Monday, August 27, 2012

Funky Art-Deco Shophouse in Penang - Tamilarasi @ Little India Penang

Little India within the Heritage Core Zone of Georgetown Penang is home to many pre-war heritage shophouses. However, most of them do not catch the eye of the casual observer (well, at least not to my eyes). I blame on the fact that the stuff on display at the Indian shops are so bright and eye-catching. It doesn't help that your ears are assaulted with a bewildering ensemble of religious Aums (Om - ओं) and Indian pop songs that blare out from every corner. There is just no escape from them, and coupled with the cacophony of blaring motorcycle and car horns that try to get through the jammed street; you will probably be dizzy like a cow the second you step into Little India to take notice of any of the buildings.
Little India Penang, Jesus and Lakshmi, Indian video shop Penang
This signboard stopped me dead in my tracks. Only in Little India, Penang can you see Jesus with His Sacred Heart as the poster boy for Lakshmi's Videos. No wonder Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth, she sure knows who to get to promote her goods - the crazy but harmonious blend of religion and culture is just amazing. Besides various posters for Indian movies, this shop also has advertisement signs hung up in front for an eating outlet that says come drink with us and come lounge with us, with the address at 66 Bishop Street.

Then there are the signboards...Gaudy like temple jewellery, bold like beautiful saris and steamy like sexy ladies that man the shops. And if you get past all of those distractions, the smell of Little India will surely get to you.
Little India Penang, Georgetown Penang
The signs are big, bright and bombastic. One could almost be fooled into thinking that the shops are merely signboards stacked together!

Benzoin and frankincense at one moment, coconut oil with overtones of Sambac jasmine the next, curry and spices after that. Combine all of that and you will get a sensory overload that takes your mind away from observing the rich architectural mélange of that area. So most visitors would focus on the shopping and the saris, the spices and and spicy men, flower garlands so lovely, and the ladies who are more than happy to have visitors step to their shops.
Young coconut seller, sea-coconut, palmyra palm, Indian man selling coconut water
On a hot day, this Indian peddler will, at a very affordable price, serve you a very refreshing whitish liquid ambrosia  from his nuts, err...young coconuts that he is selling  (tsk tsk tsk ladies, don't get the wrong idea). Also available are sea coconuts (Palmyra palm fruits).

Well, for a moment I managed to go beyond those distractions...and something very fundamental caught my eye. The feeling can perhaps be best described as an epiphany, somewhat like Buddha under the Bo tree, except  that this was tiny microscopic in scale.  It couldn't be, for the colours...but then it has to be. Not one, but a pair of Art-Deco shophouses... Now before you give me a Homer Simpson grunt (D'oh!), take a look at the picture below and tell me what you think of it.
Art-deco shophouse, Tamilarasii, Little India Penang, Market Street, unique Art Deco
Two Art-Deco facade shophouses in Little India, Penang. These are along Market Street. One of them is a mini market called Tamilarasi (No. 33).

No. 33 Market Street is home to Tamilarasii Mini Market, a typical Indian sundry shop whilst its neighbour has no signboard of any sorts and the shutters are down. One green, one orange…the funky colours reminds me of banana leaf and curry...or tumeric. Just look at the sacks of potatoes and onions on the left hand side of the shophouse (adjacent to the orange neighbour) and think of how many pots of curry that would make.

Typical of Art-Deco styled shophouses, lines and geometric design mark the facade. Because it is built with reinforced concrete, there are cantilever sections and in this example, were made into functional balconies. And something that I find very kitsch on many of the Art-Deco shophouses is the centrally placed ‘flag-post thingy’ at the top of the facade (most likely to be concrete). Think of Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, the old OCBC building or even the Rio Hotel at King's Street, Penang and you can surely picture the kooky 'flag-post thingy' I am referring to. The only thing (there is another actually) that isn't typical here of a Penang Art-Deco shophouse is its colour. Instead of Shanghai grey or buff-coloured, it is a bright lime green and its neighbour, a pastel orange colour. Well, if it isn't coloured so it wouldn't qualify as part of Little India, would it?

The other atypical thing with these two lies in the fact that in Penang, the Art-Deco style is commonly seen in large buildings tenanted by banks and associations. Hence I like to consider these two as a sort of an anomaly. The use of metal grille balustrade is not surprising, for the Hui An Association Building, a well-known Art-Deco building dated 1938, also has concrete cantilevered slabs with metal grille balustrade as balconies. If my memory serves me correctly, Campbell Street, which lies in the Buffer Zone, has a number of these small Art Deco shophouses as well. They are not in grey, but definitely not as brightly coloured as these two in Little India.

Map for the location of Tamilarasi Mini Market in Little India, Penang.

So the next time you step into Little India in Penang, stop looking at the saris, stop looking at the spicy Indian men I mean spices and the Indian men that sells them, and stop looking at flowers and the girls who are wearing them. Go beyond the reverberating Aums and brain pounding hip-hop music, the horns and the shouts of petty traders...and see a part of Little India that many miss - funky coloured Art-Deco shophouses that stand out from the rest.

P.S. - When I spotted these Art Deco shophouses in Little India, I now dare say that within the area of Little India, one can catch sight of all the shophouse architectural styles of Penang, starting from the Early Penang Style up to the Early Modernism Style. That is if you can get past the distractions mentioned above, plus massive signboards that cover the facade and flamboyant paint jobs that can best be described as capable of making Elton John blush.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Acehnese Godown - The Tall Building At Acheen Street, Penang

The Acehnese Godown at Acheen Street (Lebuh Acheh) in Penang is one of the lesser promoted and lesser known building within the Georgetown Core Heritage Zone. The lackluster popularity of this building towards the southern end of the Core Heritage Zone could be due to several reasons. Firstly, it is a non-descript building, apart from its height that is an anomaly when compared to its immediate neighbours. Secondly, there are more stately buildings that lie to its west along Acheen Street, namely the Acheen Street Mosque, as well as several others at Cannon Square and Armenian Street.
Gedung Atjeh, Gudang Acheh, Gudang Aceh, Kuan Lau Ah, Lebuh Acheh
View of the Acehnese Godown (高楼仔 - the four-storey building with many side windows) from across Beach Street. Notice that the rest of the buildings in that area are only two-storey high. Where I was standing would have been the beach, or the sea when the building was first built. Photo taken on the 23rd of June 2012 during the George Town Festival.

Lastly, people tend to do tours of Acheen Street starting from Carnavon Street or from Armenian Street, then down Cannon Street past Cannon Square, thus by the time they reach the junction of Acheen Street with Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai), there is nothing much to see (more like too hot, sweating like mad, legs hurt etc. etc. etc.).
高楼仔, Acehnese Godown, spice godown Acheen Street
View of the windows at the side of the Acehnese Godown. Note the small windows on the ground floor of this building that looks like prison windows. Photo taken from Acheen Street looking out towards the junction of Beach Street and Acheen Street, Penang.

Sad indeed, as one of the old Hokkien name for Acheen Street is Kuan Lau Ah (高楼仔, also given as 悬楼仔), literally Tall Building (i.e. the tall building junction), referring to this four-storeyed building located at the beginning of the street. This building, which is actually one of the oldest buildings along Beach Street, is also tallest building in that street throughout the 19th century, and was already marked in the 1803 Plan of Georgetown (Leith Map 1803).
Location of the Acehnese Godown is indicated by the blue pointer, i.e. at the intersection of Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai) and Acheen Street (Lebuh Acheh). Map is modified from the Penang Georgetown World Heritage City map available at

Originally the building was acquired by the East India Company as a jail, it was later renovated into a godown with a shophouse added to the front by Tengku Syed Hussain al-Aidid, the Acehnese clan leader/trader who moved his trading base to Penang at the invitation of Captain Francis Light; who did so to boost the popularity of Penang as a trading post to rival that of Acheh.
Window of Acehnese Godown, 拍石街, "Escape" Sculpture Acheen Street
A metal filigree sign, which is part of the 'Escape Sculpture' placed  just outside a small window of the building says "This Acehnese Godown was originally a jail building already extant in 1805 - hence the thick walls and small windows". This sculpture is designed to look like a rope tied to one of the bars one of the small windows, as if someone is trying to escape from prison.

In the past, Beach Street was a waterfront street, and where Acheen Street Ghaut stood today are the steps (ghat - from Hindi घाट) leading to the sea. Hence the location of this four-storeyed building is ideal as a godown for goods being traded by sea. Later, land reclamation extended the coast farther out, thus creating Acheen Street Ghaut and the perpendicular Victoria Street and later, Weld Quay.
four storey godown Lebuh Acheh, 拍石街
Looking up at the central pillar on the outside wall of the Achenese Godown. Not a pretty sight, but definitely taller than the rest of the adjacent buildings

The current address for this building is 322 Beach Street, 10300 Penang; being the address for Li Lai Enterprise that sells outboard engines (The signboard indicates they carry Suzuki brand outboard engines). So if you are around the area, go by and take a look at this old, historical and err, rather non-descript (almost ugly, but what more can be said for a building that was a jail and a godown) four-storey building that started as a jail, then a famous merchant’s spice godown and is now partly a shop that sells outboard engines.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Night of the Sevens

I would like to wish Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri to all my Muslim friends. This is indeed a month of celebrations. Whilst I am still getting my share of open houses and yummy rendang, let me share another event occurring in this month. Tonight is the Night of Sevens, a festival that is celebrated in various Eastern cultures including China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

This celebration has its roots in the asterism of three bright stars (called the Summer Triangle) visible in the Nothern Hemisphere during the end of summer. The three stars that form the triangle define the vertices of three constellations, namely Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, the stars being Altair, Deneb, and Vega respectively.

In Chinese folklore, this asterism in the northern sky has evolved into a sad romantic tale of the Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden. Very much like the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet, this tale features the separation of the loving couple by disapproving parents. There are many variations to this tale, but all of them have the same ending, which is a slightly happier ending when compared to that of Romeo and Juliet.

In one version of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl story, the weaver girl/maiden is one of the seven daughters  (some say granddaughter) of the Queen Mother of Heaven. Zhi Nü (织女, literally the weaver girl) is good at weaving the sky and the colourful rainbow fabrics of heaven, thus is very well-liked by her mother. As with all young girls, the seven sisters decided one day to take an excursion to Earth, to escape the boredom of privileged life in heaven and also watchful eyes of the Queen Mother (who is depicted as somewhat an overbearing mother – like the Empress Dowager). And so on Earth, they found a beautiful pond and decided to go for a frolic in the cool water. Leaving their dresses by the bank of the pond, the girls had wonderful ‘pool party’.

After a while, the girls got tired of the mortal world and when it was time to leave, all the sisters except the weaver girl could do so as her clothes had been blown away and had fallen into the hands of a passing cowherd. The kind cowherd however, returned her clothes, though we wouldn’t have a clue as to what was going on in his head, faced with a wet, naked fairy from heaven. Alas, when their eyes met, he was truly smitten and likewise, it was love at first sight for her. They decided to get married without the permission of the Queen Mother, knowing that she would forbid fiercely as he is a mere mortal and just a cowherd.

Happily married, they had two children. She was a caring and hardworking wife and he was a good cowherd and worked hard in the fields. Meanwhile in Heaven, the denizens of heaven had just noticed the missing maiden when they realised that there was no one weaving the wonderful fabric of the skies. Though Zhi Nü was only gone for a day in heaven; this time was equivalent to two years on earth.

Angry that Zhi Nü was neglecting her duties, The Queen Mother searched for her high and low, and finally found her on Earth, married to a mere mortal and living in a pathetic hut. Now fuming with anger, she gave the ultimatum to Zhi Nü: Come back to heaven or the cowherd and the village will be destroyed. Fearful for her husband and children’s safety, she had no choice but to leave her beloved behind.
The cowherd with his two children chasing after his wife, the Weaver girl. Image taken from

Shocked and racked with grieve that her wife had floated away to the heavens, he was equally shocked when his old, faithful buffalo talked and advised the astonished cowherd to kill him and that his hide be used to ferry the cowherd to the sky so that he could be with his wife again. Apparently the buffalo was a heavenly officer punished by the Heavenly Emperor and was cast to Earth. With a heavy heart, the cowherd had to kill and skin his faithful buffalo and prepared himself for the journey. He placed each of his children on a basket and passed a yoke through the baskets, carrying them upon his shoulders. Flanked by a child on each side, he rose to the heavens after putting on the hide of his talking buffalo.

Slowly he could see that he was getting closer and closer to his lovely wife, Zhi Nü. Just as he was about to reach the maiden, he was noticed by the still seething Queen Mother. Disgusted with the cowherd’s attempt to reach her daughter, she quickly drew a hairpin from her headdress and with the pin, proceeded to scratch the heavens, creating a silvery river that blocked the cowherd from reaching the maiden.

And so the two lovers stood on the opposite banks of a deep and fast flowing celestial river, in grief. The sad cries of the maiden, and that of her loving husband and children, who were so close and yet beyond reach however, touched the hearts of the gods in heaven and all of the magpies in the world. And so every year on a late summer’s night, all the magpies would be allowed to soar up to the skies, and make a bridge across the Silver River so that the lovers would be reunited and be a happy family again for that one night.
A happy family portrait for the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. Image taken from Another name for this Festival of the Night of Sevens is the Magpie Festival, after the magpies that formed a bridge (鹊桥) to bring the lovers together.

The cowherd is the star Altair (α-Aquilae) on the constellation of Aquila, the maiden is the star Vega (α-Lyrae) on the constellation of Lyra and the magpies are the stars of the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan), with Deneb (α-Cygni) being the brightest and marks the position of the chaperone (a fairy or deity) who guides the formation of the bridge. The two children are Tarazed (γ-Aquilae) and Alshain (β-Aquilae), flanking the star Altair on both sides (the children carried in two baskets on a yoke).

On summer’s end, the stars appear bright on the skies of the Northern Hemisphere and with the alignment; it appears as if the stars in the constellation Cygnus is bridging the Milky Way (Silver River) to bring them together. Also, the Milky Way appears dimmer at this time, hence allowing for the bridge of stars to be seen clearly. Thus, one can see how this asterism can be linked with the tale of the magpies, the self-sacrificing maiden and the cowherd with their pining children.
A computer rendition of the Northeastern sky at 8.39pm on 23 August 2012 as seen from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, with no atmosphere, no ground and azimuthal grid. The Milky Way is the fuzzy white area where the light blue line runs through. The Cowherd and his children are labeled and the stars that form the magpie bridge are marked with green arrows. Image captured from Stellarium software.
The same image, but with the imaginary lines to connect the stars for each constellation. The light blue arrow points to the 'row of magpies' and the green arrows roughly indicate the sides of the 'Silver River' that runs through the sky.'

On the night of the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunisolar calendar, this double seventh night is celebrated as the Qixi Festival (七夕节). It is a day for young maidens to pray for a good husband, and to demonstrate their domestic skills, very much like the weaver maiden, in hopes of attracting a good man. Thus this festival is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Chinese Valentine's Day. The Japanese festival of Tanabata is the equivalent to the Chinese Festival to Plead for Skills, another name for the Qixi Festival, which was adopted by the Japanese in the Heian period. Here the maiden is Orihime and the cowherd, Hikoboshi. Whether known as Qixi to the Chinese, Tanabata to the Japanese or Chilseok in Korea, this asterism of stars had become a popular folktale and a festival in its own right. We may never know if indeed the two lovers get to meet once a year or not, but hopefully all lovers out there wouldn’t have to wait once a year to be together with each other.
The same image as above, but with constellation art superimposed - Vega in the constellation Lyra (the Lyre), Altair in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle), and Deneb in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan).
This is what you will probably see, without clouds but with light pollution - just three dots marking the vertices of the triangle.

If you want to observe the above asterism tonight (23 August 2012), the constellation Lyra, Aquila and Cygnus rises in the Northeasterly quarter in Malaysia as early as 5pm. So by 8.00pm, Deneb would be 30o above the horizon. The only obstacle to observing these stars are severe light pollution, haze and cloudy skies. So people in KL might be a bit out of luck. One can also use the free software called Stellarium to help locate the stars in the sky, or to reminisce the love story of the Weaver Maiden and the Cowherd.

UPDATE: Suprisingly, the skies were clear over KL and at around 9.11pm, I could see the stars Vega, Altair, Deneb as well Albireo with no difficulty even though coming from a lighted room. The triangle can be clearly made out (marked with white lines), with Vega at the same level with Albireo (the blue line).
Though not a real picture of the Summer Triangle, this Stellarium image is just like what I saw tonight. The triangle formed by Vega, Altair and Deneb could be easily picked up on the sky. Then I noticed Albireo that was in line with Vega. Tarazed could also be seen beside the bright Altair. The stars that formed the Magpie Bridge was the next thing that could also be picked up with ease, with some stars (worded blue) being a little tricky to place. Finally, the star Alshain required some time and staring into the sky to catch a glimpse of. So I managed to see the entire family, magpies and all, thanks to the clear skies tonight.

Other stars that required little or no acclimatisation to see are the stars in Cygnus (the Magpie bridge - kappa, iota, delta, gamma, epsilon, zeta, mu-1 Cygni, plus eta Cygni, with some that are slightly more difficult to make out at a glance) and the child, Tarazed in Aquila. The second child of the cowherd, Alshain required some acclimatisation to view and I had to stare into the darkness to see it. So there you have it, a happy family reunion, for the sky was clear and they didn't shed a tear (well, at least over here in KL).

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Gold for Malaysia Perhaps?

So today is the big day, or rather tonight is. The million dollar question...Can Datuk Lee Chong Wei beat his nemesis to get the gold medal in the Olympics? If he does, it would be many of a list of first for Malaysia; Malaysia's first gold medal in the 2012 Olympic, Malaysia's first gold medal in the Olympics, and Malaysia's first medal in the 2012 Olympics (if the Men's Double fails to secure a bronze medal this evening). It is interesting to note that Malaysia's previous medals in Olympics have all come from badminton.
Schedule of the badminton matches for today. Please add 8hrs to get the approximate starting time in our local time.

I wouldn't want to be in his position, being faced with such a heavy burden of securing the first gold medal. And as history has shown, he tends to fail when placed under such pressure. Well, you could say that in the past he was perhaps jinxed by some VVIP when he was bear-hugged, thus shifted his focus from the match that night. So we wish him all the best. If not, a silver medal is already his for the taking. We shall see tonight, and I would be lying if I say that I am not looking forward to a big party over here in Malaysia...

P.S. Perhaps Lin Dan should get a bear death-hug from someone, then the odds for Chong Wei will be higher than 90%.