Colonialism, Censorship, Citizenry: Unexpected Lessons from George Town, Penang

I didn’t expect to gain so much from so small a place in so short a time period. George Town was enlightening, inspiring, and saddening all at once.

Much of the world is shaped by colonialism of the past and, arguably, the present. Penang was and is an island of military significance and, to a degree, commercial centrality. George Town, named after Britain’s King George III when it was colonized in the late 1700s, is the largest city on the island and has an interesting mixture of colonial heritage as well as the pan-Asian culture that Malaysia is famous for.

Teresa, Mary, Desiree, and I set sail on a slow ferry from the town of Butterworth to George Town’s port where we immediately set off on foot in search of a clean budget accommodation. It wasn’t too difficult considering how small the city is. We found a room with three beds that we pushed together, slumber party style, like kids at a friend’s birthday. After settling in, we headed into town where a few of the streets were quite lively and lined with a variety of cuisine similar to what we found in Kuala Lumpur. We decided on roasted duck, egg noodles and rice, as well as a warm soup featuring pork and shrimp dumplings. Very savoury, very delicious.

We walked the streets at night, Teresa and I favouring a 7-11 for dessert which sold our oft sought after Magnum ice cream bars for a quarter of the price they cost in Canada. That’s one thing I forgot to mentioned about Malaysia; 7-11 was a go-to spot in Thailand for Teresa and I when we needed cheap bottled water and some instant A/C. As soon as we entered Laos, they were nowhere to be found. The same went for Cambodia and Vietnam. In Malaysia, though, the famous convenience store abounded once again, to our delight.

The following day, the four of us rented bicycles. None of the ladies felt comfortable driving a motorbike (although I think my sister would have fared well with a little practice). Teresa isn’t big on cycling so we rented a tandem bike for the two of us. I steered as the both of us pedalled. It took a bit of getting used to, especially maneuvering a vehicle of that length, but we caught on fast and learned to work together very well. For a small island, the traffic in George Town got a little crazy and my little sister was freaked out on the road at times, especially because she wasn’t used to Asian driving style. That is, the drive-where-there’s-room-and-honk-a-lot style that I’ve grown to adore.

We rode around the city, taking in the sights and sounds. We wound up at a disused colonial cemetery, The Old Protestant Cemetery, also known as Northam Road Cemetery, where hundreds of British sailors and military men are buried, along with their wives and families. Some were only in their teenage years or even younger when they died. Some died in combat, others of horrible diseases caught at sea due to a lack of proper nutrition and the brutal conditions where bacteria and viruses thrive. Some went as far back as the 1700s when Penang was first colonized by the British. It was actually a rather peaceful area, although wedged between two major roads. There was an unusual separation from the outside world in this grassy, treed sanctuary.

penang 1

penang 2

Later in the afternoon, we wound up at a Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. It actually turned out to be within walking distance of where we were staying. It housed a variety of pieces in relation to the colonial period, as well as long before. Traditional Malay dress and styles of housing were incorporated into the displays, as well as information on the integration of Chinese and Indian foreigners. It was fascinating to see how the culture that exists in Malaysia today began to really knit itself together and evolve over the decades and centuries. We even found a gaming board that was very similar to a game that Teresa and Mary played at home with their parents and their other two sisters when they were children. It reminded them of their Vietnamese connection to the Chinese culture and how that culture has spread around Asia. In fact, upon further research, it is part of a classification of games called Mancala. Within that classification are a variety of games like the one we saw in the museum, and the one Teresa and Mary played at home as kids, as well as variations from Africa, other parts of Asia, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe.. It just goes to show how certain aspects of a culture can actually transcend that culture and be shared throughout the world.

penang 3

Later on in the evening I went for a walk by myself, returning to a bookstore that we’d visited earlier to give it a more thorough observance. As I’d mentioned in an earlier article about Hanoi, finding a bookstore that sold English books was like finding a goldmine for me, especially since I’d well passed finished reading all of the books I’d brought, as well as several I found along the way. We even got Mary to bring us a couple of books when she came to meet us in KL. I’d recently finished reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, or Book I of the epic Wheel of Time series. I occasionally saw other books in the same series, but since it contains a whopping thirteen books, it was never Part II, The Great Hunt. In this bookstore in George Town, I did end up finding it, but for an inflated $30 (90 Malaysian dollars). I couldn’t justify spending this when I’d been hardcore budgeting for months now. I tried to bargain with the store owner but he wasn’t having it. We had a conversation about the prices in his bookstore and he revealed to me that he imports all of his books from Europe. In addition to the expense of the distant journey, apparently the Malaysian authorities do not allow books that contain certain thematic elements they deem to be problematic in some way. I don’t know if they slap arbitrary labels on certain types of books or what, but either way, this leads to store owners like the gentleman who owned this bookstore to have their products confiscated upon import and thus driving the price up on the rest of their sales items. I found this very unfortunate because, in my opinion, almost no book or literary work should be censored. We as humans ought to be educated in a way to allow us to think critically about what we are reading, and to grow from it whether we agree with everything we read or not. Although there may be some exceptions to this rule, especially if the “literature” pushes nothing more than vitriol and hatred, mere controversy should not be a criteria for disallowance or confiscation. This, I believe, is a troublesome form of censorship and quite saddening to hear about.

On our last evening in George Town, we went out for Indian food where they made the naan bread in a cylindrical stone over right on the street. The food was delicious. I made a grave error by forgetting my day bag where we were sitting. My passport was inside and it would’ve been a nightmare had I lost it. It wasn’t until we were a good three blocks away that I turned to see a man running after me shouting. It was one of the gentlemen who served us at the restaurant, flailing my backpack over his head. I wanted to kiss the man for the kindness he showed me by returning my forgotten property. I felt like a moron at the same time my heart welled up with happiness for the kinds of thoughtful people we would come across all over the world. As a man who’s been to dozens of countries and has met all kinds of individuals, believe me when I say that people are generally good.

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penang 4

This has turned into a long one, so I’ll end it here. We took an overnight after ferrying back across to Butterworth. Now, we were headed to the port town of Mersing, on the opposite side of the peninsular Malaysia from Penang. There, we’d be journeying through the South China Sea to the remote tropical island of Tioman, and creating some of the most exotic, longing memories of my entire six month trip.

16 thoughts on “Colonialism, Censorship, Citizenry: Unexpected Lessons from George Town, Penang

  1. Glad you got your daypack back! That would have been a mess, for sure! I bet the Naan was never better:) Do you travel with a Kindle? I know it isn’t like holding a real book, but makes traveling so much easier:) We converted when we went on the road full time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This cemetary is probably pretty scary at night!
    Too bad about the book II of the Wheel of Time. Just sad that in many countries they ban certain kind of books/ topics. I am just happy that I got all books of the collection at home and now I get the feeling that I should read them once again 🙂

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  3. I always seem to gravitate to random pieces of information in people’s posts, and this time it’s the 7-11s and the Mancala games. I was astonished how many 7-11s there were all over Mexico City and how I actually used them! Here in the U.S., I can’t even tell you the last time I went into a 7-11. Like all things overseas, even crappy convenience stores grow in attraction when traveling! As for the game, we played Mancala (that was the exact name on the box) when I was a kid (not anywhere exotic – just western Pennsylvania!). Fun to see it again and think about its origins.

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  4. My first visit to Penang was in the early 60’s as a 19 year old – I took my wife in 2005 and it still had that ‘pull’ for me – we have been back several times since, and will be there again in May of 2016. Love your posts :-o)

    Liked by 1 person


        Fortunately, the heart of Georgetown has remained more or less as it was in the early 60’s. I have yet to get round to writing about Malaya / Malaysia, but if you check out my blog you’ll find details of Singapore gaining independence from the British & again from Malaysia. Go to earlier blogs, and you’ll read of my time on an LST out of Singapore during the Indonesian conflict. I took my wife back to Kuching (twice) in Borneo because I wanted to show her ‘all my yesterdays’ :-o)

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