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Sunday December 10, 2006

Savouring the pulse of Penang

By Julia de Bierre;
Photographs by James Bain Smith
Publisher: Areca Books
(ISBN: 983-42834-23) 

BEFORE I begin, I must declare an interest. I know Julia de Bierre well. She has dedicated this book to the memory of her late parents, Fred and Hazel Weatherly, whom I have been associated with for over 30 years. 

Fred, a chartered accountant by profession, devoted his life to the business of Kennedy Burkill Co Bhd, which sponsored the launch of this book. This is to honour the man who is known for his selflessness and integrity.  

Julia de Bierre’s newly-launched tribute to her birthplace offers tourists and Penangites an interesting perspective on the island.
Yet this cuts only so far. I, no less than Julia, love Penang, where we were both born and raised. If you love a place, you won't want to hear it denigrated, insulted or slandered, but it is almost as bad to praise it in superficial ways, or from an ignorant standpoint. Had that been the case, I would not have been inclined to write this review. 

Julia has an eclectic eye, and her book is admirable from two important viewpoints: that of the tourist, and that of the Penangite who has, perhaps, become too absorbed in his community than is altogether good for him, or it. 

Because of familiarity, things tend to be taken for granted rather than appreciated. Every city is unique, but some are more significantly unique than others. 

Of the cities created during the colonial days, George Town in Penang was influenced by three cultures: the original Malays, the Straits Chinese and the Indians. This resulted in a mix of ecclesiastical architecture as varied as the cuisine.  

Certainly, among the superb photographs that embellish this book, the three finest are those of the interiors of the Yeoh Kongsi, the Kapitan Keling Mosque and the Nattukkottai Temple. While all convey grandeur, the contrast of style could not be more stark.  

It has to be said that George Town has enjoyed an extremely unusual form of good luck. In the post-war era, the governments of many countries, including Malaya (as it then was), instituted rent-control. Having noted the spiralling population and a shortage of housing, they decreed that a tenant in situ could neither be evicted to make way for one who could pay more, nor be required to pay more for his accommodation come hell, high water or double-digit inflation. 

The idea was to deter rack-renting, but since the landlords could no longer afford to maintain their property, the result was a landscape of slums inhabited by the shabby-genteel. 

This idiocy was abandoned in due course, but another form of idiocy was also taking place. It was called Urban Renewal, and it meant tearing the residential hearts out of cities in order to “re-develop” them.  

Their inhabitants were re-settled in gerry-built estates in the suburbs, characterised by lack of community spirit, decent communication and infrastructure, or readily available employment.  

The predictable result was lawlessness – often fuelled by drug abuse, and always by anomie. Malaya never went down that road, so by the time Urban Renewal was exposed for the sham it was, George Town was recognised for the jewel it is. Badly run down, but of all the cities of the Raj, the least despoiled. 

It was therefore capable of renovation, as Julia mentions in her preface. Her symbol for George Town is a dilapidated mansion which she knew in her childhood, and still does, as after it was “restored to its former splendour by its present owners'', it’s one where she is a welcome guest. 

The book itself can be classed as a coffee-table book, being illustrated in colour throughout, and is somewhat larger than a “doorstop” hardback novel. This one is light enough to read in bed, though not in the bath. 

It’s organised conventionally enough, beginning with a brief history, proceeding through the principal ethnic influences and architecture, and broadening into areas which particularly strike the writer’s fancy like shopping in the Little India area of Chulia Street, vernacular architecture, and the botany of the island. 

Here, once again, I must declare I have a particular interest in the Botanic Gardens, and was very pleased to see a page devoted to it. Julia also mentions what is often left out of guides to such heavily developed islands as Penang, Hong-Kong and Singapore: the fact that there is a countryside. Those who choose to seek will find. 

However, I find myself in a trap which must ensnare every reviewer of guide-books or anthologies – the one where the reviewer feels that she would have slanted it differently. 

Julia has a section on Gracious Living, but none on the low-life of Penang, which is extensive in a city that is a seaport, an industrial conurbation and a garrison town. She makes mention of the sundry concentrations of hawker stalls, but none at all of their cheerful, rough-and-ready charm – or of the many scrawny cats which patrol them, cadging from the diners. Nor does she mention the street markets which vie with the shopping malls for the shoppers' dollar.  

Well, you can’t have everything. This is a guide-book for the more discerning tourist and for the more constricted Penangite. Also for future historians, because nothing lasts forever, and everything described in this book will, in time, disappear. Here, it has been faithfully recorded as it is, and I hope, as it will remain for many generations. 


  • ‘Penang Through Gilded Doors’ was launched by Penang Yang di-Pertua Negri Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas on Dec 7 at the Town Hall in Penang. 

    Pamela Ong is a lawyer, veteran sportswoman and president of the Penang Arts Council. She is the author of ‘One Man's Will’, an account on the life of Datuk Oon Jaafar, and ‘Blood and the Soil, a biography on her late father Dr Ong Chong Keng who was shot by the communists in 1948 when she was seven.  


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