Saturday, April 27, 2013

Traditional artisans of Georgetown Penang



 Georgetown, the capital city of Penang state, christened after Britain’s King George III was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008. This honor recognizes the unique cultural and architecturally townscape of Georgetown which can’t be found elsewhere in Asia. Old Georgetown is littered with several heritage buildings that evoke the city’s colonial past and highlight its multicultural and multiethnic legacy. 
These buildings which display various styles from art deco to classic Chinese and include mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, colonial mansions and ancient forts are a testament to the city’s more than 200 year history. In the midst of all this nostalgia are the traditional artisans of Old Georgetown, old-world geniuses who continue to ply their trade in the maze-like labyrinth of streets that make up the precinct of old Georgetown. These artisans of Georgetown are trying to keep their age-old traditions and crafts alive in the face of much competition from cheaper, commercially produced products. 
Georgetown’s old-world artisans include folks like joss-stick maker, Lee Beng Chuan, the city’s sole remaining traditional joss-stick maker who continues to hand roll joss-sticks using materials like bamboo sticks and a blend of Australian sandalwood powder and a sticky powder sourced from the Teja tree.  The Chinese believe that the act of burning joss-sticks in temples helps their prayers to be transported speedily to heaven. Hence millions of joss-sticks are burnt as offerings at Chinese temples everywhere. However, nowadays the long burning joss-sticks produced by artisans like Lee Beng Chuan are losing out to cheaper, mass-produced fare made with low-quality sawdust. If you would like to view this dying art of hand rolling joss-sticks, you can visit Lee Beng Chuan at his outlet on No. 1 Lorong Muda (Off Steward Lane) in Georgetown from 8 to 10am every Monday to Friday.
Georgetown’s Acheen Street was once referred to as "Pak Cheok Kay" (stone workers’ street) by the city’s Hokkien community for it used to host 12 stone engraving stores. However, today only one such store remains which belongs to a stone-engraver called  Yeoh Gim Huat, who nowadays uses much modern technology to cut and engrave tombstones.  Yeoh Gim Haut states that this modern technology is what has helped him survive, as it has eliminated the back-breaking work of cutting and engraving stones by hand. A traditional art practiced by stone-engravers in the past.
Like the last remaining stone-engraver, Haja Mohideen OSM Mohd Shariff, is the only surviving songkok-maker on Penang Island. Songkoks are traditional round hats sported by Malaysian men. Despite declining business over the years, Haja Mohideen, continues to have much pride in his passion and he continues to make each songkok by hand on his ancient sewing machine. Haja, who inherited this songkok-making business from his father ,produces on an average five songkoks a day. Moreover, Haja also happily customizes a songkok according to a customers’ individual tastes.Penang’s sole songkok-maker can be visited at his store on 157 Lebuh King from 10am to 5pm daily.
Penang’s Little India enclave is renowned for its sparkling jewelry stores, which offer a wide array of gold ornaments imported from the Indian sub-continent as well as also locally produced. In the midst of this glitter, is a store called Thana’s Goldsmith, which believed to feature the last traditional goldsmith in Georgetown. At Thana’s, jeweler M. Raju, a fourth generation traditional jeweler, works with old-fashioned implements to produce intricate gold custom-made pieces for his regular clients. During weddings and festivals when orders pour in, the jeweler works long hours to fulfill his commitments and like his other fellow artisans; it is only the pride and passion for his work that keeps him going. Visit M.Raju at Thana’s Goldsmiths at 38 Lebuh Queen from 10am-5pm daily. 
Located on the two-block stretch of Armenian Street, is yet another interesting traditional arts outlet, Mr. Oo & Mr. Ng, Nyonya Beaded Shoes. The term ‘Nyonya’ refers to the Peranakan culture of the Straits Chinese people, whose ancestry can be traced back to traders from China, who intermarried with the locals and settled in Penang. The Peranakan people are known for their superlative embroidery and beadwork skills, which are used to decorate items like slippers, purses, belts and phone pouches. Discover these wonderful specimens at Mr. Oo & Mr. Ng, Nyonya Beaded Shoes store on 4 Lebuh Armenian.
The above mentioned artisans are just a few of the many talented and skilled folk who produce the stunningly beautiful handicrafts of Penang. A local body called the Penang Arts council nowadays seeks to preserve and popularize these ancient arts by organizing a monthly market called Little Penang Street Market which is held on a space on Upper Penang Road on the last Sunday of each month. This animated street market hosts more than seventy stalls that showcase the many traditional arts and crafts of Penang.  So if you happen to be in Penang on the last Sunday of the month, you should pencil in a visit to the Little Penang Street Market to discover the fascinating world of Penang’s traditional arts and crafts.


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