The City After Dark

Every last Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the month (i.e. the last entire weekend that falls within the month), Penang's Tourism Office arranges a panoply of heritage and cultural events. On the Fridays of this weekend,the George Town Night Trail offers the opportunity to learn about history and heritage in the relative cool and tranquility of the early evening.

The two-hour guided walk begins at the Whiteaways Arcade, next to the Penang Tourist Centre on Lebuh Pantai. There are three themed tours that rotate every three months: the Indian and Muslim heritage trail, the China Town and Clan Jetties trail, and the British colonial legacies trail.

The British colonial legacies trail takes in the old railway station, Weld Quay, Fort Cornwallis, the Esplanade, Convent Light Street, St. George’s Church and the Church of the Assumption. The knowledgeable guide, Clement Liang, brings to life the stories of early colonial history made in these elegant buildings, including the contributions of the German community and its later fate during the First World War, the Japanese Occupation and the damage wrought by the Allied bombings.

The glorious buildings, many of which are floodlit at night, make a majestic stage for Liang’s stories. And, it being evening, people slow down and are not as stressed as they are during office hours. At night, traffic stops to let the group cross the road, especially when Liang laughingly tells his tour group, “Raise your hands like Moses and the cars will stop, just like the parting of the Red Sea,” when crossing from Convent Light Street to the Church of the Assumption.

Walking many of the same streets but focusing on Chinese heritage, Liang elaborates on the importance of Dr Sun Yat Sen to Penang and China, and uses the wonderfully renovated Cheah Kongsi to demonstrate aspects of Hokkien architecture and religious customs and beliefs, contrasting them with the styles and beliefs of the Cantonese temples on Lebuh King.

Some Chinese temples are closed at night, but the lack of traffic means you can stand at a slight distance on the road to admire the facades, and appreciate better his explanation of the difference between Cantonese and Hokkien architecture, customs and gang rivalry.

Clement Liang.

The walk takes in the Clan Jetties, which in the early evening are less crowded than during the daytime, and benefit from a cooling evening sea breeze. The history of these Penang-style water villages is explained, as is their rescue by the Unesco World Heritage listing from their planned demolition. Safety for the tour participants is of course paramount, and this can be a problem as George Town is still not terribly pedestrian friendly, especially that stretch of Weld Quay where the Clan Jetties are located. “I see improvement, but it needs to go faster,” says Liang. Despite the challenges, he has welcomed people in wheelchairs and babies in prams on the trails. He wants to prove that “George Town is a place for everyone.”

For the Indian and Muslim heritage trail, Liang leads his group on a similar but subtly different route. On Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, the group learns the story of the Kapitan Keling and Acheen Street mosques, as well as the Nagore Shrine on Lebuh Chulia, which is dedicated to a Muslim saint.

In Little India, Liang shares his knowledge of Indian history and religious customs using the spectacular Sri Mahamariamman Temple, which was built in 1833 and as such is the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. Participants view the Chettiar houses, visit a spice shop and are invited to try on sarees at one of the ubiquitous clothes shops. At night, “the colours, smells and lights of Little India are mesmerising,” says Liang. Some Indian temples that are closed in the afternoon, open again in the evening, although the large size of visiting groups sometimes makes it impractical for these people to enter the premises.

Conceptualising the Night Trail

These popular and highly enjoyable night trails were the brainchild of Liang himself. A born-and-bred Penangite, he studied computing and accounting at the University of New South Wales and worked in the corporate world in Singapore and Japan before being transferred back to Penang in He had travelled extensively in Europe and seen volunteer guides doing night tours for tips in Edinburgh and other places, and thought it should be done in Penang too.

On his return to Penang, Liang became involved with the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT). Having lived in Japan and being able to speak and read Japanese, he was particularly interested in the experiences of the pre-war Japanese community, and in 2002 presented a paper on the subject at the Penang Story Symposium. This led to invitations to Japan to lecture, and also requests by Japanese tourists to visit places of importance to their history in George Town.

Liang, who describes himself as a social historian, is fascinated by people’s stories. He went on to study the Jews, the Siamese, the Germans and the Armenians in Penang. By accident he discovered that the Western Road Cemetery grave of Arshak Sarkies, who founded the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, was sadly overgrown and neglected. He mentioned this fact to the late Marco Battistotti, then general manager of the Eastern & Oriental, who had it renovated at the hotel’s expenses, and invited Sarkies’ descendants living in Singapore to come and visit it.

In 2010 Liang quit the corporate world and did a six-month course at Sentral College to become an official tour guide so that he could share his passion for the stories of the various communities in Penang with visitors and locals alike. His Japanese tour caught the popular imagination when The Star newspaper reported his finding that Lebuh Cintra was the former haunt of Japanese prostitutes (actually geishas). In 2012 he was invited by Penang Global Tourism (PGT) to conduct regular (daytime) George Town Walkabout Tours for tourists to Penang, which he still does today. Later that year, PGT brought together its Last Friday, Saturday, Sunday of the Month programme, and incorporated the Francis Light Cemetery Tour which Liang had first carried out for PHT.

But Liang still saw the potential in night tours, and by now being on the committee of the Penang Tour Guide Association he conducted training for 80 guides on how to do night tours, but for some reason none of them took the idea forward. PGT came to the rescue and in January of 2015, the monthly Night Trails began. They were immediately successful and now attract an average of 50 people each time. Gratifyingly for Liang, unlike the day tours which are mainly patronised by tourists, many Penangites join the night trails. Liang loves it when parties of schoolchildren come, full of curiosity and asking hundreds of questions about their home town.

I ask him if he takes tips or donations, like the guides he first saw working in Europe. He replies that sometimes people want to make donations to PHT, but often people are not sure whether it is appropriate to tip him, and even ask him if it would be rude to do so.

Liang continues to do research on the people of Penang, and continues to innovate his tours. Once a year, during the last weekend of October, he leads a version of his Francis Light Cemetery Tour, which is rebranded as a Halloween Horror Tour. It takes place at night, and last year more than 50 people joined, each carrying a candle he had provided. Liang wore a Harry Potter-esque cloak and hat, and conducted a special version of the usual monthly tour, which was heavy on murders and mystery deaths – for example the deaths of British Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Jackson, his wife Matilda and their son Gregory Jackson Jr., who all died one after another within 24 hours in 1835.

His passion for the unique social history of George Town remains undimmed. In this city, he rhapsodises, “There are layers and layers of stories. Walking the same few streets you can tell the stories of the Indians, Chinese, British, Germans, Muslims, Armenians and Jews, all of which have been so important to the development of George Town as it is today. All kept their own identities, languages, cultures and religions. There is no ‘fusion’ in George Town”.

The George Town Night Trail takes place on Friday evening of the last complete (Friday-Sunday) weekend of the month. Prior registration is essential at The tours are free of charge, but donations are accepted!

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.

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