Day 192: Coffee, Tin and Riots


Since leaving Melaka, it’s been getting harder and harder to find place that sell a Malaysian coffee, as in black coffee with or without milk.

As far as cafes are concerned, the cappuccinos, flat whites and long blacks are taking over.

I’m slightly annoyed by that because Malaysian coffee is great. Yes, the beans may well be being used in the cappuccinos and the rest but the style of coffee is being left in the hawker centres and it almost seems like it’s viewed as the poor relation to Italian and Australian/New Zealand (whoever invented the ubiquitous flat white) coffees.

Coffee colonisation. The Calanthe Art Cafe in Melaka has been the only cafe that offers the home country’s style of coffee in the cities I’ve been to.

There must be somewhere like it in Georgetown.

I sound found out from Ron, the guide for this morning’s walking tour, that there isn’t.

After an early morning wander around the streets, following Maps.Me and its excellent street art pin-pointing, I eventually found the type of coffee I was looking for, after explaining at two very nice cafes that I could get a cappuccino in England but Malaysian coffees were harder to find back home.

This was when I met Ron, by joining a free walking tour offered by the Penang Tourist Information Office on Beach Road. The tours start at 10.30am but you have to get there around 9.30am to sign up on the day as the numbers of people are limited to 20 for each tour.

Ron told us a little about himself and at the point where tour guides usually ask the crowd to introduce themselves hotel said: “Don’t worry I won’t ask you any daft questions.”

It would appear he didn’t have high hopes for our intellectual abilities.

He promised to tell us stories, the significance of some of the buildings we would see and about the soul of the places we were visiting. That was quite a novel sales pitch.

Originally named Prince of Wales Island, the name was eventually changed to Penang, pronounced Pea-nang.

Beginning with a phrase straight out of a science fiction novel (Dune, for anyone who is wondering), Ron set the scene for our tour: who controlled the spice, controlled the world. Pepper was worth more than gold.

The British were in India, the Portuguese were here in Penang and the French were in Indochina. That was soon to change, though Ron’s tour was about the people who settled here and made it their home.

He focused mostly on Chinese traditions though did mention that the 20th Century boom in rubber brought the Indian workforce to the peninsula.

First stop: Keng Kwee House.

This was a sea facing house. Chung Keng Kwee was essentially a mafia or triad boss and made his money through tin mining.

The well in the garden is thought/ believed/ understood to be filled with the heads of murdered Chinese gang rivals.

Ron gleefully explained that because of Chin Dynasty fashions, it was easy to throw the severed heads down the well – grab their pigtail and swing the head at the target. Is it true or is it an urban legend as a result of him asking the family to seal the well when he was on his death bed? And why hasn’t anyone opened the well to verify this?

The fifth generation of the family sold the house to an antiques dealer and today it’s a museum.

Ron explained Chinese and Peranakan beliefs around generations and inheritance. The first generation works hard, the second generation works hard but knows there is a safety et whereas the third are just weak and living off inheritance.

Chung Keng Kwee’s family remained strong until the fifth generation.

Ron’s additional advice was: don’t leave too much to your kids – they’ll get lazy. Give them an education and that will set them up for life. Spend, spend, spend their inheritance.

Apparently the most common diet in Georgetown is seefood. See food, eat it, and ron took us past a few stalls such as Famous Samosa and gave us a few tips on how to choose somewhere good to eat.

Follow the crowds. If the restaurant is empty it’s overpriced or the food is crap. Advice for anywhere really.

We paused at the King Street Assembly House.

Chinese immigrants to Penang brought their traditions with them, including secret societies, which provided mutual aid and protection for the Chinese community – bolstered in Georgetown by alliances with similar Malay religious groups.

As the societies grew in wealth and power, gang warfare and extortion rackets became commonplace. Matters came to a head in the Penang Riots of 1867: for nine day the town was shaken by fighting between two Chinese gangs and their Malay allies.

Police intervention resulted in a temporary truce, but on August 1, 1867 with claims that one gang had stolen cloth belonging to another, the fighting erupted again. It’s still possible to find bullet holes in the surrounding shops and houses.

Ron pointed out the symbol of raging fire in the architecture. Until you can pay your membership dues, you would fight for your gang.

Why had the Chinese come here? Tin mining.

It was hard work and the pay was poor. The Malay farmers and fisherman wouldn’t do it. The Europeans couldn’t cope with the heat.

China was the ‘sick man of Asia’. Southern China in particular was poverty stricken. China had lost the Opium Wars – penalties were imposed for destroying the opium fields. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and the triads recruited the young people from the villages to work in the mines.

After the Penang Riots Secret Societies were banned… with obviously worked. They rebranded and grouped their associations according to the family name.

Fire architecture now signifies the gathering place of the community. I saw these Assembly Rooms all the way across Vietnam and Ron’s stories added to my understanding of their importance.

The Association Houses or Assembly Rooms provide the link between the homeland and ancestors who died in foreign lands. You can visit from China to find out what happened to a long lost relative and then ask for spiritual help in returning their soul to the motherland.

I love these tours that are about life here rather than pointing out buildings and dates.

The Kapitan Keling Mosque was the first and largest Mosque on the island. This is the redesigned and rebuilt mosque- reconstructed in 1906 thanks to tin and rubber profits.

Einstein was here in January 1923. He wrote about it in his diary. The mosque has the Star of David in the windows and Einstein was admiring this incorporation of Jewish design into the Islamic building.

Ron told us about a visit of Prince Charles and Camilla in 2017 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of independence. Somewhat appropriate to send the Prince of Wales to the island formerly known by that title, I thought.

They visited the Church of St George, the Kapitan Mosque, a Chinese temple and the Sri Mahamariamman hindu temple around the corner.

Malaysia is a melting pot of people and religions – everywhere I have been I’ve seen places of worship of different beliefs practically nextdoor to each other.

It makes for very striking architecture and very beautiful streets.

Categories: Malaysia, Street Art, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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