A stroll down the streets of inner George Town will instantaneously sweep anyone away into the bygone era and indulge them the kaleidoscope of nostalgic feel, charm and reminiscence that only few would have experienced firsthand. Known as the Chinatown of Penang, she is nestled within the bustling city that surrounds it; unperturbed by the modern structures and recently acquired fashionable lifestyles that stand alongside these quaint but characteristic architecture.
And though it might be just too simplistic to brush it off as just an old and forgotten part of town, the once famous trading post of the East is surely regaining its lustre and notoriety with scurrying activities once again. Even more so as George Town was declared as a UNESCO Heritage Site since three years ago.
The vicinity around Armenian Street and Cannon Street sprang to life the past weekend as George Town hosted its annual Chinese New Year cultural and heritage celebrations. Antiquated rows of pre-war buildings line the narrow streets – some already restored and refurbished and some still as rickety and dilapidated.
Occupants of these heritage houses moved out when the Rent Control Act was repealed in 2000. The Rent Control Act states that under no circumstances should these heritage buildings be demolished or altered in any way; and as this act also prohibited owners from raising the rental, these buildings were poorly maintained for economic reasons. However, as soon as the act was repealed, property prices just kept going up and are worth very much more than it was before.
Clan Associations too opened their doors and brightened up in anticipation of receiving visitors from all around the world. Strings of Chinese lanterns lit up the entire area and stage performances were held at every street corner. Cultural dances, cultural exhibitions, drums, gongs, and an array hawker fare kept revellers busy and entertained.
One of the Clan houses exhibited Traditional Chinese medical practices like acupuncture and pulse points. Another Clan house held singing competition and booths showcasing traditional foods like “Kong Th’ng” (sugar-candy) and “Muar Chee” (sweetened glutinous rice covered with grounded nuts).
Chinese characters in costumes played out their parts in theatrical scenes. There were also facemask changing performances – a very specialized and closely guarded secret that was once performed only by those who learnt it in sworn secrecy.
Another interesting traditional Chinese art that was eye-catching was of women getting their faces cleaned using tightened strings. The therapist used two loops of strings and entangles them in a way that coaxes the strings into a propeller sort, and then places them onto the customer’s face to clear away the dead cells.
Along the way, some makeshift stalls sold custom-made beaded shoes that were worn by the early settlers, also known as the Straits Chinese. There were also craftsmen who sold carved signboards. A rabbit corner was also purposely set up as this happens to be the ‘year of the rabbit’ according the Chinese calendar. The fortune teller added to the authenticity of the celebration.
At the youth’s corner, children dressed up as human chess pieces moved about in a game of Chinese Chess. There were also martial arts performances, lion dances and dragon dances.
“Cai Sin Yah” or God or Prosperity paraded the streets giving out red packets – as a gesture of good luck; and rabbit mascots too, to give out sweets to passers-by, especially children.
A mock traditional Chinese wedding complete with its sedan chair was also on display. Curious spectators took turns for the opportunity to sit in the sedan to take photographs.
The people of Penang from all walks of life thronged the usually quite streets and jostled their way around through the huge crowd that turned up that night. Tourists caught unaware of the ongoing festival were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and colourful display of fireworks that marked the finale of the celebration. The gaiety and carnival-like atmosphere can hardly be missed as the loudspeakers blared music from all sides.
Even as one leaves the carnival, he will be reminded of being transported temporarily back into olden China as the drums, gongs and fireworks grow fainter and fainter into the distance. George Town is truly a living museum.