I had never heard of “oblation” before turning into a courtyard tucked behind George Town’s serried ranks of ornate shophouses. Two swivel-eyed little dogs were yapping their hearts out, while several men squatted on the workshop floor, cutting and bending lengths of what looked like a type of cane. These were being lashed together into intricate structures, each taller than a person. Three women with practised hands were busy gluing squares of coloured paper onto these frames.
What they were making was oblation, extraordinary flammable creations burned by members of Penang’s Chinese community as an offering to the gods, typically at a funeral. The finished pieces were extraordinary: finely detailed, vividly coloured model houses with sweeping staircases and elaborate decorations, some almost as big as the cars on George Town’s narrow streets a few dozen metres away. Not that these craftspeople’s skills are limited to flammable paper and wooden houses; if you want something else, they’d build it for you.
“A Ferrari,” said Gary Lee, as he curled and tied lengths of cane into perfect donut-sized circles. That was the strangest oblation he had ever made. It was for a death anniversary, so he had time to research it online, getting the measurements and the detailing just right, and working out exactly how to make a growling Italian supercar from paper and wood. He reacted to my surprise with a grin and picked up his phone, flipping through photo after photo of extraordinary structures, from motorcycles to Penang’s iconic trishaws. Every time he makes something new, he scribbles the plans in the notebook that he keeps by his side. The next time somebody asks him for a flammable Ferrari, he’d know exactly how to go about it.
The oblation makers are just one part of what makes George Town so special. The city’s winding streets have the stamp of UNESCO on them, so you can take it as a given that there are endless rows of cloistered shophouses, smoky temples, ornate mansions and other markers of an affluent colonial past. But George Town’s heart lies not in its stucco-fronted structures or intricately carved wooden shutters: instead, its heart is in its people, and nobody exemplifies this more than the skilled craftsmen who continue to earn a living the same way that generations before them have done.
The city’s heart lies in its people, such as its skilled craftsmen
Kok Ah Wah is one of them. Back before World War II, his father taught him how to make the grand signboards that hang above the front doors of the local Chinese merchants. Now that he is old, it takes him up to three weeks to make one of the larger signs, from preparing the board and coating its surface to colouring the chiselled Chinese characters in gold. As with many of the other craftsmen, he has adapted to Penang’s growing tourist trade by producing smaller trinkets for sale, like a pair of beautifully carved golden lions, ideal for slipping into a suitcase.
The sprightly Lee Beng Chuan plies his trade a few jostling blocks away. You’ll find him hard at work every morning, kneading dough made from fragrant sandalwood, teja tree powder, sawdust and water. Mr Lee, who is in his late eighties, then lays the moulded rods and cones out to dry, before creating giant sticks of foil-wrapped incense that look a little like lollipops for ogres.
While a sharp nose can track down Mr Lee’s incense from several streets away, a keen ear is needed to hear the electric drill that Ng Chai Tiam uses for his work. Sat behind a giant magnifying glass at a table outside his shophouse on Lebuh Pantai, Mr Ng is a seal cutter and calligrapher, carving elaborate patterns and characters into stone for use as personal printing blocks. His larger carvings are a testimony of his dazzling skill with that fearsome drill, which took him more than half a century to hone.
An increase in tourism in the city has been a double-edged sword for Mr Ng. Showing me a lovely carving, he explained it was one of many he now sells to visitors. But with the visitors have come rent increases that are making it hard for artisans like him to survive. A sudden rent hike from MYR600 to MYR3,000 has already forced him out of his old workshop on Carnarvon Street, and if prices rise any further, he and his fellow craftsmen might have to relocate outside George Town’s historic heart. While a plan by the authorities to restore houses specifically for the craftsmen to work in acknowledges the problem, it still hasn’t gotten off the ground.
It’s not just the craftsmen that make George Town sing with life. If you take away the metalworkers and scrap dealers, the itinerant chefs and the man merrily making sense of a pile of electronic waste – then tidy up the decaying façades – you’ll simply be left with a faceless museum. It’s a fear that motivates Joann Khaw and Mark Lay, who run George Town Heritage Action, an activist group dedicated to preserving the George Town that Joann grew up in. Wary of outside investors buying up entire rows of old shophouses, they work to ensure that their neighbourhood still has a place in its crooked streets for bookbinders and rattan weavers.
To give me a taste of what they feared, Mark drove us down to the harbour front. The port, after all, is what made Penang’s fortunes, when it was a key hub in the British-administered Straits Settlements alongside Singapore and Malacca. The Chinese who came to the island in search of a better life were members of clan organisations, who loaded and unloaded ships in the harbour on a series of clan-specific jetties.
Tourists are usually directed to the Chew Clan Jetty, a jumble of attap palm-roofed huts and gangplanks that jut out into the waters in haphazard fashion. “These homes were built so that the clansmen could live where they worked,” Joann told me. “Because they were above the water, they could avoid paying taxes.” These days, the purposeful footfalls of tax-avoiding stevedores have been replaced by a confusion of selfie stick-wielding tourists, picking their way between stores selling plastic trinkets and durian ice cream. Many of the residents have just turned their backs on it all, erecting signs forbidding photography, or simply selling up to the trinket merchants. Others, including one Chew clansman I met, with an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude, have tried to embrace the tourist trade.
But take a short walk to the nearby Lim Clan Jetty, and you’ll see what life could have been like. Here, residents chat with each other, scold their children, and fiddle with crayfish traps. Every breath of air brings a waft of incense from the ornate gold and red altars, hidden from sight inside doorways. These are still places where people live and work, and that work is definitely not selling fridge magnets.
Visiting the Chew Clan Jetty, I understood Joann and Mark’s fears of losing something as precious as George Town’s living, breathing heart. It’s not the first place to feel the tension between the old and the new, between time-honoured ways of living and burgeoning commercial opportunities. But new isn’t always necessarily bad.
There are many signs that the injection of interest, money and visitors is having a positive physical effect on this old trading port. Take The Edison, a glorious old colonial-era hotel on Lebuh Leith, on the northern edge of central George Town. As the Cathay Hotel, it had endured a long decline, including some years as a brothel, before being given a new lease of life. Now, it’s an elegant feast of airy interiors laced with wrought iron and teak, marble and old tiles.
“For years, it was a cheap, run-down hotel,” admitted Ivan Khoo, The Edison’s executive assistant manager. “We had this vision to restore the old dame to her former glory. We wanted to recapture the feeling of what the old residential mansions used to feel like.”
It’s still hard to imagine that the chaotic city will be turned into a sanitised Disneyland
Jawi Peranakan Mansion is another shining example of sympathetic restoration. It’s one of several previously derelict properties that its owner, former investment banker and Penangite, Chris Ong, has brought back to life. “These buildings were once in danger of falling down and collapsing in on themselves,” he said. “But once you save the physical structure, you also help to save the intangible heritage.”
Thanks to the glorious legacy of its beautiful buildings and its urban bustle, George Town remains a visual feast for visitors. The shabby, crumbling walls, sometimes adorned with a striking mural, are as much part of the picture as the old lady dozing inside a shophouse window. Thankfully, it’s still hard to imagine that its chaotic nature might be squeezed out, and the place turned into a sanitised Disneyland. The traditional craftsmen who call the streets home play an essential role in retaining that unique character, while offering a very real glimpse into the beauty and heart of George Town.
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This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine