The George Town Walkabout Tour, conducted every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10.30am, is the perfect introduction to George Town’s multi-layered, multi-ethnic history and culture. The 90 minute tour encompasses the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage zone, and outlines the key points of Penang’s history using as jumping off points the most important buildings in the former European colonial district, the two Chinatowns, the Muslim district and Little India. It is ideal for anyone with a limited amount of time to spend exploring George Town, but also for anyone, visitor or resident, who is looking for a succinct overview or even a refresher course in Penang’s gloriously complex and colourful past. Best of all, the tour is absolutely free of charge.
The tours begins and ends at the tourist information centre which is inside the historical Whiteaways arcade building on Beach Street. There is no need to book in advance, but it is important to arrive before 10am to register. The tour is limited to 20 participants per day. After a brief introduction the guide leads the group outside, past the impressive buildings of the financial district, to stand in front of the immigration department building where there is a plaque summarising George Town’s history, and where he gives an overview. This covers the origin of the name Beach Street, the story behind Fort Cornwallis and why a single shot was never fired from it, the Victorian clock tower, and why the statue of Captain Francis Light shows a different person entirely.
The group walks along Light Street before turning into King Street and stops at the wrought iron caricature on the corner of Church Street, “street fighters”. Here the early history of the influx of Portuguese Catholic settlers to Penang is recounted, as well as the reason why the community moved its church to its current location, the Church of the Assumption, just a few hundred metres away. Here also the austere architecture and fire-proof design of the Cantonese temples on King Street, the location of George Town’s first Chinatown, is explained.
Next the tour enters Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, also known as Pitt Street, or “The Street of Harmony”, to admire the oldest Anglican church in South East Asia, St George’s, before entering the most important Chinese temple, known as the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin) temple, but housing hundreds of other deities too. Here the guide explains the way the Chinese community prays to different gods for different reasons, and how Kuan Yin replies to requests through the medium of fortune sticks and half-moon shaped blocks.
Crossing Stewart Lane, the division between shops selling incense for Chinese temples and stalls selling flowers for worship and the nearby Hindu temple is pointed out, and the garlanded statue of Hindu deity Ganesha surrounded by broken coconut shells. The two polytheistic cultures co-exist happily with Chinese worshippers apparently happy to pray to one of the thousands of Hindu gods if they have no luck with any of the Chinese ones!
Further along Pitt Street outside the impressive Kapitan Keling mosque the history of Indian muslim settlers is briefly explained, and the colonial government’s policy of donating land for the building of places of worship to encourage settlers of each faith to establish themselves in separate enclaves.
At the corner of Armenian Street and Cannon Street the function of the Kong Si as a support system for immigrant Hokkiens is recounted, and the tour group enters the Hock Teik Cheng Sin temple. This temple was notoriously the “gangster” temple, where the Hokkien secret society Kian Teik Tong plotted against the Cantonese Ghee Hin secret society, and escaped through secret passageways into nearby buildings whenever raided by the police. Cleverly the passageways were built to be too narrow and short for large British policeman to enter!
The tour then cuts along narrow Lorong Soo Hong, past wall-fulls of street art, and into the heart of Little India on Penang Road. The guide explains the yellow splashes of turmeric in front of many of the shops, poured there daily to bring prosperity, and how to bargain for a good deal by being the first customer of the morning!
The by now hot and sweaty tour group is led back to Beach Street, where there is a plaque commemorating the contributions of the German community in Penang, and the remarkable entrepreneurial strategy of Huttenbach to bring the first street lamps to George Town.
Right on time at twelve midday, the group returns to the tourist information office and the tour concludes with a few recommendations for a good local lunch.