( by Afiq Johari )

On 7 July 2008, Melaka and George Town were selected as Malaysia's newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. ‘Melaka and George Town, Cities of the Straits of Malacca’ was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site during the 32nd session of the World Heritage Committee which met in Quebec City, Canada, on 2-10 July, 2008. This is the first time that cultural sites in Malaysia have been inscribed into UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage Listing that covers a 109.38 hectare site on the north-east of Penang Island.

The recognition by UNESCO to acknowledge George Town as a heritage city means that the initial zone should be preserved from further development that would change the skyline of Penang Heritage City. But what is the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site? In this feature article, I am providing background information on George Town heritage and traditions.


George Town is located in Penang Island, Malaysia. The place is so rich with history, heritage and traditions. Since Francis Light drew out the plan of the city, it had born witness to the rise and fall of governments and ruling parties. The city was coveted by many as a strategic and natural port. It was also the guardian to the northern entrance of the Straits of Malacca. Before goods could be transported by airplanes, the one who ruled Penang ruled the lucrative East-West trade.

Heritage & Traditions


George Town represents exceptional examples of multi-cultural trading towns in East and Southeast Asia. They were established by trading activities that result in the blending of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures with three successive European colonial powers, over a period of 500 years. This creates a lasting imprint on their architecture and urban form.

George Town is a living testimony to the multi-cultural heritage and tradition of Asia, and of the European colonial influences. The tangible as well as intangible heritage of the two cities are expressed in its religious buildings of different faiths, ethnic enclaves, spoken dialects, festivities, dances, attire, art form, cuisine and lifestyle.

One of the factors that make Penang unique is its people. They are a nation of mixed blood so co-mingled, with ancestors from all over Asia and also the West. It could say that they all are fine examples of living heritage. The Baba and Nyonya descendants, the Indian Muslims (colloquially known as "Anak Mami Tanjung, Mamak or Mami"), offspring of the South Indian Hindu Tamils, the Eurasians and the Malays from Aceh and others in the Malay archipelago make Penang their homes. It is a true melting pot where inter-racial marriage is common.

Baba and Nyonya culture in Penang is pretty different from the ones in Malacca (Melaka), Medan, Singapore or Kota Bharu. If there is a group of Nyonyas and Babas in Melaka who speak exclusively Malay, their counterpart in Penang speaks a mixture of Hokkien, Malay and English. The food also has a slight variation too. Not surprising in this sense, since the two places are geographically different. But both Baba and Nyonya and Anak Mami Tanjung have a combination with Malay. That’s makes Penang is so unique.


The Babas and Nyonyas: Are of ethnic Chinese but they were born in Penang. They adopt a lot of local clothing, food, language and culture too in their daily lives. Especially from the Malay and European culture like for example, the Nyonya food uses a lot of chillies to make sambal in their food. There is a dish called Sambal Hei Bee (Sambal Udang kering). The amount of time and effort that went into making these cakes is amazing. This is from the influence of Malay dining habit which does not consider a meal is complete without chillies or anything spicy.

Anak Mami Tanjung: Nasi Kandar is famously popular in Penang, and many restaurants selling it are well known not only to those on the island but those in other states as well. It is
basically a combination of Malay and Indian cuisine and the taste is more robust.
This concept came about when "Nasi" (Rice) hawkers would previously "Kandar"
(balance a pole on the shoulder with two huge containers on both ends) their wares. It is quite common to find people from other states detouring to Penang just to stop
for a meal of Nasi Kandar before proceeding on their journey elsewhere. Others popular Indian foods include Murtabak, Nasi Briyani, Pasembur and Tandoori chicken.


The Babas and Nyonyas: In terms of their clothing, the men adopt the western style of clothing mainly for daily wear. They wear Chinese style tunic for special occasions. The ladies, on the other hand, have a lot of choice in fashion. One set of attire that is associated with the Nyonyas is the Kebaya (mixture of Malay and Chinese). The intricate embroidery that is embedded in the design makes each of the Kebaya unique. The patterns are normally inspired by nature, intertwined vines or tropical birds and butterflies. They are truly beautiful and it is a dying art too since there are not many skilled artisans left to sew the Kebaya the old way.

The Penang State Art Gallery

The Penang State Art Gallery is located with the Penang State Museum which is situated in Lebuh Farquhar. It is considered one of the best art galleries in the country, with a permanent collection of 235 priceless paintings by local artists and a contemporary collection that showcases modern works of art. Themed exhibits are held from time to time in the Sri Pinang Hall, where the paintings are located.

The Hainanese Mariner's Lodge

The Hainanese Mariner's Lodge is a colonial shop house that was once a lodging place and club house of Hainanese migrants in Penang. Hainan sailors often came to stay here during their many travels to and from China. The Hainanese was one of the main Chinese ethnic groups that came to Penang in search of fortune. They were renowned for their culinary skills and ability to sail the winds of the sea effortlessly. Today, this blue building now houses the Penang Heritage Trust Office, and stands as a monument to visitors of the Hainanese community in Penang. The Penang Heritage Trust is itself a body that serves to preserve and promote the delicate cultures of Penang


Cantered in Campbell Street, but covering some surrounding areas of Georgetown, Chinatown is a living heritage of the first Chinese settlers in Penang. Popular as a shopping district, various generations of Chinese descended from the first that arrived here continue to ply their ancient trades, such as joss stick making and signboard engraving in old colonial shop houses. A trip here will provide a rich journey of oriental culture for visitors.

Little India

Neighbouring Chinatown but in a much smaller area encompassing Lebuh Chulia, Lebuh Queen and Jalan Pasar, Little India is another popular shopping district for all things Indian. Traditional Indian businesses that deal with silk, sari, cotton and tin carriers still go on strong here, providing a colourful experience for tourists and visitors. The large number of money changers here provides a convenient place for exchanging currency while taking in the sights and sounds of Little Indian. This district is quite lively, with the noise of Indian and Hindi music often blasting in the air. If you like trying out food, then Little Indian has much to offer in terms of spicy cuisine and curries.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is homage to the Straits Chinese community of Penang. This special group of people were created in the early centuries by a gradual blending of Chinese and Malay cultures, mostly by the intermarriage of Chinese settlers and local Malays. The Peranakan people, as they are called, are also known as the Baba Nyonya or Straits Chinese. This Mansion which doubles up as a museum, displays over 1,000 artefacts and relics related to the history, customs and traditions of Baba Nyonya heritage. The mansion itself is an authentic design that incorporates British and Chinese architecture, a sight not to be missed by visitors.

Millionaire Row

Located in Northam Road (Now known as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah), the millionaire's row is a series of colonial heritage mansions built along a 1 mile stretch of road. It was a dwelling zone for the rich European upper class of society in the early century, but over time, their numbers were joined and supplanted by rich Chinese traders and businessmen, who built their own luxurious homes. Today, only a few of the original mansions remain, occupied by the descendants of their builders, but a few are dilapidated and abandoned. Visitors can drive by and admire the architecture of these colonial buildings and appreciate the history behind them.

P. Ramlee's House

P. Ramlee was the most famous Malay actor of his generation in Malaysia, and would be to Malaysians what Elvis Presley is to American culture. This artiste produced a wide range of movies and songs through the 50s that are still popular in modern entertainment today. Although he passed away in 1973, his house in Jalan P. Ramlee, named after him, still stands to educate visitors and tourists about his legacy. The house, which is a cultural museum, exhibits personal items and memorabilia belonging to the actor, along with items that portray his history and lifestyle such as photographs and movie recordings. Located within the house is a 300-seater performing arts theatre and complex. Open almost daily, admission is free.

The Kek Lok Si Temple

Founded more than 100 years ago by benevolence Beow Lean, a devout Buddhist
from Fujian province, the temple was once given the name of "Huock San" (Crane hill)
due to the hills resemblance of crane spreading its wings. The main attraction of the Kek Lok Si Temple is of course the impressive and striking Pagoda of Rama VI which was completed in the year 1930. It is known to be laid by the Thai Monarch himself. Widely known as Wan Fo Pau Ta or "The Pagoda of 10 000 Buddha’s", The Pagoda displays a collection of Alabaster and Bronze Buddha and it also contains a Chinese octagonal base with middle tiers of the Thai architecture and is tapped with a Burmese Temple crown. And towering over one hundred feet and seven storeys high, The Pagoda is currently the largest of its kind in Malaysia

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