Can you imagine your entire home built on stilts perched over the water? How about living in a community that instilled complete trust for your neighbors, in which your front door is always wide open, and people passing can peer into your home? How can a community be connected to the modern world, yet still stay a part of the past? This is a small snapshot of a village in Asia called “Chew Jetty" - located near George Town on Penang Island, a state of Malaysia. It is an unusual place because it has somehow escaped the modern world and exists as a snapshot of simpler times.
Wandering through the Chew Jetty, or the other 6 "Clan Jetties" that exist in this area, is like nothing else. When you enter one of the jetties, you are surrounded by old wooden homes with colorful splashes of bright teals and ruby reds. Many homes are adorned with miniature shrines on their front porches. You can hear the creaking of the planks below your feet, while the water of the Penang Straight sparkles between the wooden cracks. The smell of something cooking fills the air. Children run along the dock, going from house to house, laughing and playing along the jetty. There is a feeling of history, community, and warmth that radiates from the little homes that are built along the docks. The residents acknowledge your presence, and may try to sell you a coffee or fortune cookie. You can't help to feel like a person from another world, but you have to remind yourself that you are indeed just an outsider. You are allowed to be a part of this magical place for just a brief moment.
The “Chew” derives from the surname of migrant families that gathered together. The jetty was built in 1918 by Chinese immigrants who fled to Malaysia in search of a better life. This area in Penang was a bustling port, and the first settlers of the jetties worked as fishermen or channel ferry boatmen. The wooden structures are uniquely built, which virtually no homes are constructed in this fashion today. Many of the families have been living in the jetties for generations. How many of us can say the home we live in now, is the same our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once lived?
These settlements that have been around for more than a century are now considered a UNESCO heritage site. Although Penang has much urban development within the bustling capital of George Town, the jetties are almost untouched by the 21st century. The homes all stand in their original wooden designs, like they would have 100 years ago. There is basic electricity and water, but no modern plumbing ... and definitely no NetFlix. Although many of us could not fathom living like this, you can't help but be overcome with peace in this simplistic way of life. As you peer into the homes, you do not see people sitting around a TV or fixated on their phone screens. The people of this village are talking with each other, cooking, watching people go by, fishing, mediating, or waving hello. By day the residents often relax in their homes, and when evening sets they go to their porch for cool air.
There are traditions that span generations embedded in this village. One is the dragon boat races, which take place the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The dragon boats are intricately carved wood painted bright red. Several boats from various jetties will race against each other in the Penang Straight. Although fun, this race is also extremely competitive to show pride for their family name. It is one of many traditions that happen here.
In the end, the stilts elevated this village for over 100 years to be something unique and authentic. What do you consider the "stilts" to be within your world? There is history, family, craftsmanship, beauty, simplicity, community, and tradition all found in this village. How do we instill these elements in our own life? In what ways are they the same, and in what ways are they different? It is explorations like this that allow us to ponder, compare, and learn.