Clan Jetty Homes – Life on the water

by FieryTree on March 10, 2014 · 0 comments

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One of the unique places in Georgetown Penang are the Clan Jetties. Six in total, they are small communities suspended on stilts above the water. Walkways, composed of wooden boards, some in better shape than others, link the houses together. We headed back Saturday for our second visit and a personal goal of finding the beautiful temple I’d seen lit up.

Each jetty represents a different Chinese clan and dates back to the 19th Century. The location began as docks for loading and unloading goods but structures slowly began to grow and be dominated by specific Chinese clans. A website listed these Clans remaining: Lim, Chew, Tan, Yeoh, Koay, Lee and Mixed Surname (although one has burned down). We have visited probably five but frequently the name was in Chinese so I couldn’t identify it. Today the jetties host mostly homes and are protected as part of the UNESCO heritage sites.

Jetty pilings - note the stacked buckets.

Jetty pilings – note the stacked buckets.

The homes appear modern (enough) and many hosted satellite dishes on their roofs. Looking at their pilings showed unique construction of wooden planks, concrete or our favorite (and most popular) plastic buckets stacked one on top of each other, filled with concrete. Homes sat on a mass of these different pilings, keeping them out of the water or the muck, depending on the tide.

The tide also dictated how the community smelled or even homes within the community. The air would be thick with a musk of salt and sea life (dead, I’m guessing) or sometimes no smell was noticeable. Looking down, at times, we could see trash on the muddy ground below or in the water.

The jetties while small in number, were not connected to each other. Each jetty appeared to have a single entrance/exit that connected it to the main road. We’d enter one and each time I’d will it to have the large temple and we’d get to the end and see it a bit closer but not there. This slow progress enticed me to keep slugging through the heat, though, for it is a special kind of hot here.

Even being from Florida and months in Bangkok, Georgetown Penang feels a denser hot. Perhaps being closer to the equator is the main factor but each outing we return with our skin tinted red and worn-out. Our first visit, we’d arrived tired, in the early evening. The air was still hot and the jetties were quiet. While they were intriguing to me, it didn’t hold enough interest for the rest of the group and we were soon on our way.

This trip, we arrive earlier in the day and were met with the same stillness. This quiet made it feel a bit intrusive to be there. Each jetty did seem to have at least one shop selling hats or beverages but the shop vendor primarily ignored us or wasn’t around. There were few people on the walkways but low noises from TV indicated people were around.

So quietly, we walked down the walkways, making note of the wooden boards that created them. At times, we thought surely our next step would take us through the board, debating if we would end up in the water or be left hanging half in, half out. The boards parallel to our feet made me the most nervous. They spanned four or five feet and the pressure of our step would cause the board to sag or pull away from the beam, no longer as connected to the board with the corroded nail.

Walkway to a temple.

Walkway to a temple.

So, of course, these jetties also had the interesting piers that James felt compelled to check out. I’d follow down the “pier”, suspended eight or ten feet over the water. James encouraged me to not take photos while walking, but what’s the fun in that? One lead us to a small temple. We hid in its shade and watched a fisherman cast and the ferries passing slowly between Georgetown Penang and Butterworth.

Temple altar

Temple altar

At each jetty, we would peek into their temple until finally arriving at the large temple I’d previously seen. With words in Chinese, I do not know the name for the temple but it was new and ornate with columns decorated with large dragons and red lanterns strung across the ceiling and then out into the sun connecting to a gazebo.

We took shelter under one of those small gazebos and rested, listening to the water lap the pilings and watched ships move sluggishly across the water. Once rested, we removed our shoes and looked around the temple. Unfamiliar gods decorated their shrines and I walked through eyes-wide, not understanding but being intrigued. Especially for an altar decorated with deities? devils? that spewed black out of their mouths. Around the altar was incense and joss paper but also a lot of beer. James was brave enough to take a photo whereas I could only look on in bewilderment.

We moved upstairs and the pavement burned our feet as we checked out the rows of statues and I hurried into another shelter with additional deities behind glass. Here the room was cooler and speakers played a chant that sounded like the one for the Buddha of compassion. I dawdled here but eventually we were back in the heat, moving down the stairs and slowly away from the clan jetties.

Other resources about the clan jetties –
A particularly interesting one –

Want to live on the water?

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