Penang must surely rank as one of South East Asia’s most interesting- and most vividly diverse- places. Wandering through the island, you find a new side of it at every turn- the almost European look of the villas on Lebuh Light, complete with wrought iron gates, conifers and gravel driveways; the very Indian colour of Little India- and of course, the deliciously Oriental feel of Chinatown, all red lanterns and stone temples, incense burners and clanhouses.
It is the Chinese, largely, who have contributed to making Penang what it is today. Along with the Indians, Armenians, Eurasians, Javanese, Malays, Japanese (everybody, it seems, who happened to be in the vicinity washed up on the shores of Penang and made it their home)- along with all of these, the Chinese too arrived on this pretty little island sometime in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mainly from the Chinese provinces of Kwantung and Fukien, the Chinese immigrants who arrived in Penang were largely traders and merchants (who came here in the late 1700s) and later, in the mid-1800s, petty traders, labourers and artisans. Whereas some of these worked in order to earn enough wealth to finally return to China and live lives of comfort, the majority made permanent homes in Penang. Many of these (like the famous mandarin-minister-merchant-millionaire Cheong Fatt Tze) eventually acquired considerable fortunes of their own, and built palatial mansions known locally as ang mor lau- `big European mansions’ (check out Cheong Fatt Tze’s splendid blue-painted mansion on Lebuhraya Leith). Using a basis of feng shui and traditional Chinese architectural symbols and forms, these mansions incorporated more than a few European details- including, in some cases, material and furniture from as far away as the UK. The ang mor lau were actually in many ways an embodiment of the towkays (as the Chinese tycoons and rich merchants of Penang were known) themselves- Chinese and traditional, yet greatly influenced by the West. Many towkays dressed as Westerners, educated their children in England or America, and lived lives tinged with a fair bit of the Occident. Deep down, though, the Orient never let go of them- a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism continued to be the basis of their religious beliefs, and the customs and traditions they followed remained very much those of their forefathers.
The days of the towkays and their somewhat flamboyant lifestyles have gone, but Penang’s Chinatown retains a delightfully part-Chinese, part-European feel which is really worth a visit.