Penang legend has it that in 1786 when Captain Francis Light, a trader for the British East India Company, settled George Town on the island of Penang, the jungle was so dense that Light had to fire silver coins from his ship to persuade workers to clear the land. A port serving British Malaya’s lucrative tin mines, George Town became one of Asia’s richest and most multicultural towns, drawing merchants and manual labourers from across the oceans.
There’s no doubt that in 2008, when the town was awarded World Heritage status for its colonial-era architecture and its artisans and craftsmen, it had seen better days. The stately Edwardian office buildings were crumbling; the quaint rows of Chinese shop-houses were derelict; handicraft trades were rapidly disappearing.
George Town is now in the middle of a renaissance. Mini-hotels, cafés, galleries and bars have opened in many of the old buildings and a series of community projects are underway. In the vanguard is Penang-born Australian Christopher Ong, a banker-turned-hotelier who hopes tourism can become a vehicle for conservation.
Ong’s first Penang hotel was a dilapidated bungalow that he turned into the tropical-chic Clove Hall (he’s since sold it). Next up was Muntri Mews, a former stables, now a cosy grey weatherboard hotel with nine simple suites and a café serving local delicacies.
Ong’s pièce de résistance is yet to come. In April, he’ll open Seven Terraces, a 16-room hotel decorated with local antiques, with a centre for Penang-Peranakan culture and a restaurant serving dishes from his family kitchen. “We hope George Town will embrace its multiculturalism, heritage, street life and food, customs and chaos, rather than strive for big-city lights,” says Ong.