It’s virtually impossible to associate Penang with much else but glorious food. The northwest Malaysian state is, after all, Malaysia’s unofficial food capital. But if you are looking for unusual things to do in Penang, try getting to know its other cultural traditions instead.
“This is a place where old trades still thrive—sign-making, rattan weaving, tin smithing, paper-effigy making, incense making,” says Penang-based writer Robyn Eckhardt. “There are still craftsmen and artisans here who do work not to titillate tourists, but for the locals who create the demand for their work.”
For a refreshing experience that pays homage to Penang’s tenacious spirit, let the team at PARKROYAL Penang Resort show you where to track down skilled tradesmen, who have dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft. What you’ll need to bring along: your camera, a sense of curiosity, and a respectful attitude.
Here’s a new word to add to your vocabulary bank: oblation. This obscure term refers to either the act of making a religious offering, or something given up in worship and devotion. In the context of Penang’s Chinese community, “oblation” refers to flammable creations (fashioned from paper, wood, and cane) that are typically offered to the newly deceased, to accompany them into the afterworld. These offerings can range from ornate multi-storey homes (some as large as real-life cars) to mobile phones, motorcycles, and anything else that is deemed useful for the afterlife.
To meet a respected name in the craft, visit Ah Ban Paper Oblation Shop. A family business handed down through the generations, Ah Ban makes offerings for funerals, as well as effigies for the Hungry Ghost Festival. Also known in Chinese as Qi Yue or the “Seventh Month,” this is the season when demand surges for replicas of the “King of Hades,” which are used to ward off spirit disturbances.
The creations are primarily handmade from scratch using Batam wood and high-quality Japanese paper—it takes the Ah Ban crew a day to complete a 1.8-metre high house, and about two days for a 2.4-metre high house. Anything larger may take a week to deliver, and these painstakingly crafted products could cost up to a whopping MYR 10,000. Spending time with these makers would certainly be one of the more interesting Penang activities for your itinerary.
Get directions to Ah Ban Paper Oblation Shop
Intrigued by the prospect of bending rattan to create anything you desire? You can learn this traditional craft from veteran weaver Sim Chew Poh, who began studying the rattan weaving trade at the tender age of 16.
“[Rattan weaving] is really just about using your brain,” says Sim. “You’ve got to look and see how to do it. It is about working with your hands, not a machine.”
Apart from exploring Penang, you can book a five-day, 20-hour workshop with Sim through the platform Vacation With An Artist, which connects travellers with artists and craftspeople all around the world.
During the workshop, you will learn to weave round, square, and oval rattan products (such as baskets), and be given the chance to incorporate bamboo and fabric into your works.
While Sim is able to provide instruction in English (a Swedish traveller felt “very welcome” and “never... uncomfortable or misunderstood”), you may get more out of your interactions if you are able to converse with him in Mandarin.
Get directions to Seang Hin Leong
"Shadow Puppet Exploration with the Real Puppeteer of Penang" Workshop
Address: Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, Universiti Sains Malaysia, George Town, 11800 Gelugor, Penang, Malaysia
To demystify the centuries-old art of Wayang Kulit (where puppets are used to cast shadows on a white screen), you can learn to make your own leather puppet under the tutelage of master puppeteer Mohd Jufry Yusoff.
This traditional theatrical art combines hand movements with voice acting and singing. It is close to Jufry’s heart as the arcane skill was handed down to him by his late grandfather—when Jufry listens to performances or when he is conducting his own, he is fondly reminded of his grandfather’s voice.
Depending on your availability, you can train with Jufry in a one-day or five-day workshop (held by different organisers). In both workshops, you can make and keep a shadow puppet while practising the basics of shadow puppetry. You will also learn how to play some of the traditional musical instruments that are used in Wayang Kulit performances. Lessons can be conducted in English or Malay.
Buy tickets (one day)
Buy tickets (five days)
Lee Beng Chuan Joss Sticks
Address: 1 Lorong Muda, 10200 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Opening hours: 8:00 am to 11:00 am (Monday to Friday)
Joss sticks (or incense burners) are used by the Chinese for religious ceremonies, ancestor worship rituals, and daily prayers. The Chinese believe that the burning sticks send a smoke signal to the gods, alerting them that offerings have been made.
In Penang, one of the few remaining joss stick makers—if not the last—is 90-year-old Lee Beng Chuan. The nonagenarian picked up the craft in his 20s by spending six months observing an expert at work. While joss stick making was Lee’s livelihood for several decades, he has professed that he now makes joss sticks for the sole purpose of honouring his wife, who passed on in 2015.
“Just before she ‘left’, she told me, ‘My time is up, since you make joss sticks, you must make good joss sticks and give it to people so that they can use it for blessings, to give them good, happy, and long lives,” says Lee.
Joss sticks are made by rubbing sandalwood powder and other ingredients into dough, which is then pressed onto sticks. You can drop in at Lee’s shophouse to watch him at work, or sign up for a joss stick-making workshop to meet the Penang icon of incense.
Get directions to Lee’s shophouse
In Peranakan culture (the culture of those with Chinese as well as Malay/Indonesian heritage, typically born in the “Straits Settlements” of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang), intricate beaded shoes were once considered status symbols. Today, they continue to be worn by Peranakan women (known as “Nyonya”). Colourful beaded shoes make an appearance during celebratory occasions, while sombre events require footwear with muted tones, such as black, white, or blue.
Tan Kok Oo is a beaded shoemaker who has been honing his craft since the 1970s. His work involves a painstaking process of hand-sewing fine glass beads onto a cloth (the “face” of the shoe) which is later nailed to the sole. Patience and perseverance are essential, as it can take up to three months to create an exquisite pair of shoes. A good eye and the courage to be creative also play a part in ensuring a pleasing design.
“You really need colour contrast so you must be daring, yet the colours have to be harmonious,” explains Tan.
Despite the laborious work, Tan is more than willing to welcome visitors into his studio. “I am happy for people to come and see my shoes, and take photos to show to their friends,” he says. Do take up his invitation and be enchanted by this classic Peranakan art form.
Get directions to Tan’s Studio