Penang’s capital, George Town, is a UNESCO listed treasure. Its narrow streets are lined with grand neoclassical buildings and colourful Chinese-style shop houses, reminders of the area’s colonial heritage and also the grittier side of its history. The stunning architecture, combined with delicious Malaysian food and a laid-back vibe, makes Penang a seductive destination for travellers.
But George Town is definitely not a museum. Over the last few years, the local authorities have been increasing support of contemporary street artists and have commissioned striking murals across the city. Rather than clashing with the 19th century architecture, they seem to connect Penang’s history with the lives of those living in its streets and alleyways today.
It’s worth setting aside an hour or two to take a walking tour of these artworks. Strolling from site to site is also a great way to see more of George Town itself. Here’s a suggested route to follow:
1. Your first stop is Chew Jetty on the harbour. Here you’ll find “Grandma and Grandson”, by Simon Tan, a cartoon-like depiction of two generations having fun and “Children in a Boat” by Lithuanian-born Ernest Zacharevic, who painted a number of stunning murals in the city as part of the 2012 ‘George Town Festival’.
2. From here, head towards town along Gat Lebuh Armenian. Near the junction with Lebuh Pantai are some cute cat-themed works with titles like ‘Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat’. These are part of the ‘101 Lost Kittens Project’, created by ‘Artists for Stray Animals’ (ASA), which tries to increase awareness about the plight of stray animals.
3. Continue along Lebuh Armenian to see Zacharevic’s ‘Little Children on a Bicycle’. This mural is typical of his skillful, three dimension-style that tricks you into almost believing that you are seeing real people. Sketched on the wall near the ‘Armenian Street Art Café’ is a huge portrait of Mr. Ng Chai Tiam, a famous local wooden clog maker, who has lived in the road his whole life. At the junction of the next horizontal street, you’ll find ‘Magic’, a clever artwork etched across a wide, panelled doorway depicting a little girl terrified by a magic show.
4. For your next stop, turn left and walk along Lebuh Cannon to find ‘My Own Café 1952’, in which a young man in modern dress seems to step out of a faraway landscape evoking Penang’s rural past. A little further on, there’s Zacharevic’s amusing ‘Reaching Up’, with a child cheekily reaching up a wall to find out what’s been hidden in a hole.
5. Now, retrace your route along Lebuh Cannon and keep going straight down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling until you hit Lebuh Ah Quee. Turn left and walk towards its end. You will be rewarded by ‘The Real Bruce Lee Would Never Do This’ by ‘101 Lost Kittens’, depicting the kung fu legend delivering a kick to a cat, as well as Zacharevic’s ‘Old Motorbike’ with a child seeming to ride a real motorbike.
6. At the end of the road, turn left along Lebuh Pantai, then right down Gat Lebuh Chulia. You will find yourself heading towards the harbour once more. End your tour at Ong Jetty with ‘Brother and Sister on a Swing’, by local deaf and mute artist Louis Gan. You can even take a seat on a second swing, next to the artwork, to rest your weary legs.
Seeking out the murals is great fun, a kind of ‘street art treasure hunt’, and George Town is easy to navigate with a map. You’ll find many more treasures along the way.