The ‘living museum’ of George Town still beckons

A hair salon named 'Great Wall Waving Parlour' is nestled among this row of old-fashioned shops along Campbell Street in George Town. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 
A hair salon named 'Great Wall Waving Parlour' is nestled among this row of old-fashioned shops along Campbell Street in George Town. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 
A shop selling medicated tea along Campbell Street in George Town. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 
A shop selling medicated tea along Campbell Street in George Town. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 
The beauty of George Town lies in its very nature of being understated, faded and real; a "living museum" where real people do the things that they do best, whether it be making rattan furniture or stainless steel items. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG&n
The beauty of George Town lies in its very nature of being understated, faded and real; a "living museum" where real people do the things that they do best, whether it be making rattan furniture or stainless steel items. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 
Daily queues to take photos of the most famous of George Town's murals. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 
Daily queues to take photos of the most famous of George Town's murals. -- PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG 

Do take photos of wall murals but don’t forget to see the real George Town too

“Don’t peep into that house, don’t,” my friend warned as we walked down the impossibly quaint Armenian Street in the heart of George Town.

But I did, and earned a glare from the owner who runs an old-fashioned hair salon in the pink living room of her pre-war tiny shophouse.

Pretending not to notice, we sauntered on to a nameless shop so packed with oddities that we had to squeeze inside to talk to its hulking tattooed owner.

This walk was just four years ago but it now feels like a lifetime ago. Then, Armenian Street was a tranquil lane where visitors could stumble upon the charming Amelie Café and a hidden temple, earn a glare from the hair salon aunty and rummage through the curiosity shop.

But last week, I found the doors of the pink hair salon and curiosity shop shut, and Amelie Cafe has moved. Some seven souvenir shops have opened, and bicycles for rent clog the pavements.

And as I walked, two trishaw-pullers, a souvenir shop owner and a youth hawking tours pestered me. I guess they were just trying to earn an honest ringgit from tourists who have flooded George Town since it was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008.

It is good that tourism has put money into the pockets of the locals, and brought life back to derelict George Town.

At the start, it was all well and good as rundown shophouses were restored into chi-chi hotels and restaurants, hip cafés and backpacker hostels.

However, the latest tourism wave to wash into town brings along tour buses, touts, and makeshift stands selling cheap souvenirs that often has nothing to do with Penang.

Has George Town gone all touristy?

Not quite, but its gentle beauty is at risk of buckling under the weight of metal sculptures tacked onto the walls, and murals on every surface. Local businesses and crafts are at risk of being asked to make way for chic cafés and stylish hotels for tourists.

This is, of course, a problem of success. Success can be hard to manage, and needs a deft hand who understands that George Town’s beauty is about its community and real life.

Its beauty lies in its very nature of being understated, faded and real; a "living museum" where real people do the things that they do best, whether it be making rattan furniture or stainless steel items. Its beauty is its melting pot of so many diverse cultures.

This delicate beauty can easily vanish under too much new paint and too many baubles.

But fortunately, most of George Town still teems with a quaint charm.

I wandered away from the tourist hordes, and soon, along Campbell Street, I bumped into stores which tickled my nostalgic bone with names like Great Wall Waving Parlour (yes, you guessed right, it’s a hair salon), Angel Record House and shops selling Medicated Tea.

I also met Mr Jabbar, 76, who runs a tea stall in an alleyway. Taking refuge from the heat, I sipped sweet tea as he told me that his stall has been in this spot since 1957.

Lowering his voice, he whispered scandalous stories about the people, now long-gone, who had lived along the street.

As I stood to leave, he refused to accept money for the tea. Instead, he fished out RM1 (S$0.40) from his sarong and dropped it into the tin on the counter.

“There, it’s paid already,” he said.

The old George Town still survives.So do take photos of the wall murals and ride a trishaw, but don’t forget to also see this marvellous "living museum" that is George Town.

carolynh@sph.com.sg