Growing up in Penang (or as we would say in Malaysia “when young time”), I often wondered about a street named Love Lane.
Was it the place where people met, fell in love and lived happily ever after? You could tell I had been reading too many fairy tale books. Or was it a place you could only go to if you were in love and if you were not, some monster would come and take you away? You could tell I had been reading too many horror books.
All I knew for sure was that it was a street close to where my brother went to school and my father had warned us to “never ever” go there. As with anything forbidden though, you can guess what happened.
Eventually I found out that Love Lane, or ai cheng hang as the Hokkiens called it, got its names because apparently sailors used to meet their local lovers there. Another story claims the name originated from its association with the rich Chinese merchants who kept their mistresses by the adjacent road, Muntri Street.
Today, a different kind of love has arrived on Love Lane – a love for heritage, story-telling, preservation and restoration – and the street’s taken on new life.
What used to be a seedy, dark alleyway full of furtive trishaw riders (that’s what I seem to remember most) has turned into a street filled with an eclectic mix of businesses.
The day I was there, there was a ceremony going on at a Buddhist association while a group of tourists were trying to figure out how to rent motorbikes for a city tour. It’s become a favourite hangout for backpackers with its range of “chic ryokans” and “reggae hostels”.
The love of all things old has given new life to Georgetown. It’s a place I hardly recognize. As a child, I dreaded having to visit my grandmother who lived in an old shophouse in the city. It was dark, crowded and full of dirty corners.
Today, it’s a travellers’ dream because few cities in South-east Asia are as walkable and as interesting as Georgetown.
Ramble along any of the streets – Love Lane, Stewart Lane, Muntri Street, Armenian Street, Chulia Street, Beach Road – and you’ll come upon sights that are not contrived but part of the new scene that is Georgetown, where history blends with contemporary life.
Street art made of wrought iron tell stories and wall paintings provide great talking points. A little girl balancing herself on red lanterns, a little boy reaching out for an open window, two kids gleefully riding a bicycle – these wall paintings are all over social networks today as travellers take to sharing their experiences.
And because it is a “living” city, it changes each time you return – let’s just say that you will always find and experience something new no matter how often you visit Georgetown.
The last time I was there, it happened to be the last Saturday of the month and that’s the day when one of Penang’s grandest clan houses, Khoo Kongsi, gets lit up and cultural performances are held in the courtyard – what an amazing sight to see this historic building lit up while snake charmers and dancers entertained us.
Love Lane or not, it’s enough to make anyone fall in love with Penang.