Many parts of Penang, Malaysia feel reminiscent of other places I’ve seen in Asia. But the floating villages of clan jetty homes are unlike anything I’ve seen before on my travels. Long wooden piers extend from the shore into the water and small wooden homes line the edges of the pier. These original homes were constructed in the 19th century by the Chinese immigrants moving to the area. They built these homes for their clans, or families, as way to maintain community in their new city. And they still are living & breathing communities today. The most famous of the jetties, Chew Jetty, has been given UNESCO World Heritage status, for better or worse. But more on that later.
We actually stayed pretty close to the jetties in our AirBnB, so we were able to walk to each of these one afternoon as sunset approached. We began at the closest jetty, Yeoh Jetty. Immediately, I could see this community had not been glammed up for tourism. During the warm sleepy afternoon hours, the houses were closed up and quiet. Motorbikes and sandals stood still outside of closed doors. I felt like we were walking through a private neighborhood, but a throwback to quieter and simpler living style. At the end of the row of homes, the pier opened up and I saw a beautiful view of mainland Malaysia in the distance. It was peaceful and serene. I could see what drew the Chinese immigrants to this part of the island. I loved taking photos of the details of the homes, from the iron door gates to the colorful mailboxes. Each home had character and personality. Yeoh Jetty was my favorite of all the jetties I visited.
The next jetty on the map was the Lee Jetty. I could see this one had been cleaned up a bit more than Yeoh Jetty. The homes had newer paint. One or two of the homes had drinks for sale on their front porch. On Lee Jetty, we actually saw another set of tourists walking around and taking photos. A few front porches displayed fresh cut flowers and Malaysian flags, creating the perfect photo moment. Standing at the end of Lee Jetty, looking off into the water and skyline in the distance, it’s easy to forget the bustling city in the background. It’s just you and the water and floating homes.
After loving Yeoh Jetty and Lee Jetty, I was looking forward to seeing the more famous Tan Jetty. This jetty has made it’s mark on Instagram. Instead of an open platform at the end of the jetty, it’s a long pier with one single red building at the end. It’s an iconic photo spot. Which is why I spent 20 minutes waiting for a group of teenage girls to finish their endless selfies to capture the pier while empty. It was worth it though, a picturesque look at the Penang Jetties.
The final jetty I toured was the Chew Jetty. This is the jetty that has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status and is a stop for all the tour buses. And it just broke my heart. Instead of seeing simple family homes along the pier, almost every family had turned their front porch into a storefront. From snacks and drinks to tacky souvenirs of all kinds, almost every family was trying to capitalize off this tourist boom. One jetty had turned their home into a hotel room for rent, for the tourist who wanted to spend a few nights on the jetty. Chew Jetty was overflowing with people. It was not quiet nor peaceful nor serene. Families that didn’t want to be part of the mass crowds invading their neighborhood were forced to hang signs that prohibited photos of their property. It didn’t feel authentic, but like manufactured culture. In trying to process my emotions about what I was seeing, I ran across this article from The Guardian from 2017, about the world heritage status doing more harm than good. Is there value in highlighting and preserving culture? Absolutely. Should tourists be interested in local culture? Of course. But is there a way to show the culture of an area without turning it into commercialization opportunity? I hope so.
Overall, visiting the Penang jetties was a highlight of our time in Penang. I am so glad that I was able to start at the least touristy Yeoh Jetty and experience that first. My advice, skip Chew Jetty and check out the others. Be respectful and polite and remember that as you tour and photograph, these are people’s home and lives that you are stepping into. And maybe treat them like you would a guest in your own home.