Penang the pinang island no more

Penang, the areca nut palm tree island no more.

Unlike many south asian destinations, there are fewer betel nut vendors and chewers now on this Malacca Straits island, colonially known as the Prince of Wales Island, and a former free port of the British East India Company.


There are no more coolies on the docks and warehouses. There are no more opium dens. There are no more mustached and bearded officers in bright white coats and no more rules to prohibit the locals from entering colonial buildings. Many of these buildings still stand proudly as administrative centers, banks, churches and family owned businesses today, archived by the diligent heritage protectors, and renovated and refurbished by creative businessmen proud of the island’s traditions. Old street names still remain, reminding anyone of its cosmopolis past where Acehnese, Arabs, Armenians, Burmese, Germans, Jews, Chinese, Gujeratis, Bengalis, Sindhis, Siamese, Malayalees, Javanese, Mandailings, Portuguese, and many other ethnicities came to trade and to live.


While many old buildings still remain intact, many old businesses have disappeared or are on the verge of closure as maintenance and raw material costs run high especially with a weak ringgit. Few from the younger generation are interested in carrying on the legacy painstakingly built by their ancestors. There’s easier money to be made elsewhere. Even the nutmeg farms, once a thriving industry and popular with locals, have declined in existence with economic shifts. Penang’s economy today is manufacturing for numerous Multi-National Corporations in technology, contributing greatly to Malaysia’s GDP and bringing good income to Penangites. The good governance of the state’s affairs and foreign investment policies carried out by the opposition, Democratic Action Party, since it first wrestled control from the ruling government, Barisan Nasional/ National Coallition, in the 2008 12th General Elections, resulted in a doubling of investments, turning around a declining economy into one of the best performing. Only the second smallest state in the country, Penang is the third wealthiest state behind the larger states of Selangor and Johor.


While on a work trip in Northern Perak in the middle of 2012, I thought it was time for a visit to the island to see what had changed under the new municipal since 2008.


Penang, as any ubiquitous food blog and travel literature would declare, is a celebrated holiday destination for beach goers, streetfood enthusiasts, tourists, and for the past 9 years, jazz music lovers who come for the annual music festival.


Countless streetside eateries and delicacies have been covered thoroughly by any sort of media. Nearly all angles of any popular dish from the island, have been deftly captured with the latest cameras, and smart phones of professionals and amateurs alike. There is nothing new about the old, except that the old is disappearing.


This famous solitary fried koay teow stall on Siam Road still uses coal to heat up its wok

Penang street food is slowly disappearing, just as with many other Malaysian destinations. No I’m not talking about Gurney Drive or similar large food courts which attract large crowds. It is that solitary one, or few, that have put their stalls out on less busy streets, that have faded away. There are simply no heirs with the experience, patience and interest to take over a food stall. Profit is obviously the center of the issue. Outside of the touristy dining areas, the average prices for single servings are about RM3 or less. Given Malaysia’s standard of living, the small percentage of earnings from limited orders do not excite the new generation. Desk jobs offer better pay, air conditioned premises, and maybe shorter working hours. Filial obligations end when the parents pass on or if they are incapacitated, and unable to carry on the business.


I checked myself into an aging but sturdy hotel on Lovers Lane which had seen better times. My concrete room located on the first floor overlooking the parking lot, had a double sized iron bed with a rubber mattress, 70s battered wooden furniture, and an attached cold water shower room. The toilet, however, was communal and located on the ground floor, behind the building – a common architectural design of old buildings. The rubber mattress surprisingly gave good lumbar support, offering me 2 nights of good sleep. The ceiling fan in the room spun at speeds that could lift me up to the heavens, if it was turned over. Its vortex created an invisible shield impenetrable by any winged insects. A faint Wifi signal from the router at the front desk provided intermittent 21th century connectivity.


The famous Hameed Pata Fried Mee Sotong at the Padang Kota/ Esplanade food courts, just outside Fort Cornwallis was highly recommended by Penang friend, KY. This halal dish had fried egg noodles with toppings of sambal cuttlefish. If USA has sloppy joes, then Penang has this. A little too mushy and sweet for me but popular to others. The freshly blended coconut shake here is famous too.


Mini apom or apong to the Penangites, are pancakes with cream of corn and banana slices in the center. It is so hard to find these in Malaysia now. Guan’s fresh pancakes on busy Burma Road are simply scrumptious. His competitors are still around but he doesn’t have to slog too hard nowadays. He takes 1 day off in a week to visit his grown up children in Kuala Lumpur. He refuses retirement as he still wants to serve his customers who come from far and wide.


Sweet glutinous rice balls, either plain or filled with finely chopped roasted peanut or black sesame, from a stall I would visit every time I come to the island. Only this original stall, opened almost every night for 3 decades, exists today to continue serving their old clientele. The 2 or 3 other competitor stalls within its vicinity have folded up.


A Chapati stall with a variety of curries and different ‘animal parts’. An alternative to chapati, the cook has made roti jala (lacy crepe or net bread) by swirling dripping batter mixed with tumeric powder in a perforated tin over a heated flat pan.


The proprietor blew his whistle to halt my photography so that he could be in it as well

Line Clear Nasi Kandar, squashed in a little lane off Penang Road, is somewhat of an establishment in Penang. Known as being the oldest Penang style curry and rice stall, and apparently tasty as well, it serves customers day and night. The proprietor simply loves his whistle.


One bowl of cendol dessert is never enough. Drizzled palm sugar over concentrated fresh coconut milk with green bean jelly, and topped with glutinous rice and red bean paste, it is hardly a thirst quencher. Found in many places around Malaysia and South East Asia, the dessert is hotly contested amongst two stalls standing on opposing sides of Keng Kwee Lane, outside Joo Hooi Cafe, Off Penang Road.


Here is something different about Penang from the other Malaysian states – Milk stalls serving hot fresh milk with a variety of toppings.


A strange potent ginger brew waiting for customers like me, who enjoy a hot glass of milk with sweet spicy strong flavors of the root. A comforting nightcap that warms my soul.


George Town, the capital of Penang, is just the right sized city to stroll around day or night. At a leisurely walking pace, you can discover the family owned shops, rarely noticeable if you were in a car, making breads, biscuits, noodles, blinds, lanterns, signages, mahjong tiles, joss sticks, coffins and so on, in their own traditional small scale way. As you pass by old buildings, you can scrutinize the facade for original remnants of the past. When you are tired, and dehydrated, you have the little coffeeshop watering holes to stop at, and the retirees who pass their time there, to chat with. You can find out more about Penang’s dying trades and walking tours through the Penang Heritage Trust on 26, Lebuh Gereja (Church Street). Tel: +604 264 2631.


Penang is not without its own problems. A small island has limited living space and high rental. There are the poor who cannot find a job or a place to stay. Trishaw drivers and odd job workers who can’t afford to rent or prefer to save their little earnings for the future, choose five foot ways to make their bed for the night. The hardcore poor and the homeless are not a Penang problem but a nation’s problem that can be reduced significantly, if a better ruling national government is in power – an administration who looks more into the public welfare than its own selfish agenda.


The homeless find any place in the city for a rest


Freshly steamed string hoppers (putumayam or idiyappam) – rice flour vermicelli to taken away with palm sugar or jaggery and grated coconut


Penangites are 24 hour diners. Nasi Kandar Beratur is one of the many stalls that help feed the hungry hordes.


It is past 2am and diners such as this slender gentleman can still devour this ‘supersized’ plate of rice, vegetables, meat and topped with a variety of curries before going home to bed.


The manager adding labels on bottles with starch

I walked into a sauce making factory by chance. Taking up 2 lots, the Swee Onn Woh factory produces light and thick soya sauce, chili sauce and several others. With a limited cooking space, they fix a schedule to cook different sauces on different days.


Vats of aged soya sauce and more


A resident of Teluk Bahang jigs for fish and squid. In the background, on the right, is the entrance to the Penang National Park.

Driving way past the family friendly resorts at Tanjung Bungah towards the northwestern tip of the island is Teluk Bahang, a fishermen village and the main entrance to the Penang National Park. Previously known as the Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve, this 1,266 hectare national park comprises of several hills, mangroves, a turtle sanctuary, a meromictic lake, and 9 beaches including Teluk Bahang and Teluk Duyung (Monkey Beach). There are several trails, a 250m canopy walk and 2 campsites. With limited time, I could only walk around the information center. To find out more call +60 4 881 3530/ 881 3500.


5480 – Lucky numbers before me. Ferry crossing from Swettenham Pier to main land, Butterworth.

I had not taken the ferry across to Butterworth since the time I was a little boy and before the Penang Bridge was built. I couldn’t recall the experience. This time when I was leaving Penang, I would be old enough to remember.


Look! America the land of opportunities Nope, just Penang, the land of… just Penang.


“I wish I could play in this sandbox”


I’m glad I made a stopover here to see what changes the opposition government had made, since taking over Penang. My last proper visit had been over 5 years ago. I have to admit that there have been a lot of improvements. Many places, once on a major decline, even in tourist friendly Tanjung Bungah area, have now been turned around. Roads and sidewalks are in decent condition, and there is even an attempt at making bicycle paths in some areas. The heritage preservation community have done a good job in helping archive and preserve many old things while the island rapidly modernises. Not everything old in Penang or in other states can be preserved forever unless the nation as a whole has the same ideology to blend the old with the new for progress, instead of tearing down the old, and building big modern high-rises and tourist attractions that eventually serve only as white elephants. Not everything is perfect in this opposing led state, but it is much better than 5 years ago, in my opinion. I am convinced that a change in administration is very good for the country as a whole.

Malaysia needs a stronger currency so that its society can do more with their money. This can only be achieved with a cleaner administration of the country and changing old rules that benefit only some. The 13th General Elections is happening on the 5 May 2013. Many Malaysians want big changes from this momentus event. Many feel the ruling government, with over 50 years of access to the country’s coffers and having accumulated vast wealth from it, will win with majority votes again through dishonest ways. But many also feel positive that a change will come.



  • ty says:

    The scary thing is that a lot of the older folks especially are still hard-core BN supporters. The same people who voted for BN in the past 56 years that saw billions upon billions flowing out of the country. All scared of “losing ethnic representation” or becoming an Islamic state, due to fear mongering and racist politics.

    I think we all need to talk to our parents and let them see what we see and know.

  • Ming says:

    Great article and writing.

  • Juno says:

    Great article! I am in Penang right now, it feels specially close to me. It will be interesting to see the result of this coming election.

  • great shots and poignantly insightful commentary. i studied in penang for three years, but i do realize that the island has changed a lot since the 1990s. reading this makes me wanna return, not just for one or two nights, but maybe for a week.

    • cumi says:

      there are so many nice boutique hotels sprouting up there.. you’ll definitely want to stay longer

  • Lilian says:

    Finally found the time to read your post. Love your insights =)

  • Julia says:

    I actually didn’t care for Penang that much (I preferred Melaka) but I did love the food. Especially the apom manis and a certain steamed pork bun man I found who I may have made several visits to 😉

    • cumi says:

      Hopefully when you next visit Penang, it will be a better experience! Maybe you will meet a local will show you around.
      Melaka has its own unique charm.

  • Stephen says:

    I can do without all the red spit from the chewing of the beetle nut! Sad to see street carts are becoming fewer. Penang is one of my favorite cities in all of Asia. Excellent food as you stated.

  • Choi Yen says:

    My last time stepped on land of Penang was like 20+ years ago…or longer…I can’t remember ~>_<~

  • Lee says:

    I’m from Penang but moved away when I was quite young, although I used to visit every other year. I haven’t been back for about five years now and I’ve been told it’s changed a lot. Your post has inspired me to plan a trip back. Thanks!

  • Dear blogger,

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    Please have a look at our website, and we would love to have you with us in your next visit to Georgetown.

    Thank you, and God bless.

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