Shopping for souvenirs and gifts for loved ones back home when you’re travelling can be a fraught affair. If left until the last moment, it often results in panic buying of things that seem a good idea at the time, but later just leave you asking yourself: Why? Undertaking this task in Penang might throw another headache into the equation, since unlike other parts of the world, the varied mix of cultures can make it difficult to pinpoint one thing that truly encapsulates Malaysia. So what should you buy in Penang, and where should you go to get it?
Well, far from being a hindrance, the variety in Georgetown might also be its saving grace, and the shops include an eclectic assortment of items that are representative of Penang and the wider Malaysian culture.
As the ‘culinary capital’ of the country, food from Penang is an obvious idea, and although take-home servings of the island’s famous dishes don’t necessarily work, you could try instead a perennial favourite among local tourists: the tambun biscuit. These dry, flaky pastries are filled with bean paste in various flavourings and are more savoury than sweet, so not to everyone’s tastes, but they are Penang’s number one souvenir and are sold everywhere. Malaysian tea and packs of spices feature quite highly on many people’s lists, as do Chinese candied dry fruits, including sour plums, or you could try a particular Chinese Malay delicacy, candied nutmeg.
If you would rather get something that lasts a bit longer, traditional Malay silk batiks are a great idea, or for something more Chinese, try carved Buddhist trinkets and ornaments. The Malayan tin trade made Penang one of the wealthiest cities in Southeast Asia during the nineteenth century, and you can still find excellent quality pewter dishes and decorations in shops around Penang. Alternatively, the strong Indian influence in Georgetown means that you can buy beautiful cottons and silks at very reasonable prices. All of the above can be found in the shops and stalls along Jalan Penang, and in the neighbouring Chowrasta Bazaar, along Jalan Chowrasta.
Little Penang Street Market (last Sunday of every month, on Upper Penang Road) is also a fantastic place to pick up such varied goodies as traditional beaded nyonya slippers, handwoven fabrics, organic soaps and unusual handmade arts and crafts. You could also head down to Little India for sari, shalwar kamiz, jewellery, statuettes and sticky Indian sweets, or alternatively, the nightly street market in Batu Ferringhi sells all things pan-Asian, including Vietnamese lacquerware, Chinese silks and lanterns, Thai wooden carvings as well as fake designer goods, such as bags, watches and even perfumes and aftershaves.
Back in Georgetown, there is a whole host of other shops worth checking out for unique and unusual gifts. The first of our top three favourites is Veng Tatt Soon Grocery Store (101 Lebuh Campbell, on the corner of Lebuh Cintra, Georgetown; T: (04) 261 1010), a real traditional Chinese grocer still alive and well in the middle of Georgetown.
Walking into this old-fashioned store, you are greeted with a glutton’s den of traditional – and some not-so-traditional – Chinese snacks, condiments and delicacies. Granted, many of the products come direct from China rather than Malaysia itself, but they are no less representative of Penang’s culture and are as widely eaten here as they are in China itself.
The jars and jars of exotic dried fruits, powders and potions behind the counter are truly intriguing and the owners will be happy to let you sample bits and pieces (if you dare). More realistically, you could pick up bottles of high grade soy sauce, traditional Penang tambun biscuits, dried plums, and packet spice mixes for you to recreate your favourite Penang dishes back home.
Our next pick is Sam’s Collection (159-161 Jalan Penang; T: (04) 250 0001), an Indian-owned and run family business that has become something of a legend in Penang for its huge stock of quality fabrics and Indian garments, including kamiz, kurta and scarves, as well as beautifully embroidered cushions and fine silks, pashminas and batik wear in both cotton and silk.
You can’t buy sari here but otherwise, this is a veritable Aladdin’s cave and it is no exaggeration to say that you can get lost here among the countless racks of clothes. Best of all, you can pick up things for very reasonable prices and the friendly staff will be happy to assist you in creating your very own Bollywood outfit.
You should also make a stop at the charming and very quirky 14 Living Story (14 Lebuh Armenian; T: (04) 261 0352), which you will hear before you see thanks to the melodious twangs of traditional Chinese songs from its doorway. Venture closer and you will discover the source of this atmospheric music actually comes from a Japanese string instrument that very closely resembles a typewriter — seriously — played by resident musician, Mr Soon, who transports you to the streets of yesteryear’s Georgetown.
Inside browse through all manner of items, some Penang-themed, others less so, but arranged so artfully that it all seems quite impressive. These include prints of 1950s Penang and Singapore, cushions, quilts and bags made from traditional baju kuram (long dresses worn by Malay women) fabrics, handcrafted knick-knacks, unusual postcards, and kitsch plastic and porcelain figures. If you’re after a waving cat, look no further!
At the back of the shophouse is a gallery space displaying paintings and photographs by Penang artists. The building itself is plain and simple, but showcases the architecture of a typical shophouse, retaining its original features and layout, and the owners are happy to talk to explain more if you ask.