British. The Portuguese captured Melaka the traditional way with much blood spilled on both sides, in several waves of assault, and then suffering numerous (unsuccessful) re-capture attempts by the exiled royalty. The Dutch after them also took this southern port city by force, expelling the Portuguese entirely from the peninsula.
But, as you can deduce from the kind of game shows the British like, the British did no such silliness. They 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 incentivised towards more imaginative methods. So they made do with deception, backed with just the threat of military conquest.
And after that it was basically a high stakes game of Go Fish. Not just with other European powers, mind you. Sometimes with regional kingdoms as well.
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.
Q: Why did the Sultan let Light keep both bits of land?
A: British gunships. Basically, whenever tourism brochures say European ‘persuasion’ , it is safe to substitute ‘gunships’.
The Peranakan culture of Penang
But something different and unique sprang from it, when the dust settled.
Unlike Melaka, where the melting pot Straits culture had flourished since 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 Chinese-Malay culture called ‘Peranakan’ or ‘Baba Nyonya’ survived during British rule. A recognisably distinct culture from others in the region, it has survived only in Malaysia, and is why both the cities of Penang and Malacca are a joint UNESCO Heritage Site.
That’s the thing with human history. It is rare that something is ever wholly a blessing or wholly a calamity, given enough time.
The first of the famous Penang Street Art
But I didn’t go to Penang for the Peranakan culture and history. 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.
However, if you are interested in Peranakan and Penang history, 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.
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 was 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 only for practical purposes, or else done by hooligans (a.k.a 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, and it normally had some kind of a prosocial subject. Never a whimsical one.
But no one can resist the endearing street art.
But Zaharavic’s 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 just to play with the semi-graffiti, semi-sculptures. Images began to go viral on social media – perhaps Malaysia’s first Insta-boomed destination.
Penang street art tip: If you’re intending to take those whimsical Instagram-worthy photos, 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. Instagram photos in this article were from a separate trip, which I made with some colleagues.
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, also check out an alternative Malaysian town for Zacharavic street art.
Gradually, in the coming years, homegrown artists and/or local small businesses 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. And of course there’s the 101 Lost Kittens series.
Art is now something the public participates in, without an authority deciding what it 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 Tang Mun Kian’s wire sculptures, so that I needed only 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 pieces on my list 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 crafts 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 Muslims of Indian heritage. 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 a distinct style of Chinese coffee shop common between Malaysia and Singapore. Distinctive features include furnishing touches as marble round tables and backless stools (sometimes the stools are also marble-topped), and mosaic tile floors.
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.
Penang kopi tiam tip: Order toast with butter and/or kaya spread.
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.)
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: Highlights of Penang.
For a more serious guide of Penang sightseeing over a long weekend, check out my Travelista article: The Essential Guide to Georgetown, Penang (and Tips for More!)