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Machine embroidered Good Luck banner featuring the eight Immortals in Georgetown, Penang

 

Penang! O.M.G. Penang! Its now two weeks since we left but I am still feeling a rosy warm glow whenever I think about it. Part self indulgent nostalgia, part absolute delight. I have to confess a sentimental attachment. Jim and I spent our honeymoon there 31 years ago and we haven’t been back since.

We arrived in the best way, on an overnight train from Thailand (£20 for a sleeper) and then crossed the Strait from Butterworth on the ferry. The skyscrapers which line the coast were definitely not there in 1984, but at the foot of these high rises remain the clan jetties (named for the surname of the clan which lives on it – Lim, Chew, Tan, Yeoh, Lee, Ong and New) These stilt villages still survive although they no longer load and unload goods from the mainland. We are staying at the end of one of them (New or mixed surname jetty) at The Clan Jetty Heritage Home – found on booking.com.

If you can’t  feel delight sitting out on its wooden terrace with a cold beer looking out at the ferries, the tug boats,  the container ships and the old fishing boats which ply the Strait, you are a very hard woman to please.

The clan jetty terrace

The clan jetty terrace

Penang clan jetty small

The clan jetties below the residential flats

 

Georgetown, the capital is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. It’s quaint, it’s delightful and a more charming place to spend a few days it would be hard to find. It maybe a fascinating time warp but it seems to have found a way of preserving its history while accommodating the people who live and work there.

Georgetown is full of reminders of its colonial British past from the Victorian clock tower and white Government buildings to the street names. There are architectural gems from the Straits Chinese heritage (shophouses, elaborate temples, the clan jetties and mansions of rich merchants), and the mosques and temples of the Malays, the Achinese and the Hindu Tamils. Plus  the food! With that mix of cultures, its got to be good.

Penang cat small Penang wall art small

Apart from all the heritage, there’s a vibrant street art scene with lots of murals and iron work “cartoons” which show humour and great affection for the place, its cultures and its past. Without wishing to sound like an advert for Malaysian Tourism, it’s a revelation.

Putting aside Malaysia’s appalling human rights record, the fact that its main opposition politician has been imprisoned for “sodomy”, corruption, bribery, inequality, blatant discrimination against non Malays and the degradation of the environment with ruthless mono cropping of palm oil and rubber. It’s lovely, isn’t it?

One of the amazing iron work cartoons telling the stories of Penang's past

One of the amazing iron work cartoons telling the stories of Penang’s past

 

Sometimes, its just tooo lovely! The "Blue Mansion"

Sometimes, its just tooo lovely! The “Blue Mansion”

 

On our last day, I went in search of my textile and it was easy to decide what it would be. I guess I could have chosen an exquisite batik sarong as worn by the Straits Chinese women (the Perakanan) in times gone by and still brought out for weddings and special occasions. But they are made in Java.

No, it has to be one of the New Year banners which adorn the street doors of houses, shops and temples in the run up to Chinese New Year. As usual this involves me in some hunting. I see a shop with one over its doorway and ask the owner what its called. This leads to much earnest discussion amongst the various chaps hanging about. They obviously have different names for it in different dialects. Then I ask them to write it down in Chinese characters for me – again much discussion. In the end one bright spark tells me just to take a photo of it.

I’m directed to an emporium of Chinese religious and ceremonial prerequisites, packed with people doing their pre New Year shopping. I show the photo and am directed to an aisle full of the things. They mostly feature members of the eight Immortals – characters who seem to represent most of the things you might ask for in life, health, love, prosperity, long life, drinking beer and eating satay in Penang and so on.

Chinese temple

Chinese temple

The highlights of Penang for me:

  • A ride up Penang Hill by funicular in the late afternoon. As dusk falls we walk out among the hill-station bungalows and see long tailed macaques, dusky langurs and a flying lemur!

 

  • A trip to the coastal National Park where we saw a giant sea turtle, huge black and white sea eagles wheeling and diving and a massive monitor lizard marching along the beach and disappearing into the mangrove swamps.

 

  • One evening a walk up a side street in Georgetown, we come upon a travelling Chinese puppet theatre set up near a Chinese temple. There are opera gowns and head-dresses in the temple and paper horses with grass in their mouths, incense  and burnt paper offerings. The puppet theatre has a personnel of at least 6 including musicians and an audience of approximately 5. Is it a rehearsal for a performance or a ritual of its own? Whatever it is, the scene is powerful and unforgettable and as I peep around the back, I feel I may become part of Dr Parnassus’s Imaginarium.
The Puppet Show

Kim Giak Low Choon Puppet Show

Penang small 1

A temple home for the Chinese Opera

 

Penang puppet show

Penang puppet show

 

 

Tomorrow, the Year of the Goat begins.

Gong Xi Fa Chai!

 

 

 

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Chengdu is another huge city (over 4 million) but we have decided to take it on and stay a few days – helped by the fact that Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel is by far the best place we’ve stayed for quite a while. My God, it’s positively cosmic providing decent music in the bar, a huge library of dvds to play in your room and the sorts of foodstuffs we Westerners crave. The staff seem to enjoy being helpful and best of all they provide a map of the city and the bus system. It is of course full of young people, but that can’t be helped.

After a couple of days we’ve explored the local area, its park and wet market and enjoyed the “laid back”* feel of folk playing cards and mah jong under the trees. We’ve hopped on the buses like old hands and visited the city’s temples, markets and even “downtown”.

(* Lonely Planet’s favourite word)

Statue of Mao and fountainsA huge statue of Mao Tse Tung stands there in the middle of The Avenue of The People, his arm raised benevolently over the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds, the Citibank, and the shops selling Cartier and Armani. Chinese approximations of abysmal American rock “classics” play along to his fountains. Oh Mao, what has happened to your dream?

Actually Chengdu isn’t bad and it would be even better if the sun could just fight its way through the smog. Some parts of the city have been restored to resemble what China is supposed to have been like once with tea houses, cobbled lanes and handicraft shops.

These parts are regulated by the Chengdu Municipal Spiritual Civilisation Office and its rules are posted at the entrances. Amongst others:

  • “Don’t jump the queue”.
  • “Don’t chase or beat animal”
  • “Do not be out for small advantages”
  • “Don’t force foreign tourists to take photos”
  • “Do not utter dirty words”
  • “Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug”.

Exactly!

Well, we’ve done our tourist bit, we’ve even been to the Chinese opera. What an experience! Somewhere between the sublime and the hellish loud. It included a hand shadow show, lots of very loud singing, a poignant puppet show, some very loud Chinese trumpet playing, a terrific scolding wife/contrite husband slapstick act and some very spooky instantaneous costume and mask changing. The VIP seats have tea bowls filled by waiters brandishing watering cans with extremely long spouts and the audience just love it all, shouting “Ho!” at the good bits.

And as if that’s not enough, we find that we’ve stumbled on to a second Silk Route – the southern route which connected south-western China with Burma, India and Persia. We’d thought we’d left the Silk Route when we headed south but we’re back on another one.

I’ve also discovered that Chengdu was once known as Brocade City, the river where the silk brocade was soaked was known as the Brocade River and silk brocade fabrics from Chengdu were highly prized and traded all along the Silk Route.

Following this up on the internet (yes, we have free Wi-Fi at groovy Sim’s!) leads us to search out the “Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum”. We were prepared for disappointment, perhaps it would just be another excuse for a souvenir handicraft store. Instead we got one of the best textile museums we’ve been to – a fantastic exhibition, a great demonstration, very good English labels and all free!

The exhibition shows examples of amazing brocaded silks -reproductions of original pieces excavated from ancient sites on the Silk Route. These have been recreated on the museum’s painstakingly manufactured copies of the original looms. There are also breath-takingly fine embroideries and wonderful pieces of silk costume.

Downstairs there are four brocade looms. On one of them there is a young woman weaving a design of Sichuan opera masks. A chap sits half way back on a high platform – two people are needed to work the loom with its incredibly complex system of heddles, 16 pedals, sheds, shuttles and reeds. The chap up top is one of only two “masters” who know how to set up the loom so that it can produce the complex patterns required. It takes about ten years to learn it all.

There are 8,192 warp yarns which can be selected and manipulated to allow for endless possibilities and it’s these combinations which form the design. On average they can weave 5 or 6 cms. a day and this “Emperor’s” fabric sells for around £680 per metre!

Well, that’s the price they’ve put on it in the museum shop but I can’t say we saw anyone actually buying it.

I don’t suppose the project could possibly support itself through sales – the museum is a private initiative, with government funding. But to be able to watch skills and tools which have been used across the centuries and through the dynasties since 225 BC, was a privilege and an inspiration. Full respect to the team that put the whole thing together.

However, it has to be said that their skills are pretty redundant these days as this slow process was totally superseded once the steam driven jacquard loom was invented. This was followed by electric powered looms, and nowadays huge, power looms with integrated computers make our fabrics.

Sichuan brocade may be on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage, but we just don’t have to do things that way anymore!

As if to prove the point, the same day we visit the art and antique market where there’s a stall selling brocade. It’s bright and shiny and rather lovely (or a bit naff, depending on your taste) A machine made silk jacket will set you back about 15 quid and a nice machine embroidered cushion cover £3. Obviously, on close inspection, the brocade woven in the traditional way is much more complex, precise and beautiful, and the hand embroidery is certainly way superior.

The thing is that in the days when Chengdu silk brocade was traded on the Silk Route, there were no power looms, no computer programmes and simply no other way of producing brocade. There were 2,000 workshops and 10,000 looms in Chengdu and everyone in the city had a silk brocade suit of clothes. So there were obviously customers, and if you wanted to dazzle with the brilliance of your outfit you just had to pay the price!

These days you don’t have to be rich to dress in brocaded or embroidered silk – we can all have it without the huge expense needed to make it.

So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the wonder and delight people must have felt when they saw textiles like that, especially if they had come all the way along the Silk Route!

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