The idyllic countryside district of Penanti
Traditional bonds, friendly faces and joy de vivre in a rural setting
Penang and Perlis are the only states in Peninsular Malaysia where there are no known populations of the Orang Asli - as the region’s indigenous natives are collectively named - living today. However, it is said that until the 1920s there were Orang Asli people existing in Penanti and Juru in Seberang Perai. The tribe in Penanti belonged to the Semang ethnic group.
The only remaining legacy of this now locally extinct community is in the name of the main village area in Penanti called Kubang Semang. In Malay “kubang” means muddy ditch but the place is hardly that at present. It teems with friendly faces and a diversity of cultures – Malay, Chinese, Indian and Siamese – while maintaining its quintessentially idyllic countryside atmosphere. Its “downtown”, if it may be called that, is a sleepy 300-metre thoroughfare fringed on both sides by low shophouses. Many people from the surrounding hamlets come here for light shopping and services – grocery, haircut, beauty treatment, medicine, motor vehicle accessory, mobile phone repair, and even new upholstery and furniture.
The street is just the tail-end of the meandering nine-kilometre Jalan Arumugam Pillai, one of the longest roads in Penang which cuts through several charming and serene sites of rural Penanti. It is named after the late philanthropist tycoon Pillai who was known to have owned vast tracts of agricultural estates and plantations in Penang and Kedah.
The busiest spot along the road must be the Penanti public wet market which is popular for its array of fresh fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs. It is here that one gets to see the strong community bonds that are shared by folks living in this little-known countryside district. Most of the traders are familiar with the regular purchasers from families that have been living in nearby neighbourhoods for generations. Crowds converge here especially in the mornings. An adjoining hawker centre offers some appetising breakfast treats and many people make their way from faraway areas to enjoy a morning meal at the food court.
Across the market is a sprawling hilly expanse that bears one of the largest and oldest Chinese burial grounds in northern Malaysia. Spread out over the vast green slopes is a veritable sea of gravestones of various ages and shapes made of concrete, granite and marble. Many of them have interesting engravings with inscriptions of the names and contributions of people who used to live in these parts, some as far back as more than a century ago. The area houses the cemeteries of four main Chinese communities that have lived in Seberang Perai – Kwangtung, Hokkien, Teochew and Hainan – side by side.
These hills teem with unusual activity during the annual Cheng Beng festival sometime around April every year when descendants of those laid to rest here come together to clean the graveyards and hold prayers in memory of their ancestors. It is a tradition among Chinese families to perform rituals, which includes burning of joss sticks and joss paper, while also making symbolic offerings of food and flowers to appease the spirits of their deceased forebears. Many of the tombstones are seen surrounded by coloured papers and fruits placed as spiritual offerings. The occasion also presents the opportunity for people to reconnect with their living relatives who gather at the cemetery to mutually tend to the graveyards of their departed loved ones.
There are also several picturesque manmade buildings to be seen around Penanti. One may still find traditional kampung houses in the villages that dot the district. Many of them now have contemporary features such as satellite television dishes, asbestos roof tiles and modern casement windows instead of those with customary Malay wooden frames. They nevertheless appear photogenic and unique compared to the staid modern concrete buildings that keep mushrooming all over the area.
The most visibly majestic building in Penanti is likely the Kubang Semang mosque. Built in 1977, it looms strikingly above the surrounding structures with its turquoise muralled dome, tall minaret and small horseshoe arches on its façade. Like other mosques in the country, the faithful congregate to pray here in especially high numbers every Friday. Interestingly, it was erected to replace the original timber mosque, now called Masjid Lama Kubang Semang, that was constructed over a hundred years ago. This small mosque still stands but is hidden from view along the main road by the larger new building. Though it is abandoned and some of its wooden planks are dilapidated due to disuse and lack of maintenance, much of its humble ornamental features have remained intact, and it continues to exude an irresistible sense of grace and nostalgia within its cosy confines. Beside the mosque compound is an ancient Muslim cemetery. On its other flank is a streetside “warung”, or neighbourhood eatery, where Muslims and non-Muslims alike mingle over breakfast, tea or a heavy meal.
The breezy rustic communal charm of Penanti is showcased for all to see when the area hosts the annual Penang Paddy Festival to celebrate its agricultural wares and the unwavering joy de vivre of village life. Held inaugurally at the rice fields of Kampung Terus, in a secluded northern corner of Penanti, in August 2018, the festival highlights the importance of paddy as a staple food crop for the local people. It also puts on display the enchanting pastoral appeal of Penanti with its vast green lands, swaying coconut trees, wild white storks and friendly communities who continue to persevere in this idyllic world as did their ancestors many decades ago.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs © Adrian Cheah
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