George Town, The History That Makes History

The tiny island was once a favorite holiday destination with its beautiful beaches, an assembly which attracted tourists worldwide. It stayed as a favorite for a long time, until beaches began to lose the attractiveness when rubbish piled in the wake of the millenium. The Pearl of the Orient started to lose its lustre in the world map, and people were forgetting that there is an island called Penang in this world.

In 2008, a tiny spark once more started a fire which brought the island back on the world map. It was the event where Melaka and George Town was conferred the World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. Since then, the new Penang government (the state government changed due to election, in which the state fell in the hands of the opposition party) worked hard with the little resources available to make the island's reputation stronger in the international arena.

There are so many reasons to make George Town into a World Heritage Site with Melaka. The buildings at the heritage site and the people are still practicing their cultures which are unique to Penangites. There are, for example, homes of the Babas and Nyonyas with a segregated ancestral tablet hall, decorated with attractive wooden pillars and eaves that displayed the skills of excellent workmanship. These buildings have a typical structure similar to older homes in China. There are also clan associations, with buildings similar to ancient Chinese temples, complete with stone wall murals and dragon carved pillars, plus a large area with a stage for performance.

Another example is the Little India, a whole community of Indians with their spice and herbs businesses, sarees, restaurants grocery stores. One can find the traditional Indian trades in this area, and there are also Indian temples worshipping the lovely Lord Ganesha and other Hindu gods.

As a symbol of harmony, there are also Muslim temples with historical values in Georgetown. A significant sign of this harmony is evident where three different religious buildings are just walking distance from each other along the Kampong Kolam and Pitt Street area: Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mariamman Temple and the Goddess of Mercy Temple. All three religious buildings have significant historical and cultural values, blessing the island for safety and prosperity.

Since there is diversity of ethnics in the island, one may also expect a lot of celebrations throughout the year. Besides the celebrations similar to other states in Malaysia, Penangites have many other special celebrations unique to the island. One may say that Penangites are a religious lot, and celebrations are usually centered around the religious believes of the ethnics. Being a state with a majority of Chinese, about 60 percent of all cultural celebrations are about the Chinese too.

Examples include the annual celebrations of Hungry Ghost Festival, a celebration during the seventh lunar month where the gates of hell are supposedly opened and hungry ghosts free to roam among us. The Ghost King statue, usually a huge, fierce statue, is erected, one at almost every district, for the locals to worship for safety and to appease the spirits of the hungry ghosts. There are Chinese opera performances and modern singers which is stylised into the local name of “ko tai” (literally meaning 'song stage'), staging performances supposedly with audience of the 'brothers' from the underworld. The Penang State Government had, in the past two years, made this into a state event specially at the large field along Datuk Keramat Road to promote this rare culture which is uniquely Penang. To add to the mix, visitors will find that each district display and practice may be different, depending on whether the religious master appointed for the area is a Buddhist or a Taoist.

While the seventh month celebrates the hungry ghosts, the ninth month is a celebration of pirates. The Chinese community once again set up tents to worship the Nine Emperor Gods, a team of great pirates reputedly in quests similar to that of Robin Hood in the West. Strangely, the celebration which lasts for nine days is usually accompanied by a lot of rain. It is said that the rain brings the arrival and departure of the Nine Emperor Gods through their route by the sea. During this period, many believers become pure vegetarians, so pure that even the eating utensils will have to be new and clean. Make shift stalls mushroom around town along the streets selling vegetarian food during this period of time, and patrons identify them with the bright, yellow cloth to be sure that they are serving pure vegetarian foods suitable for the festival.

So, there are these two, buildings and culture, that are unchanged throughout history that made UNESCO nod with agreement to confer the World Heritage Status to George Town. This is how history is utilised to create more history in the lovely Penang island.

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