Clans & jetties

Penang’s historic clan jetties have changed little throughout the decades, and offer a rare glimpse into life as it once was in a thriving oriental trading port.

As the warm evening tide lashes gently against the wooden pillars which support the historic clan jetties of Georgetown in Penang candles shimmer softly in the fading evening light. Their flame casts a meaningful and hypnotic haze of light smoke around an old lady as she kneels and prays to the family shrine, much as her ancestors have done for decades before.

Children skip and run excitedly along the timbered boardwalks, grasping those last playful moments of the day, before dinner is served up, and the inevitable chore of homework comes to bare. As distant woks clatter away the sound of crackling open stoves conjure up mouthwatering and fragrant aromas while a boisterous bunch of older gents laugh and clunk away at a table destined for an evening card game.

Behind this sensory overload the backing track of the nearby mosque’s call to prayer is dulled somewhat by the evening commuter traffic, which passes just a few strides away from the entrance to these aging stilted and wooden jetties, which stand proud above the ocean waters that divide Penang from the mainland town of Butterworth.

Immigrants from all over the world flocked to Penang more than a century ago, when the British colonists turned it into a thriving trading freeport, bridging the oceanic gap between China and India; “My family first came and settled in Penang around 1880, from Tainan in China, and we are now the 5th generation.”  Chew Siew Pheng, one of the owners of My Chew Jetty Homestay told us.

Chinese traders were then prominent in the Weld Quay area of town, and after some time living in makeshift shacks they built their own stilted “villages” on jetties which also served as trading posts. There were 8 neighboring jetties in all, each of which was (and still is) inhabited to a different clan.

Times have changed some over the years, and the jetty folk have had to evolve along with them - meaning in some cases that continuing to live here has not been a viable option; “For a long time the trading and economy here was good, and most families prospered and so stayed living on the jetties. But in the past few years that has changed.” Laments Siew Pheng.

Although jetty life may seem like a low rent and economically sound life choice that isn’t always so due to the nature of the salt water beneath the wooden strictures; “We have to do a lot or maintenance and continually replace things, which works out very expensive. The area is also government owned, so we also have to renew out occupants license each year.” Fortunately thus far all jetty houses have remained within the original settling families; “Before, most of the jetty people worked on their own and from home; but that time has largely passed, so now younger generations move to mainland houses and jobs, and help to support their parents who still live here, and they return home as often as they can.”

Back in 2008 the historic centre of Georgetown was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both to help protect its older buildings and also in honour of the unique racial and cultural diversity and harmony found in Penang. This status also took in the clan jetties; “Being UNESCO listed has had both pro’s and cons. With not owning the land we had few rights to debate things. Compensation of land based apartments was initially talked about, but with the help of NGO’s we sorted it all out so we could stay here, which was a plus. On the down side the jetties have become very busy, both with more families staying here and also with visitors, so it’s not the peaceful place it once was – although that’s progress and we have adapted.”

Of all 8 jetties the Chew Jetty is by far the busiest, and has several small shops and eateries catering both to locals and the tourists who now flock here for a glimpse in to this timeless way of life. Siew Pheng’s family homestay offers people the rare opportunity to experience true jetty life; “We have guests from all over the world staying with us. They are usually people wanting to experience real local living, and we often speak a lot with them and I also sometimes cook and we have dinner together.”

The homestay is the only one of Chew Jetty, and was born from necessity; “Financially it was the only way we could really afford to keep up the maintenance of the jetty. If we’d moved to land jobs and accommodation it may well have fallen into disrepair, which would mean that the whole jetty would just collapse.”

Despite the rigors of time and progress daily life for the majority of the jetty clans has morphed some, but has changed little. This is why Siew Pheng and many of the younger generation are determined to ensure their survival and hopefully their future prosperity; “For me personally I find life here very soothing and relaxing, maybe it’s because we are living on the sea. When I open my balcony door I am directly facing the sea. It really relieves the stresses of life.” The deep rooted sense of jetty community seals the deal for many; “When you need help you don’t need to ask, people will come and offer. Doors are not locked and houses are always open to other jetty families. Unlike in mainland housing areas, everybody here knows each other and looks out for one another -  it’s a very safe and secure place to live.”

Nothing in life is certain, and nothing is written; that includes the future of the clan jetties. If you’re in Penang then a visit to the clan jetties will be an experience you’ll not forget, so be sure not to pass up on this authentic step back in time.