Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Quirky Heritage

There’s nowhere in the world quite like George Town on Penang Island, Malaysia. As soon as I read about Penang International Print Exhibition 2010, I did what I have rarely done: applied to exhibit in the show.

I don’t like to ask people for permission to exhibit my work; I’d rather exhibit it my own way in my own venues than schmooze my way up the ladder of artworld gatekeepers. But I was enthusiastic to see the work of hundreds of printmakers around the world and to participate – and I was one of the artists accepted for the show.

Which led to interesting scenes like this one: A Malaysian university student photographing my print of a photograph taken of broken boxes on a historic bridge in Hanoi two years before, my interpretation of Vietnam’s transition from Communist to full-blown capitalist nation state.


I wonder what her interpretation will be.


Many students attended the opening ceremony; the opening was also attended by dignitaries both political and religious. In Malaysia, Islam is never far from the public stage, whether you’re waking up early with the muezzin’s call, or covering up for a walk on the beach.


Later I strolled down a boulevard and was stopped in my tracks by this cruise ship, seemingly lurking like a giant shark at the end of the street.

I stayed at the Cathay Hotel, and was later told it was famous around Penang for peddling prostitutes. Sources claimed that the sedate old men behind the counter pimp out local girls. “What hotel doesn’t?” I responded. When I worked at a hotel we soon learned to spot the working girls, and only allowed the discreet ones upstairs. Every hotel by its transient nature is complicit.

But not every $25-a-night hotel has a staircase like this one:

Cathay Hotel, Penang

and a sitting room like this:

Cathay Hotel, Penang

If you stay in rooms number 2 or 4 you’ll have a pair of carved wooden doors

Cathay Hotel, Penang

that lead to an airy room with windows on two sides

Cathay Hotel, Penang

And a massive selection of dining options across the street, filled with tables of characters like these, an Indo-Malaysian couple:


The next day a guardian in charge of PR and cultural activities for Penang’s Hainan Association escorted me around its grounds and discussed possible collaborations:

Hainan Society, Penang

Hainan Society, Penang

We had tea in the courtyard and I gazed up at rows of inscriptions crowned by black-and-white photos of the founders, who stared solemnly down at us, ensuring we didn’t drink Coke or read English-language newspapers in the building [both banned].

Hainan Society, Penang

“These are photos representing family members buried elsewhere,” said the guardian of these red-and-gold plaques. “Take some photos!”

A mountain of memories.

Hainan Society, Penang

But the most appealing aspect of Penang is the diversity of the people who have made it what it is today. You can see it in its streets: Lebuh Queen & King; Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong; Lebuh Armenian & Siam. Even Penang’s shophouses are Eclectic. Like many travelers I dream of renovating one and turning it into my own live-work space.

Thai trains

Until then I’ll commute from Bangkok to Penang for an occasional fix of fantastic street food, treasured architecture and cultures that still co-exist as nowhere else.

Working holiday

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