Reconnecting with my Chinese roots in old Penang. And also loving the new.

Growing up I was not really interested in my Chinese roots. Given that I am a third-generation overseas Chinese (my grandparents from both sides came from China), I felt more Filipino than Chinese. So my friends and I spoke Tagalog, and refused to speak Hokkien (though I understood everything)- even my grandmother had to learn Tagalog to speak to me! I refused to visit the Buddhist temple. The reason I watched Chinese shows (where I learned most of my Mandarin as a side effect) was to bond with my grandmother. And for me, perfecting that Chinese exam at school was a matter of pride and a test of my memory skills, rather than acknowledging that learning Chinese was important due to my ethnicity.

As I studied, lived, and worked abroad, I gained a new perspective. I realized that a big part of me is still very, very Chinese, so if I can’t fight ’em why not join ’em. When I visited Penang, I saw with my own eyes how similar old Penang is to my own culture.

Similarity # 1: The houses

I visited two well-preserved mansions in Penang, which were both reconstructed and preserved as museums. They remind me of my grandfather’s home in Binondo, Philippines’ chinatown. While the two houses I visited are so much more opulent, the similarities are striking. Even the hotel I stayed at looks like that! Binondo should do a conservation effort on the old houses!

A deadringer for my grandfather's house in Binondo (Chinatown in the Philippines)

A deadringer for my grandfather’s house in Binondo (Chinatown in the Philippines). This is a lobby of an old house converted into a high-end boutique hotel. This is much bigger, but it has the same qualities – the tiles, the marble stools, the wooden panels.

An antique

An antique

The Blue Mansion - also known as Chong Fat Tze Museum, a very rich Chinese businessman's house

The Blue Mansion – also known as Chong Fat Tze Museum, a very rich Chinese businessman’s house

Hall in Cheong Fat Tze

Hall in Cheong Fat Tze. Also similar to my grandfather’s house (but his was smaller:) )

Balcony facing the courtyard. Nope, he didn't have this :P

Balcony facing the courtyard. Nope, he didn’t have this 😛

Dining area. The tiles are similar to my grandfather's home too!

Dining area. The tiles are similar to my grandfather’s home too!

Outside the Pinang Peranakan Museum

Outside the Pinang Peranakan Museum

Dining hall in the Pinang Peranakan Museum

Dining hall in the Pinang Peranakan Museum

This brings back memories. Everytime my grandparents celebrated their birthdays, we would put eggs colored in red, goodies, noodles/bee hun as gift. It was customary to take a few but not all! Don't ask why!

This brings back memories. Everytime my grandparents celebrated their birthdays, we would put eggs colored in red, goodies, noodles/bee hun as gift. And this is supposed to be done by the daughters and not the sons. It was customary to take a few but not all! Don’t ask why!

Ancestral pictures. Ours wasn't as grand :)

Ancestral pictures. Ours wasn’t as grand 🙂

Similarity # 2: The religion

My late paternal grandmother was a devout Buddhist. So even though I was born and raised a Catholic, I am exposed to the rituals of Buddhism. Even Buddhism has its variations – Thailand and Laos have more similar practices and beliefs, and Vietnam and China are more similar. The temples in Penang look just like the ones I know back home.

The majestic Kek Lok Si. (They call it Kek Lok Si temple in English but that's wrong! Si is temple, so if we say Kek Lok Si temple, it means Kek Lok Temple Temple :P )

The majestic Kek Lok Si. (They call it Kek Lok Si temple in English but that’s wrong! Si is temple, so if we say Kek Lok Si temple, it means Kek Lok Temple Temple 😛 )

Kek Lok Si courtyard

Kek Lok Si courtyard. If there’s only one temple you can visit, this is the one!

Buddha images in Kek Lok Si

Buddha images in Kek Lok Si

A temple in the old town. To my fellow Fil-Chi friends, doesn't this remind you of Ongpin?

A temple in the old town. To my fellow Fil-Chi friends, doesn’t this remind you of Ongpin?

Another one

Another one

S

Beautiful artwork on the temple's door

Beautiful artwork on the temple’s door

Temple doors

Temple doors

Similarity # 3: The language

It’s not a surprise that my Hokkien sucks, after a lifetime rebellion of not speaking it. But I was fluent enough to converse with the neighborhood auntie when I lost my way. Penang’s Hokkien is harder to understand than that of Singapore or Taiwan, in my opinion, but it’s good to be able to understand the local tongue.

Similarity # 4: The people

The restaurant I had dinner at is a small family-run restaurant. While the food is lackluster, I was able to compare notes with the third-generation Penang Chinese owners who were helping out at the restaurant. Like me, their grandfather migrated from Fujian, China. At the restaurant I saw altars with food offering for the gods, which are quite similar to the ones we have back home. What’s very different though is that overseas Chinese in Penang were more open to intermarriages (the family’s maternal grandmother was Thai, and they have Malay blood from their father’s side. However, while they mix with locals  more, they have preserved their tradition more than us. They still talk to each other in Hokkien, and speak fluent Mandarin. I guess because there’s a higher percentage of Chinese residents in Penang, compared to Manila, they were more inclined to preserve their language and culture.

New Penang: A city of street art
Penang has also evolved through the years. I love their street art, and it’s worthwhile walking around to see them all. Also, because conservation is not as good as, let’s say, Europe, so visit them while they last!

There are two types, the “color art” and the “iron art”.

I love the “color art” more. A local explained to me that these were drawn by a Lithuanian who wasinitially reprimanded for his “vandalism” efforts. In the end, his art made the old town even prettier! It’s always nice to mix old and new!

I wanna play too!

Cool!

IMG_0256

This is an artwork outside a temple. Creative!

Is there anything up there?

Is there anything up there?

This reminds me of my childhood!

This reminds me of my childhood!

Uncle in a bike!

Uncle on a rickshaw!

This was kindly taken by one of the members of a photographer group who was there at the same time. They even used a reflector to reflect the sunlight on my face!

Too bad the artwork is almost gone!

Too bad the artwork is almost gone!

The iron art is a different type all together. The different works explain a part of history, or interjects humor into Penang’s culture.

Explains the origin of the first shops by the sea

This explains the good work of one official, who kindly donated his home to provide access to build roads

This explains the good work of one official, who kindly donated his home to provide access for building roads

My sister should pay homage to this. She's a big fan of Jimmy Choo :)

My sister should pay homage to this. She’s a big fan of Jimmy Choo 🙂 He is from Penang, and this is where he did his apprenticeship.

Another piece of interesting art, even without explanation

Another piece of interesting art, even without explanation

This explains one of the festivals (a float) which is held during the year of the tiger - as the year of the tiger is always believed to have more bad luck. I beg to disagree. It's the best year ever! :P

This explains one of the festivals (a float) which is held during the year of the tiger – as the year of the tiger is always believed to have more bad luck. I beg to disagree. It’s the best year ever! 😛

A "limo" during those days

A “limo” during those days

All in all, it was a great trip. Just when I was strongly convinced that I look Chinese and I can “blend in the Chinese crowd,” I had this interesting encounter with a mainland Chinese tourist:

Him (in Mandarin): Do you know where we are?

Me (in Mandarin, of course 😛 ): Yes, we are here (pointing to my map). This is the road we are in.

Him: Oh I see. I get it. Thanks a lot!

Me: You’re welcome. Bye!

Him: Sawadee-kap!!!

Cool! I can be Thai, too!!! 🙂

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