The last time we were in Penang, at the end of 2014, we stayed in the old part of the island’s capital city, George Town. This time, we’re in a suburban neighborhood a few miles away. The area, called Tanjung Tokong, is dominated by huge high-rise apartment buildings and malls, with new ones being built all the time. But as we’ve started exploring the neighborhood, we’ve seen glimpses of the past and of the rich cultural diversity that makes Penang so special.
Penang is the only state in Malaysia where people of Malay (and Indonesian and southern Thai) descent and people of Chinese descent reside in about equal numbers. (The rest of the population consists of people whose families came from the Indian subcontinent or everywhere else under the sun.) That Malay-Chinese mix is evident in our local area.
The house we’re looking after is in a residential neighborhood on a hill. Most of the houses around it appear to be occupied by Chinese families. But at the end of the street there’s a small Muslim cemetery, with short pillars marking the graves. Behind us is a Chinese school. close enough that we can hear the buzz of children’s voices during the day and announcements on the loudspeaker. The school’s open-air kitchen is right behind our kitchen, and sometimes the smell of frying onions wafts over the fence to us. In the afternoon, we hear the clink of dishes as the cooks clean up.
At the bottom of our hill is a mosque. Multiple times a day, the muezzin’s call to prayer can be heard throughout the neighborhood—a beautiful, solemn-sounding chant sung by a rich male voice. It’s Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and focus on their spiritual life. Next to the mosque, there’s a special Ramadan street market every afternoon, where stalls cook and sell all kinds of food that people can take home for their evening meal. It’s been our default place to get dinner when we don’t feel like venturing far. But out of respect for people who are observing the fast (even as they spend hours making and selling food!), we wait to eat or drink any of our purchases until we get home.
Surrounding the mosque, tucked between the base of the hill and a highway, is part of the village of Tanjung Tokong. Many of the houses are built of wood in a traditional Malay style, some on stilts. Little alleys crisscross the village. On our walks there, we’ve seen domesticated ducks sleeping in the shade of huge mango trees and innumerable cats prowling the yards. Some houses have batik sarongs and Muslim head scarves drying on the wash lines; others are decorated with Chinese lanterns. Opposite the mosque is a Chinese Buddhist temple with an ornately tiled roof. The steep lane that leads to our house from the village runs along the wall of the temple. Sometimes, as we trudge up the hill, we can smell incense from the temple while hearing the call to prayer from the mosque.
Apparently, this is one of the oldest settled areas in Penang, predating the 18th-century British settlement of George Town. Tanjung Tokong was once a sleepy fishing village, but now much of it is separated from the coast by the highway and by waterfront hotels, apartment buildings, and shopping centers. The development pressures facing the village were the subject of a newspaper article a few years ago. We thought that in staying in the suburbs, we were leaving Penang’s historic area behind. So it’s been fascinating to learn that just a five-minute walk from our house is a place with such a rich heritage.