Georgetown – Is the past another country?

Our visit to Georgetown felt like a discovery of a past we had missed. The restored ancient Khoo Kongsi (South Chinese Clan houses) and the wonderfully renovated old buildings that are now being preserved thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status has given the city a new ambience previously hidden in the neglect, decay and ‘redevelopment’ we had witnessed thirty years previously.

We couldn’t but remember our first visit to the city in 1983, joyfully and randomly celebrating my 27th birthday there with our dear friend Grum and others in the (seemingly still) grotty Swiss Hotel. Times and friends now sadly passed.

Thankfully the vibrant street culture of Georgetown then still remains, fascinating and exciting as before. It defines the place.

But now we get to see a new, old Georgetown. Where restoration and preservation and world heritage status has transformed and revealed the city.

We had a guided walk around the streets and heard how important Malaysia was to the British Empire at the end of the 1800s when a third of the empire wealth came from this one country (mostly through tin), how so much of the people and place was a result of this staggering exploitation with the influx of labour from China and India and how the buildings were a mixture of ancient architectural styles and new materials (ceramic tiles from Stoke, wrought iron from Glasgow).

We saw the impact of the Kongsi rivalry that led to the Penang riots of 1867 etched out in the beautiful and often staggeringly flamboyant clan houses and temples.

And of course we enjoyed the explosion of culture, typified by the street art of Ernest Zacharevic in 2012 and the pipe art that tells tales of local history. There is still much of the town that is ramshackle – the markets, the clan quays, small quaint temples, random workshops, warehouses, coffinshops and printshops. And buildings not yet restored. This adds to the charm of the place, where every corner you turn has something new that is filled with the past.

Khoo Kongsi

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The blue house

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Restoration followed tradition where oven fired porcelain bowls are used to create the elaborate rooftop designs.

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Streets and Street Art

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The Clan Jetties at dawn

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The street art in Georgetown is rightly famous. My favorite was the first one here, though I didn’t see it in any of the guides and maps.

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The series of over 50 steel rod structures tell the very local history of the streets where they are located. They offer an often funny or pointed perspective of the place’ s history from the people who live there.

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