Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Georgetown, Penang

Wandering around a new city always feels like stepping into a puzzle, you see the individual elements first and then start to fit everything into a larger picture. The more I see of Georgetown, the more it intrigues me. The city itself feels very tired. Everywhere brickwork crumbles, iron is rusted over, sewers run alongside the road. Construction in the centre seems to have stopped around the 1940s, and successive generations of buildings from the 18th Century to the first half of the 20th stand side by side. Most of them look like they're into their third or fourth use at best, and plenty are shuttered up and left that way. One shop has a painted sign offering second hand books. I try to enter, only to find someone's living room. "Book shop?" I ask. A woman nursing a baby looks up at me blankly, then gives a nod of recognition. "Oh," she says, "I think he dead some time".

The streets are not designed with cars in mind, with cluttered five-foot covered walkways on either side of the road, falling apart or unpassable because of motorbikes, incense burners, shopwares, chairs and other obstructions, forcing pedestrians into the narrow roads. They wander peacefully along. I do not, keeping an eye out constantly for a motorbike overtaking too fast or a car riding too close to the side of the street.

Meanwhile dotted around the place are those expected signals of Westernisation I've come to expect in Asian cities, nods to the 20th Century's godhead of the American dollar: skyscrapers; shopping malls; Starbucks and McDonalds. These sit, uncomfortably pristine, next to crumbling locksmiths and pawnshops.

All over Asia you see this cultural disconnect, local culture against globalised commerce. Mostly you see how foreign companies make minor concessions to local taste in a bid to win the overall war - the Seaweed flavoured Lays crisps, the cheery Chinese songs sung in Shanghai's Cold Stone Creamery, the Spicy Chicken sandwich in McDonalds (competing with the more popular KFC). Here though the trend appears to be reversed.

Malaysia is famous for it's multiculturalism, and this is a city defined by it. Colonialism may have left it's mark, but so does the presence of immigrants from all over, especially China and India. The city may be named after a British king, and cars still drive on the left hand side, but this hardly feels a colonial city. Whilst Westernised commerce has touched the place, it doesn't dominate the way it does in Shanghai's mega-shopping malls, or England's uniform highstreets. The shopping malls here have almost as many market stalls as shops, and the chain stores seem to be accomodated into the local culture, rather than the other way round.

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