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It being the Year of the Rat soon, Alan Teh Leam Seng decides to give Pulau Tikus a visit

The back streets of George Town offer interesting glimpses of Chinese New Year preparations done by the locals.

THE sharp shrill of the alarm clock rudely interrupts my deep slumber. Still half asleep, it takes a few more minutes to realise that I had spent the night at The Wembley after arriving in Penang late yesterday evening. Excited at the thought of having the entire day to enjoy the sights before meeting up with former classmates for our annual Chinese New Year reunion dinner later in the evening, I have a quick shower before heading off downstairs to pile on the calories to keep me going at least until noon.

The breakfast spread at the Wembley Cafe is heavenly, to say the least. A brief walkabout reveals a wide selection of all-time local favourites as well as international choices.

Together with the well-patronised live noodle station and commanding view of George Town’s heritage enclave, the attentive service and clean surroundings of this spacious dining area on Level 2 are, in many ways, better than the coffee-shops lining Magazine Road down below.

After whetting my appetite, it is time to work off the calories while checking out the lesser known backstreets of George Town. The Wembley,

which fringes the heritage enclave, is strategically located with most places of attraction just a short walk away.

THE BACKSTREETS

Visiting George Town with the Lunar New Year just a few days away does have its advantages. Social life is at its zenith with back lanes filled with makeshift stoves where entire families take part in the annual ritual of making popular festive snacks like kuih kapit and kuih bunga.

At the same time, the colourful decorations at the front section of each pre-war shophouse give a good idea of which dialect group the occupants belong to.

Stalls at Pulau Tikus Market offer a wide variety of Chinese New Year decorations to choose

The Hokkiens generally favour cherry blossom branches and gaily decorated lanterns while the Cantonese are more inclined towards door couplets bearing auspicious phrases and kamkuat trees heavily laden with fruit to welcome good fortune for the rest of the year.

After more than two hours, the road finally leads to an antique shop in Chulia Street. Captivated by a good selection of miniature brass pieces, I decide to purchase a rather nice one that features a rat clutching several gold coins. With the Year of the Rat just around the corner, it will surely serve as a great conversation piece.

While packing my purchase, the friendly vendor shares interesting anecdotes about the animal that is ranked first in the Chinese zodiac 12-year cycle.

According to him, people born in the year of the spirited rodent are thought to possess desirable attributes like wit, alertness and vitality.

Dispelling the general idea of couples preferring children born in a dragon year, he adds: “Like rats, which are sanguine and very adaptable, people born between Jan 25, 2020 and Feb 11, 2021 are likely to be very successful in business. Apart from being able to anticipate potential obstacles, they are also quick to respond to problems before they get worse. Best of all, rats are very sociable and well-liked by their peers.”

The rat figurine proved to be a great conversation piece

My deep interest in things related to rats leads him to suggest visiting Pulau Tikus, a quaint Penang suburb some 5km north of George Town.

“It is believed that Eurasians from Thailand were among the first to settle in Pulau Tikus during the turn of the 19th century.

“First landing on a bunch of rocky outcrop that gave the illusion of scurrying rats during low tide, they then moved on to start a settlement in modern-day Pulau Tikus which they named in honour of the place where they first made landfall in Penang.”

There was not any doubt in my mind on where to spend the rest of the day after hearing the shop proprietor list the various interesting cultural sites in Pulau Tikus. Despite having visited Penang countless times in the past, it never crossed my mind to venture beyond the confines of the heritage enclave until today.

The Hainanese Chicken Rice is popular among diners in Wembley Cafe.

Concrete plans for an exciting afternoon excursion begin to take shape during lunch back at the Wembley Cafe.

While waiting for the outlet’s highly acclaimed Hainanese chicken rice to be served, I make up my mind to leave the car in the hotel and take the public transport instead.

Based on stories heard from friends who have visited Penang around this time of the year in the past, it is better to leave the car in the hotel due to the heavy flow of traffic and difficulty looking for parking space.

THE RAT ISLAND

It is just a leisurely two-minute walk to the Komtar Bus Terminal from the hotel.

Public transportation here is very efficient. After boarding Rapid Penang bus number 103 and paying the RM1.40 fare, I am well on my way to Pulau Tikus.

Alighting at the bus stop right in front of Wat Chaiyamangkalaram, I make a beeline for the main shrine to see the largest reclining Buddha statue in Penang.

Measuring 35 metres in length, it is also the third largest of its kind in the world.

Considered one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Malaysia, this place of religious worship traces its origin back to 1845 when the British authorities granted a piece of land to the island’s Siamese community as a gesture of goodwill as well as to encourage trade with Siam (now Thailand).

Apart from paying respects and admiring the stunning Thai Buddhist architectural styles found throughout the temple complex, visitors also spend time at the adjacent burial ground to marvel at ancient resting places built with both Thai and Burmese cultural influences.

The easily recognisable spires of the Church of the Immaculate Conception come into view after I exit Wat Chaiyamangkalaram and trace Jalan Kelawei in a north-westerly direction.

This Roman Catholic church, the second oldest in the country after the Church of the Assumption in George Town, was founded in 1811 by Thai-Portuguese Catholics who came from Phuket and Kuala Kedah.

At that time, the church took the form of a simple makeshift tent until eight years later when it was replaced by a wooden chapel covered with attap leaves.

Choose from a variety of room types that are all tastefully decorated and very comfortable

A Portuguese-styled brick building only came to existence in 1835 and the majestic form seen today is a result of a series of subsequent renovations made over a period of almost two centuries.

While making my way back to the bus stop, I manage to find time to stop at remnants of two prominent settlements that have existed in Pulau Tikus for more than a century.

The first is Kampung Serani, a 50 resident-strong Eurasian village located quite close to the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

In the past, the villagers helped with chores at the church and took part in various religious activities held there.

Kampung Serani eventually gave way to development in 1980s. Today, only street signages bearing Eurasian names such as Leandros Lane and the building at the end of Solok Serani that is home to the Penang Eurasian Association serve as reminders of early Eurasians who made Pulau Tikus home.

Kampung Syed, on the other hand, is situated closer to the eastern end of Jalan Kelawei. Known also as Kampung Arab or Kampung Coopee Ammah, it became home to Penang’s Arab community after Syed Mohamad Syed Abdul Rahman Alhabshee from Kedah purchased the land for 500 Spanish dollars in the late 19th century.

Some of the houses still exist today and Arab influence is evident on post boxes marked with house number and the name of its residents — Syed for the men and Sharifah for the women.

According to tradition, property ownership can only be passed down to members of the same clan and the site includes a century old graveyard where deceased clan members are buried.

THE DINNER

Despite experiencing chock-a-block traffic during the return trip, I manage to return to The Wembley with time to spare before my much-awaited reunion dinner with my friends at Wembley Cafe.

Started several years ago, this annual tradition is our only means of getting together after leaving school more than 30 years ago.

With Chinese New Year decorations up earlier in the afternoon, the all-day dining area exudes a whole new festive atmosphere that sets the mood for the hotel’s highly acclaimed Prosperity Buffet Dinner.

The sushi and sashimi station proves to be the most popular with the colourful prawn eggs and raw salmon slices getting the most attention.

While most enjoy their raw fish slices with wasabi and dark soya sauce, I prefer mine with just pickled ginger and radish as their subtle taste allows me to fully appreciate the natural flavours of the fresh seafood.

Between mouthfuls of other popular delights like baked Marmite salmon, wok-fried mantis prawns with butter cream and braised forest mushrooms with Pacific clams, we spend the rest of the evening regaling each other with tales about favourite teachers, dreaded principals and helpful laboratory assistants. Apart from examinations, school life was actually fun!

At the end of the meal, our conversation drifts to activity options for the next day before we part ways. We were unable to come to a unanimous decision until one of our friends set a plate brimming with Peranakan-inspired cookies and kuih on the table.

With the answer staring right at us, we immediately agree to spend all of tomorrow exploring the streets of George Town and check out ornate pre-war shop houses that bear hints of the opulent lifestyles led by the wealthy Peranakan families who once made those residences their homes.

That will definitely be a wonderful way to end a truly memorable visit to this unique island known still as the Pearl of the Orient.

The Wembley— A St Giles Hotel is strategically located hotel in George Town.

FAST FACTS

THE WEMBLEY - A ST GILES HOTEL

WHERE 183, Magazine Road, 10300 George Town, Penang

TEL 04-259 8000

FAX 04-264 3388

EMAIL [email protected]

WEBSITE www.stgiles.com/penang-hotels/the-wembleyhotel

STAY With 415 rooms catering to both business and leisure travellers, the hotel offers five types of rooms from Executive Suite and Executive Deluxe to Executive Superior, Deluxe and Superior.

EAT Four outlets: the all-day dining outlet Wembley Cafe, contemporary Lobby Lounge, vibrant DSRT Sky Room and exquisite Enoshima Japanese Restaurant.

DO Sweat it out at the wellequipped gymnasium or enjoy a relaxing swim at the infinity swimming pool.

GO When you have George Town’s heritage enclave right at your doorstep, the possibilities for adventure and exploration are endless. Everything is literally just a short walk away.

HIGH Strategic location and Excellent service.

LOW Complimentary WiFi is limited to four devices for each room so those who have more need to log in and out whenever the need arises.

Pictures by Alan Teh Leam Seng

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