Upper Penang Road is best known as Georgetown’s party street, but if your Saturday sundowner session spirals into an all-night bar crawl, you may stumble out of a club the following morning to find yourself face to face with a whole different type of street party, in the form of the Little Penang Street Market.
Held on the last Sunday of every month, this community craft fair, arts platform and cultural showcase has become something of a Penang institution. It is the perfect place to spend a leisurely Sunday morning browsing various craft and antiques stalls, but is also a chance to experience Penang in all its diversity.
This is where the island’s different communities come together in a 21st-century show of multicultural and creative solidarity. Among the stalls of Chinese, Malay and Indian antiques and curiosities, you can find a whole host of crafts, including handmade bags, jewellery, decorative glassware, traditional Malay and Peranakan kebayas, silverware, wood carvings, and unusual ornaments made from recycled materials. Some are very original and are influenced by the local cultures, others less so, but the sheer variety is part of the appeal.
Book lovers will enjoy browsing the new and second-hand books on the history and culture of Penang, and you can also find stalls selling organic soaps, candles and foods, all of which make good souvenirs. Try the candied nutmeg, or the sticky Malay sweets made from coconut milk and rice flour, and don’t miss out on the organic Chinese noodles and deep-fried Malay snacks. The dessert stall is less typically Malaysian, but is loaded with a tempting array of moist sponges, crumbles and cheesecakes and does a roaring trade.
A few of the vendors really stand out. The craft might not be to everyone’s taste, but the nyonya beadwork stall continues the traditions of the 19th-century Peranakans, whose Chinese-Malay hybrid culture is unique to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The intricate slipper designs are made from impossibly small beads, and the ladies on the stall hold workshops for those that want to try out their own creations. If the shoes aren’t to your taste, you can always go for one of the much-more-wearable friendship bracelets.
Meanwhile, the Asia Community Service stall sells woven cloth, Malay batiks and hand-made paper, and you can see the hand-loom at work. All proceeds go to providing support and respite care to people with disabilities, and in fact, many of the stalls raise money for charities so if you want to give something back to the Malaysian community, this is a good place to start.
The market is organised by the Penang Arts Council, and also aims to provide a platform to nurture home-grown talent by promoting displays of visual contemporary art as well as book readings, music, theatre and dance at the main stage. Previous live performances have included anything from Peranakan choirs, traditional Asli (indigenous tribe) dances, Chinese orchestras and Indian classical dances to contemporary hip hop and experimental theatre, so keep an eye out for what is going on.
There is a real sense of camaraderie at the market and if you take the time to stop and chat to the stall holders, this is a great way to gain an insight into Penang’s very diverse fusion of people and cultures.