One of the reasons that I love history so much is that it tells the story of a different time, a different life, and a different place. So rarely do we get the opportunity to relive the historic. Architecture is one of the few things that you get to interact with daily that gives you a taste of history. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. I used to sit in my 1880-something Old Louisville apartment and study the details of the trim, the ornament around the fireplace mantle, the age of the worn old floors. I would think about the victorian era family that originally inhabited the place. The men probably had handlebar mustaches and the women had those dresses that came up to their chins. And someone held an oil lamp. I could use the space as instrument for imagining a former way of life. Yet I loved how it provided me with the same basic comforts of home 130 years later. So when I came to the old British port city of Georgetown, on the island of Penang, my imagination ran rampant!
This city was once a trading port for the East India Company, but later became a British Colony named “Prince of Wales Island.” The British considered it part of India, but before their presence, the island was a Buddhist/Hindu kingdom that later became a Muslim state. These four influences are still very present today in Georgetown’s rich melting pot of culture. This mesh of people made it a World Heritage City in 2008, along with Melaka in southern Malaysia.
I came here at the advice of an old Malaysian woman I met in Kuala Lumpur. She boasted about her trip and praised everything about the place. She was right. When I arrived, I was taken aback by the rich collection of British colonial architecture that is still in tact. Yet every direction I looked, a different ideology was being praised. I spent my first two days exploring the small colonial streets, little India, the Chinese fisherman jetties, and the big mosque in the center of the city. History was coming alive as I imagined fat British colonists being pulled around in rickshaws. The Chinese were probably in their traditional clothing walking past Indians in their sahri’s, all on busy little seaside streets.
On these same streets today you still see such a mixing of tradition. At one point, on one of my walks, I was watching an old woman in a sahri, with long braided hair, pray under a chowtara. I turned around and saw Chinese lighting incense for their own rituals in their temple just behind the chowtara. About 10 minutes later I heard the call to prayer being broadcast down the street. amazing. I was reminded of Ahmedabad, India, where the population is equal parts Muslim, Hindu, and Jain all in the same city. Seeing these different lifestyles coexist is fascinating and educating. It affects it’s inhabitants in so many ways: festivals, clothing, even multi lingual menus.
It amazed me to see how these old colonial buildings had been manipulated over time. Signs and advertisements covered old wooden shutters. Scooters, tables, and anything else that belonged in the streets were cluttered up in front of the beautifully ornate facades. To some it would seem a shame to let this historic architecture sit in a state of decay. You could see the stucco walls were rotting off or covered with mold, exposing the clay bricks that formed the structures underneath. But I think the decay gave it beauty and distinguished it as heritage architecture. I would rather visit a place that utilizes these spaces and makes them their own, than a place that tries to imitate a picture perfect world, fit for a disney kingdom. After all, these streets were probably just as cluttered when they were brand new buildings! Living architecture is more incredible than going to some ghost town historical site anyways. To me that’s what makes good architecture, being able to adapt to the present, even after it’s prime.
Another big draw to Penang is it’s collection of street art. When I arrived at my hostel, I was given three maps: one for food destinations, one for historical architecture walks, and one street art map. The map took me down dirty little alleys and tiny colonial streets, past old warehouse and through the fisherman’s wharfs. Everywhere I looked, somebody had transformed a surface into art. I loved it.
Not only was this old architecture still telling stories of past and present, but the art and culture were alive too. Every street displayed something new. After my first day, I said to myself, “I could live here.” Jungles up the hill, beaches were minutes to the west, the food was great. Yeah… I could live here. Maybe as an architectural tour guide or something. I could sit in one of the little cafes and imagine up a former way of port city life, kind of like playing the Oregon Trail computer game. But maybe it would get old too. “Damn, Sally died from cholera. I told you guys we should have caulked the wagons and floated!” So maybe for now I’ll just keep traveling. But I’m certainly glad to have found some living architecture in Georgetown.