What used to be a work jetty is now a popular tourist attraction in Penang

Should you possess an extreme paranoia for water, you might be tempted to ask the dwellers of Chew Jetty in Penang a few touchy questions after spending some time along the boardwalk.

Does the sea ever get so rough that salt water would come splashing in through the windows?

"No lah! Our ancestors measured the jetty's height properly when they built it. The sea doesn't even wash up onto the gangway no matter how rough it gets," said Chew Seng San, 60, who has lived there all his life.

Does your house sway or rock a little when a storm hits?

"No, of course not! It's great living here. Cooling at night and comforting to sleep with the sound of the waves," Seng San's neighbour Hup Cheng, 64, defended.

No, they are not afraid of termites because they use termite-resistant wood for building their houses on stilts. Yes, they fear fire, and that is why two community fire engines are parked outside on Weld Quay, ready for immediate deployment.

Seng San and his fellow clansmen are paradoxes in George Town. Amidst this booming city, the Chews remain pastoral, even downright rural.

Many of them speak only "original" Penang Hokkien slang, broken Mandarin and hardly any English.

It is almost as if the blood of their ancestors still run thick in them.

The historical truth behind Chew Jetty would not be evident today for the throng of tourists who visit it.

Their ancestors were "late-comers", arriving in Penang around the early 1900s when George Town was already a renowned port city.

Unlike the earliest Chinese who came around the time when Captain Francis Light founded Penang in 1786, this late wave of Chinese immigrants had come to escape the hardship in China of that era and could not afford accommodation on the island.

Chew Jetty, the largest of the clan jetties along the Weld Quay stretch, was a work jetty for loading and unloading barges that ferried cargo from ships too big to enter the port.

"The houses you see at the jetty today began as sheds that shielded the coolies from the sun as they waited for barges to arrive.

"Eventually, the coolies started spending the nights on the jetty too because it was free accommodation. The sheds then became communal houses and when the workers began having families, they built individual houses," said local historian Clement Liang, who is also a council member of Penang Heritage Trust.

Chew Jetty is now a one-stop centre for tourists to pick up every Penang trinket and traditional confectionery that they will need to bring back with them.

A few budding artists have rented the tinier houses as their art gallery and many of the residents now sell a variety of snacks and drinks from their homes.

Seng San was a stevedore but his trade sizzled out years ago and now he sells durian puffs along the jetty. His large fibreglass boat tethered next to his durian puff display shelf remains a constant reminder of his yesteryears.

"I used to bring cargo from ships that cannot get near the coast. But when the deep-water wharf in Butterworth was built years ago, the ships don't need me anymore.

"Since about five years, a lot of tourists started coming, so my neighbours and I are learning to do tourism business."

There is an alluring innocence in the way the Chews engage with the tourists.

When asked, Seng San had no idea that his home is protected by Unesco and his community is considered a living heritage.

One of the Chews with the most interesting history that visitors might meet is also one of the community's oldest members.

Ah Pee, 85, sits quietly at the verandah of his house not far from Seng San's durian puff shop.

On a small table in front of him, he appears - at first glance - to be selling eggs balanced upright on a decorate tray. A closer inspection shows that the tops of the eggs are peeled open and inside, they hold jelly.

"This is how we ate jelly when we were kids. The taste is the same, but we are satisfied with being able to reuse eggshells," said Ah Pee.

Chatting with him brought out another titbit.

"I am a Shaolin kungfu master," said Ah Pee, the suddenly steely gaze in his eyes incongruous with his aged body. "When I was young, I taught Shaolin kungfu all over Penang."