When you think of Penang art, the first thing that might come to mind is Ernest Zacharevic’s street art. But these works are borne from a city that is a veritable melting pot of cultures: from the first Penangites to the early traders making use of Penang’s location at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca to the British to the Chinese and the Indians, Penang’s charm was borne out of diversity.
Before I dive into different aspects of Penang art that you can enjoy for free let me say this: The best way to learn about Penang and its illustrious history is by chatting with her people. If you are in George Town on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday morning, make sure you join the George Town Walkabout Tour, a free tour organized by the Penang Tourist Information Center on Beach Street. The guides are retired locals with an abundance of knowledge and colorful stories. Or scroll down to the end of this post where I list the best-rated tours available online via Get Your Guide.
Tipp: If you can’t make it or you want to read further on Penang, I recommend My Penang Stories, a delightful blog about all facets of life on the island.
Omnipresent Penang art: George Town’s architecture
Her architecture is an aspect of Penang art that is hard to escape due to the sheer number of historical buildings in different stages of preservation.
Established in 1787, George Town was among the first cities developed by the British East India Company in Southeast Asia (before Hong Kong and Singapore). To support the tin mining industry in mainland Malaysia, workers were brought in on a large scale from China and India. Soon immigrants from those and other countries launched trading businesses and their communities defined the fusion culture in the sprawling town. Thus, the architecture in the old city of George Town, Penang, is a mix of Chinese shophouses similar to what one might find in Vietnam’s Hoi An, pompous 19th- and early-20th-century Imperial British architecture that will make you feel like you were in downtown London and mansions in Chinese and British colonial styles.
For decades, the very reason why we can now enjoy all of these old buildings caused a fair bit of both relief and grief to the population of the old town of George Town, Penang. Rent control used to prevent landlords in George Town from increasing rent prices by more than a small percentage per year, which meant they had no incentive to improve the structure of their buildings. The cap was lifted in the 1990s. By then the rarity and value of the old buildings had become apparent as other trade ports with a similarly illustrious history – like Hong Kong and Singapore – were losing most of their historical old town centers.
Today, Penang’s UNESCO Heritage committee is incentivizing restoration faithful to the original style of the buildings’ facades. Many of the heritage buildings have been turned into hotels and guesthouses that combine their history with modern interiors. Others are still shops and homes of multi-generation families.
While the official UNESCO Zone is confined to the area East of Jalan Transfer (Transfer Street) and Northeast of Jalan Dr. Lim Chwee Leong (formerly Prangin Road), historical buildings can be found throughout Penang island with detached colonial mansions sometimes warding off the skyscrapers shooting up left and right of them. After all, George Town, Penang, is Malaysia’s second-largest city.
Penang (or George Town) shares its UNESCO World Heritage status with Melaka, a smaller city, South of Kuala Lumpur. Jointly they are inscribed into the UNESCO list as “Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca.”
Penang harmony: temples
The mix of cultures in Penang is nowhere more evident than on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, which is also dubbed Harmony Street. Within 100 m, the street boasts the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia (St. George), Penang’s oldest Chinese temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Penang’s oldest Hindu temple, Sri Maha Mariamman, and the earliest Muslim institution in George Town, the Kapitan Keling Mosque. And it’s not just Harmony Street, throughout the city, you’ll find dozens of sites of prayer from all the major and some of the smaller religions.
The most striking structures are without a doubt the Chinese Buddhist temples and the Hindu temples with their colorful 3D murals and elaborate roofs. But have a closer look at the mosques and churches, too, and note how architects spiced up traditional structures with Penang flair.
Penang street art
There is no denying that street art – with Ernest Zacharevic’s works like “Kids on Bicycle” and “Boy on Motorcycle” leading the way – has helped to make Penang one of Southeast Asia’s must-see destinations more than her architecture and food culture could.
After the Lithuanian’s critically acclaimed works first popped up around the old town in 2012, George Town has fully embraced street art as a means of expression of the city’s history.
In fact, the markers leading visitors on a walk through the Heritage Zone are fashioned as cartoons but – to reflect the elaborate wrought-iron details in the city’s mansions and for more longevity – are made of steel. Tip: PS: You can download a map with all Heritage Markers from the Penang tourist information website.
Hin Bus Depot Art Centre is an art and exhibition space and the organizer of Penang Urban Exchange, a street art festival that further expands the canon of technically brilliant and politically challenging Penang art.
Rather than giving you a list of “The Best Street Art in Penang,” I will tell you that “Kids on Bicycles” is on Armenian Street (Beach Street side) while “Boy on Motorcycle” is on Ah Quee Street; that both works are best visited early in the morning to avoid the crowds lining up for selfies. Beyond that info, I will advise you to put your walking shoes on and go for a stroll through the streets of George Town, not forgetting to turn into the alleys, to understand the context of where Penang street art draws its inspiration.
Made in Penang: 41 Living Story (41 Love Lane)
While there are numerous art shops on Armenian Street and throughout the city, you shouldn’t miss 41 Living Story.
This shop/museum in 41 Love Lane used to be the workshop and residence of a Chinese goldsmith. Now, the two floors house exhibitions from local Penang artisans and at the same time tell the story of Looi Heng and other Chinese immigrants that came to Malaysia to start a new life. On sale are standard souvenirs such as postcards and magnets but also hand-painted tiles, practical and purely decorative porcelain, sarongs, kebaya blouses, vintage posters, batik fabrics, and much more.
Penang brush art: watercolor painting
One night, while I was on the hunt for my next fill of street food, a woman approached me outside what looked like another one of Penang’s elaborate Chinese temples: “Do you want to see our exhibition? It is free. You are welcome.”
I entered the building, and it turned out to be the annual exhibition of Penang’s brush painters club. There were about 50 paintings, from letter-sized to wall panels.
In Penang, watercolor painting – or Chinese brush painting – isn’t just used for traditional calligraphy and stunning nature scene but also to recreate George Town old town in all its splendor. The above-mentioned My Penang Stories blog is illustrated with watercolor sketches by the author. And if you visit the heritage houses, you’ll see design sketches of the buildings before and after renovation done not in pencil but watercolor thus combining two traditional elements of Penang art.