Just when you thought you had explored every last corner of Georgetown and walked all of its historical streets, you might be pleased to learn that there is, quite literally, a whole new side of town waiting to be discovered. Beyond the shoreline that runs along Pengkalan Weld, Penang’s other-worldly clan jetties jut out over the tidal mud flats and seem to exist in a completely different time and dimension.
The approach to the jetties is, to be fair, not all that inviting and involves crossing one of Georgetown’s less pleasant roads, Pengkalan Weld, which serves the city’s port and ferry terminal. It is noisy, dirty, and traffic-congested, and it may well send you fleeing back into the relative calm of Georgetown’s side streets, but if you persevere and look beyond the rundown warehouses, tyre stalls and motorcycle repair workshops, you will find a collection of wooden-stilted boardwalks leading out over the sea, lined with whole communities of houses.
Six clan jetties, of varying sizes, ages and states of preservation, still exist in Penang, ranging from the sprawling community occupied by members of the Chew clan since the 1880s, to the far more recent Lee Jetty, built in the 1960s after the original was demolished. Some are well signposted, established tourist attractions, but others you will have to search quite hard to find.
Start at the southern end of Pengkalan Weld, opposite the junction with Gat Lebuh Melayu, where the Yeoh Jetty is located, and then work your way northwards via the Mixed Clan, Lee, Tan and Chew jetties, finishing at the Lim Jetty, the entrance to which is just beyond the Shell petrol station. You will soon discover for yourself that each of the jetties has a different character, and each boardwalk offers something new.
The jetties were originally uninhabited, and were simply a place to moor the sampan boats that ferried goods between the trading ships and the adjacent Weld Quay. The port employed coolie labour, made up of immigrants from southern China, to row the boats and haul the sacks and crates to the warehouses, and each jetty became associated with particular gangs of workers, who tended to group themselves according to surname.
From the 1880s the immigrants who could not afford houses on land, and who had nowhere else to stay, started to put up wooden, attap-thatched houses along their clan’s jetties. These days, the descendents of those men still live here, and although the attap roofs have made way to corrugated zinc, and the modern conveniences of running water, electricity and satellite TV are now very apparent, it is still possible to get a sense of life as it must have existed in these unusual communities.
The star of the show, and without doubt the most rewarding and most photogenic of the jetties, is that inhabited by the Chews. Unfortunately, it is also the most commercialised and its main thoroughfare is lined with a touristy tat-fest of souvenir and ice cream stalls, but don’t let that put you off. Take the first turning on the left and follow it round for a real taste of everyday life on what is – in effect – a mini village on stilts.
The narrow wooden walkway is lined by houses on both sides, but occasionally opens up to reveal luxuriant potted gardens, or views between the houses to the mud flats and sea beyond. As you wind your way past dustbins, household shrines, ancient bikes and washing lines, you get a real sense of everyday life that is far removed from the shophouse-lined streets of the rest of Georgetown.
Turn left towards the end of the walkway and rejoin the main thoroughfare, which looks out over the sea towards the Lim Jetty. Here you will find boats tethered, and at certain times of day you can see the fishermen offloading their catch. At the very end of the jetty is a modest yet brightly decorated clan temple, and views over the Straits to Butterworth on the mainland. As you head back to the shoreline along the main walkway, look out for the larger-than-life — and now slightly weathered — wall mural of two children in a boat, part of the Penang art trail.
It is important to remember that the jetties are living communities and not just a tourist attraction. If you wield your camera too obviously or too freely, you may risk offending the locals, although a smile and a few words of Hokkien go a long way and some people may even ask you to take photos, as was the case when we last visited. You should be fine as long as you respect people’s privacy and don’t stray beyond the thresholds, and if you stop along the way to observe and soak up the atmosphere, this really is one of Georgetown’s most rewarding experiences.
If you have time, the Chew Jetty is at the start of the Penang art trail, which continues nearby on Lebuh Armenian. Alternatively, you could visit the famous Khoo Kong Si, also in the same area, or else follow Pengkalan Weld north past the ferry terminal towards Fort Cornwallis to see some of colonial British Penang.