Pulau Penang. North-east. GURNEY DRIVE. Beach front. Sand. Crystalline water sparkling in the morning sun. Fish, prawn, birds and their songs. Palms… Hedge grove. Gardens. Grass. Ornate borders filled with tropical colours. Purple. Bougainvillea, Bamboo Orchid and Durian… Mansions. White. Colonial. Pillars. Filigree. Iron-cast windows from floor to ceiling. Double-doors. Wood.
This is not the Gurney Drive of today. No longer do the locals swim in its water nor do the women gather an evening fare of prawn and fish in their shawls. There is, now, neither a beach which at night is sparsely illuminated by the dim glow of humble fires sending trails of scented smoke into the air. No more do the stars have the opportunity to shine with what reflective light they can muster from the heavens above. Neither is there the space. Open space which only two or three storey bungalows can bring. Nor the silence. There is no longer the peaceful colonial neighbourhood in which influential families spend lazy afternoons in mansions housing a brood of up to twenty children running, playing, exploring. In order for this experience, a person would have to emigrate in time – back to the 1800s.
BOOM! Now is now and the present is competing with its future in the only way that competitions can be measured; on the heels and at the finishing line. ‘Now Penang’ has no time to consider its past and aches to overtake its future self-one bounding leap after another. Sprouting along the shoreline tower the great high-rises draped in modernist chic architecture from glistening glass to matt finish. Hotels, malls and condominiums are the new flora and Mercedes’, BMW’s, Porsche’s and Ferrari’s the new fauna. Sounds and sights have certainly changed. The ancient yet non-existing stars have all but given up competing with their artificial relatives as soft glow, halogen, accent and ambient lighting punctuate the night air giving reassurance to the throngs of the darkness at bay.
Gurney Drive has become cosmopolitan. Perhaps more so due to the lack of it in the rest of Penang but this stretch has been developed with a determined sense of progress. The G Hotel dominates as the place to stay on the ‘new esplanade’ taking pride in the services available and the luxury offered. When stepping into the spacious foyer a guest is greeted with an extravagant décor; clean lines and vibrant colours gently soothing the tired, confused or excited. With amenities that include a pool, gym, spa, hair salon and shop there is no excuse for someone to complain of boredom, especially considering its infamous bar the G-Spot at which the guest singer tickles the pleasures of hotel residents and the general public alike.
However, for those pursuing the more local experience, the stretch is lined with that ultimate in Malaysian character – hawker stalls. While providing predominantly mamak and Hokkien fare, the street vendors have a huge array of grilled, fried and steamed cuisine bustling under the rhythmic beat of metal slaps and stamps as food seamlessly swirls amongst heat and steam; tossed into the final product. Under the lighted ambience of their towering cousins, the hawker stall centres sit as makeshift shelters under tin roofs billowing smoke into the night air.
What else is there? Gurney Plaza? Well… nice, big shopping mall filled with designer outlets catering for all the consumers in Penang. Of course, it’s decked out with every possible fashion imagination and, of course, the red and white of ‘sales’ signs erupt all year round as part of the conglomerate taster into the celebrity fashion world.
Perhaps the more important question is not what there is but, rather, why it is there? In reference to the beginning of this article, there is hardly anything left of what Gurney Drive used to be apart from the Loke Mansion, which stands as a resolute salute to the bullied past. Like many places in the world (such as Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta), Gurney Drive in Penang is succumbing to ‘blind’ modernism; an unnatural need to compete with global progress causing people to forget that the authentic culture, architecture and heritage of a place holds more value than something created elsewhere. This could be attributed to the fact that every human being suffers from the self-deprecating view of ‘the grass is always greener’ and therefore strives for something other than what they are used to; hence, as a Westerner myself, the reason for this trail of thought.
However, this realisation is particularly acute with regards to Penang. Considering that Georgetown gained its UNESCO Heritage status in only July 2008, one may find it slightly alarming that it is already under considerable pressure to keep it. With all the development sprouting from its sandy beaches, Penang’s commercial sector it seriously contributing to Georgetown’s seclusion to the UNESCO watch list whereby continued brazen construction will be considered further dilution to the heritage UNESCO is honouring and trying to maintain; let alone erasing the identity of Malaysia’s Pearl of the Orient.
Gurney drive is sitting as a half-way house in Penang and a confused mix of two sides of a coin. Heads: whilst trying to make a presence as an ‘SW-1’ address on the island and in Malaysia it still keeps the local hawkers, albiet off the promenade (where they used to align as separate stalls) and huddled together under last minute, conciliatory shacks. Tails: the local fare is too good to get rid of and feeds locals and tourists alike from dawn till dusk, diminishing the concrete monoliths behind into insignificance by enticing the people to them every day and night.
What it is good for nobody knows. Maybe this sort of development will be forced to look in on itself and consider whether losing its UNESCO listing is worth the cost and prestige of luxury style and living. Maybe the idea of Gurney as it was will die a heroic, assassinated death much like its namesake Sir Henry Gurney and put up a fight till the last. Let us pray it is not the latter, as the last it shall be.