We moved into our newly restored home in China Street on February 15th this year. The day after Valentines Day was full of festivals. Chap Goh May, Thaipusam and our contractor Eric's birthday all were celebrated on the 15th. There was fireworks, drums, traffic jams, lots of people, music and the chariot pulled by its beautiful leading bulls. We didn't get much sleep, our 'moving' in was celebrated by all and we have slept well ever since! It has been very, very happy.
First I need to give you a bit of background so that you can see how I have formed my opinions and views about living in this area of George Town. Both David and I are Malaysians, both of us growing up on plantations, in amazing old houses. My family moved all over the country, David's lived out at Batu Caves. My mum is from Johore and my dad is British. Originally based in KL, we moved out to Pangkor Island in the early 90's with the idea of giving our own 2 boys a taste of our kind of childhood. Jungle, outdoors, nature, small towns. Pangkor is a fantastic place and we still have our house there and go down to it regularly. The boys went to the Chinese school on the island and Tessa, our little girl was born there.
As a family we moved to Penang in mid '99 for David's work and the kids schooling. We felt completely at home here and we quickly decided we wanted to be here permanently. I fell in love with George Town after spending time in the 'Little India' area while researching the spice merchants for the Tropical Spice Garden. We decided that if we could find the right building we would restore and live right in the heritage core.
We owe Penang Heritage Trust big time! It was PHT that saved the house we now live in. Without the PHT protest in front of the house in the early 2000's and their insistence that it be saved, there would have not been the derelict merchant's house to attract us to save it. Its double courtyard, extra wide frontage and back entrance onto Lorong Chee Em, its simple and practical design grabbed us as soon as we managed to get access through the hoarding that covered the building for years.
David and Eric managed the restoration and building. Gywnn Jenkins documented and recorded the process and after 1 year and 9 months we moved in with the family and haven't looked back. I never thought that it would be this delightful to live here in town. I use the local restaurants, I buy my vegetables, fruit and flowers from the local shops and stalls, tailor clothes around the corner, buy bread and local cakes and sweets from the bicycle stalls that come round at different times, buy the best yogurt from Enrico's, my spices from Market Street and my lovely Bollywood movies from the boisterous shops on Penang Street. I use my old bicycle, I walk, Tessa rollerblades on the Esplanade, rides her bike on the padang and we watch modest cricket games between the Indian foreign workers sometimes early on Sundays. I also drink way too much masala tea and eat too many times at the Sri Ananda Bhawan restaurants on Penang Street.
We have become part of the community here and it's a great feeling walking down the street and being able to say 'morning' to lots of people from very different backgrounds. I am thankful for the council road sweepers and cleaners who, by the time I open the door at 7.15am, have cleared away all the rubbish each day, swept the street clean and cleared the drains. These men work thanklessly doing their jobs each day.
Then there are the surprises. At the end of the nine days of Hindu vegetarian fasting, on the 28th of September this year, the chariot appeared after the sound of drums. Dancers, not just a few but a hundred, come down the street dancing with sticks, crowds come to the chariot, families, individuals offering trays of fruit to the holy chariot with flowers returned in thanks. You suddenly realise that all around you here in George Town people are living very quietly and on days like this they get cleaned up, put on smart clothes and come to give offerings on the side of the streets. It is wonderful. Each time this happens our upstairs shutters overlooking China Street are opened and we spend our time hanging out and watching the show.
Earlier on the 8th of September I had gone out at about 9.30 pm to water my bamboo at the front of the house. I opened my doors to see a vision of metallic papers scattered all the way down China Street. When cars came driving down the effect was magical as the breeze tossed these metallic papers into the air and up into the street lights. It was beautiful and yet I had no idea, no inkling at all, that people had obviously gone by in some sort of vehicle tossing out piles of metallic paper money all over the street for Cheng Beng.
For me, as someone who has the made the deliberate move to live in the inner city, all of this activity is an eye opener. It is something I enjoy and learn from and I find it all fascinating. I am reminded of my childhood all the time here and because it was so happy, this place makes those memories come alive for me. I am also thrilled that my own kids can still experience some of these traditions before they do die out or are forgotten. This is the beauty of George Town. So much of it is simply taken for granted and because of that, it's value is not realised. This kind of value is often not counted until it is gone forever and more often than not , it is remembered with regret, at not having been more appreciative of it all at the time.
There are far more tourists in George Town since the UNESCO listing, there is far more traffic in town, there is lots of property exchanging hands, new people are moving in, old people are moving out, new restaurants, loads of boutique hotels! There are lots of issues that need to be dealt with. ( My pet issue being the absolute menace of the swift breeding that is taking over George Town. Please read my separate opinion and account on this. It is a big issue that has to be highlighted separately.) Not all these issues are bad. George Town has always been a place where the world meets, where products are brought, where people immigrate to, where things are exchanged. With the UNESCO listing George Town has been offered a chance to revitalise itself and to realise its value once again on the world stage. It's wealth is in its heritage and its people and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this on a daily basis living here in the core zone.
With this column I hope to introduce you to some of the local characters that I see and meet on the streets, some of the issues both good and bad that need to be highlighted.