You’re in Penang on a business trip. You’ll be put up in the hotel for a night before you leave the next day. You have time for only two tourists sites and you can’t go too far from the hotel where the seminar is being conducted. God help you, but you need a break from the corporate rush. At least for a few hours!
For the business traveller and tourist, Penang is never short of attractions to visit and explore. Every attraction is a must on this island that is famous for its food and charming past, and the brochures in the hotel room and sites on the Internet beckon you to leave everything behind and discover the island. Again, you have time only for two places: first stop is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Perfect for visitors who wish to dwell deeper into one of the island’s unique communities – the Peranakan or Straits Chinese.
The Mansion is an ode of love to an era remembered fondly but thought of as irrelevant in the fast paced 21st century. Like many things from the past, Peranakan or Baba / Nyonya culture is viewed as relevant only from the fashion standpoint. The Nyonya Kebaya craze shows no sign of abating.
The house that Chung built
Previously owned by Chung Keng Kwee, the 111 year old house, which is now owned by a private owner, has been restored to its former grandeur. Chung was a trader by profession, and came from a small Chinese village famous for its lychees. He set sail for Penang, with dreams of fortune and found it on the island. In those days before corporate takeovers were even dreamed of, Chung was ruthless and did not hesitate to wield his swords and unleash his equally bloodthirsty men on those that thwarted him.
The mansion served as Chung’s residence and office, and was known as the ‘Hai Kee Chan’ or the Sea Remembrance Store. It was here that his clan - the Hai San Kongsi - ruled. He and his henchmen would decapitate the heads of their enemies and put them on stakes outside his home, as a warning to others who try to betray him. The decapitated bodies were then thrown into the well behind the house.
When he died, he left millions in the bank, but like many illustrious families around the world, his legacy slowly became just a myth, as his descendants squandered away money, and hocked off furniture and personal items left behind. In the end, all that was left was a shell of a home.
Each current room in the Mansion is themed. There’s the Nyonya room, which is filled with vintage kebayas and jewellery worn by rich Peranakan women. Gold and silver bracelets, rings, necklaces and earrings – what an Aladdin’s cave of gemmed delights. Do observe the intricate work that has gone into the creation of the pieces. The wedding crown on display really is ‘half a crown’, and was made to be such so that many brides could wear it, for each head is of a different size, and the Peranakans didn’t want to spend so much money just for one crown! It was also considered bad luck to complain about the weight of the crown as it symbolised marriage.
Beauty was appreciated greatly by the Straits Chinese, for the finer things in life was an aspiration to be achieved. Everything is in pairs. The Peranakans believe that harmony and wealth come in twos; hence a happy and successful marriage must have tokens of good omen like a pair of porcelain ducks, cups and other ornaments.
Purveyors of fine antiques will delight in the Wedding Room and marvel at the furniture for they are indeed exquisite. You will notice that there is quite a lot of European influence in their interiors: mother of pearl inlays in wood furniture; glass stained windows and so forth. The Straits Chinese were quite the Anglophiles then; they looked to England for the latest trends in fashion and home furnishings. To them, such craft not only conveyed the expense spent on creating the pieces, but also labour. Hard work and discipline are two values they cherished.
The Dining Room is meant for entertaining, for the family would eat in the spacious kitchen behind. Somehow the room feels rather Southern Gothic, as in Savannah, of Atlanta. It’s spacious and invites gossip and celebrations. Ghosts of servants past, scurry across to serve former masters and mistresses. One can almost see huge parties being thrown in the room.
Chung also built a private temple for his family and him. The entrance to the temple is unusual; instead of a normal wooden door, he had installed swinging doors. This was so that lost spirits would not lose their way as they made their way to the spirit world. The temple is quite theatrical and majestic: look up and be awed by carvings of Heaven and Hell, and Gods and errant devils. A life sized statue of the late Chung overlooks the temple's courtyard - quite unnerving for the first time visitor. Legend has it that nothing could be moved in the temple, for Chung’s spirit would see every single move and not be pleased.
Garden of spice
Now you’ve done architecture, you need fresh air and plants. Mother Nature. You’re sick of the sea and don’t fancy a dip, so where do you go to reconnect with trees?
You head to the Spice Gardens.
10 minutes away from Golden Sands Hotel and other major resorts in Batu Ferringhi, the Spice Garden is a sizeable plot of nature that invites you to stay awhile.
The Garden is divided into various 'rooms' and trails: there are The Water Garden, Cycad Room, Banana/Heliconia Bank, Spice Terraces, Bamboo Garden, Ginger Walk, Sugar Terrace, Ornamental Valley, Croton Wall, Fern Walk and Jungle Trail.
There are over 500 living species of local and introduced plants from Malaysia and around the world, and with them come insects, animals and birds that reside together in the garden. What is also heartening about the garden is that it also uses recycled materials, such as planks, railway tracks and tiles; the garden was formerly a rubber estate and turned into a conservation project by Bertam Consolidated Rubber Co. Ltd.
Signages informing the visitor whether the plant is medicinal, edible, poisonous, scented and of commercial value dot each plant and herb. At the same time, it’s not just about learning; the visitor gets to have some fun too! At various points in the garden are viewing stations – you can sit on benches and watch the world go by or just meditate. There is even a giant swing to take you back to childhood days! The swing is huge (!) and when in the air, overlooks the garden. You better hold on to the swing when you're up on it!
Of course, if all this leaves you exhausted, you can just come to the Garden and relax. You don’t have to visit every plant and herb to de-stress. You can just come and grab a hammock and while away your time. Yes, there are hammocks scattered all over the place; they’re nestled between lush trees and tiny streams.
There is this saying that if one is looking for spices and plants for evil intent, they will disappear from your sight, but if your heart is pure, and you want to help people, the plants call out to you and you will find them literally at your feet. Pure superstition you say, but in a forest, even one that is cultivated like the garden, mystical elements are a part of a forest’s psyche.
The business traveller will definitely want to get a few gifts for friends, so head to the Spice Museum, Spice Café, Gift Shop and Garden Shop for retail relief.
Two places in less than 24 hours in Penang. They will be worth your while.
The Tropical Spice Garden
The Tropical Spice Garden is open from 9am to 5pm daily and there is a tour charge. For more information, visit its website: www.tropicalspicegarden.com.
Address; Lone Crag Villa, Lot 595 Mukim 2
Jalan Teluk Bahang
11100 Penang, Malaysia.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion
Visiting hours: Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 5pm.
Tours at 11.30am and 3.30pm sharp.
Admission: Adults RM10; children below 12 – free and schoolchildren in uniform RM5
29 Church Street, 10200 Penang
(O) 04 264 2929
(F) 04 2641 929