Friday, 4 March 2011


Penang is a multicultural business and tourism hub in the North West corner of Malaysia sometimes referred to as; ‘The Pearl of the Orient’. From as early as the 15th

century traders from the regional 'archipelago' brought produce to be sold from Penang onto European, American, Arab, Indian and Chinese ships. This is how it began to develop its name 'Pinang' (areca nut). In 1819 when Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles founded Singapore, Penang was left to flounder. The city then recovered from its decline in the late 19th century becoming an export centre due to the development of The Federated Malay States Railway. The commodity crashes as the result of WWII devastated Penang again, but it was after the war in year 1957 that Malaysia became an independent country and George Town – Penang’s capital – gained city status. George Town was established by Briton Sir Francis Light. He had come to Penang in 1786 and bought out locals by firing a cannon of coins into the jungle.

In the 8 or 9 months that I’ve lived and worked here now, several experiences have challenged my preconceptions on life in South East Asia.

Penang has an impressive collection of buildings, particularly early 19th century Anglo-Indian structures and 19th century South Muslim architecture including mosques, houses and shrines. Outside of China Penang is one of the biggest 'showcases' for Chinese shop houses and temple architecture, with varying degrees of 'local' and European influence.

'Penang offered great opportunities for Chinese craftsmanship at a time when China was in political upheaval. The Cantonese built their district associations and the Hokkiens built their clan associations - institutions which played important roles during the years of large - scale immigration.' (Streets of George Town Penang by Khoo Su Nin, P19).

Recently I celebrated Chinese New Year here, which is the celebration of a new 'Lunar' year as opposed to the Gregorian calendar - this is why Chinese New Year happens at a different date each year! There is also 12-year cycle of animals and a 10 year cycle of heavenly stems. It all links to the zodiac (does any one read a monthly horoscope?) It gets complex, but apparently the lunar calendar and idea of horoscopes was believed by Einstein, and 'lunacy' was lost in British culture during the Victorian era. Who knows? Chinese New Year is a 15 day celebration and is also a big family and community driven occasion. There are dragon dances, lion dances, prayers and other rituals such as handing red packets of money to unmarried people (I got approx £6), sharing mandarin oranges then throwing them into the sea. Because of the large Chinese population in Penang the experience has been fantastic. One of the highlights has been the food.

The ‘Kek Lok Si’ one of Penang’s best known temples is lit by candles at night during CNY. On the 8th night prayers and chants take place at midnight and the atmosphere around the religious temples becomes quite mystic. So at dusk on the 8th day myself and 5 others went to see The ‘Kek Lok Si' light up. The temple is set into hills inside a valley so we climbed up the opposite hill and sat in a lettuce field, an unofficial spot known to the underground circle of photographers here (sarcasm). As it got darker prayer calls and faint city noises became louder but my focus was on the brightening glow of the temple. We started our shoot and it was one of my most memorable experiences in Penang so far. Luckily a colleague is a national award winning photographer who trained in New Zealand. And it’s advisable to find one alike if considering attempting this kind of activity as there are risks to shooting from a clearing inside jungle, such as Cobra's and several species of poisonous toad. ‘Kek Lok Si’ translates to 'temple of extreme bliss' it is quite a beauty and a must see if you are ever fortunate enough to be in Penang. I will always remember it as a blanket of gold melting into the surrounding hills.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Mairead x

Images copyright to Mairead Gillespie.

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