For decades, a rent control act and just a little bit of luck kept Britain’s old port town of George Town in northern Malaysia safe from clutches of developers. Now, with a World Heritage listing tucked firmly under its belt, the ramshackled little town has discovered the lure of tourism.
On a glorious January afternoon I wander the ruins of Fort Cornwallis in George Town, Penang, trying to make sense of the town’s multicultural past. Prized for the deep and sheltered port separating George Town from Butterworth on the Malay Peninsula, in 1786 the British East India Company leased the island from the Sultan of Kedah and proceeded to turn it into one of the empire’s most successful colonies.
Legends tell how Captain Francis Light – then superintendent of the company – cleared the jungle for Fort Cornwallis by firing silver coins from his ship’s cannons and persuading the eager locals to search for them. The British dug tin mines in the mountains and then gave free passes to any Chinese or Indian who fancied the work. Labourers flocked, as did merchants, missionaries and mercenaries, forming a base for trade and the Opium Wars, which provided George Town with 60 per cent of its income.
Ramshackle but picturesque, with narrow winding lanes flanked by narrow two-storey Chinese shopfronts and stately Victorian office buildings, George Town has one of the most extraordinary collections of pre-war architecture in Asia. Thanks to stringent rent-control laws imposed by the British before they left in 1947 and lifted only in 2000 while much of Asia was replacing their architectural legacies with concrete blocks, Penang lived in a colonial-imposed time warp. And not just architecture but a whole array of crafts such as joss-stick and paper-lantern making, beading and batik still thrive in George Town’s higgledy streets.
Awarded a World Heritage listing in 2008 for its contributions to culture and architecture, George Town is now in the midst of a revival. Many of the dilapidated houses, some on the verge of collapsing, are being scrubbed and buffed and converted into boutique hotels, cafes, galleries and private homes. Key among the restorers is Australian Narelle McMurtrie, the owner of Bon Ton Resort on the nearby island of Langkawi that, since opening in 1994, has become one of Malaysia’s most popular retreats. She is now lending her rustic style to George Town, converting rows of two-storey Chinese shop fronts into hotel rooms, shops and cafes under the banner of The Straits Collection. There is nothing polished about McMurtrie’s style; she prefers to work with the quirks of time, keeping a building’s original facade and then liberally furnishing it with Chinese furniture – blood-red closets, antique day beds, pots embellished with calligraphy – and scores of colourful cushions.
“The houses have quirks but to gentrify them would defy the point,” McMurtrie says, showing me through four guest rooms on Armenian Street that have a variety of quaint defects, such as sinking floors and crooked beams. “We want the houses to keep their characters – presenting them as they have been lived in, not as some modern-day version.”
In the Indian neighbourhood, dubbed Little India and easily identified by the screeching Bollywood tunes and wafting smell of sandalwood, Alpha Utara Gallery and Gallery 29 have turned shop fronts into galleries showcasing a revolving stock of local artists. The Sire is a new restaurant with an attached museum on King Street that has the owner’s mother-of-pearl inlay furniture and antiques on display. Suffolk House – the Anglo-Indian residence of Francis Light – has also been converted into a museum. It’s a little on the bare side but the downstairs restaurant with a talented young chef, Johnny Fau, and his hearty modern cuisine – such as stuffed chicken fillets with a tomato and star anise sauce – makes the trip worthwhile.
Penang-born Australian Christopher Ong was one of the first to breathe new life into George Town’s lodging scene. His hotel, Clove Hall, is a breezy six-room Anglo-Malay bungalow surrounded by gardens, a swimming pool and an extensive collection of Peranakan antiques on the outskirts of George Town. Ong, a former fund manager at BT Financial Group, and his partner Karl Steinberg, stumbled into hospitality after throwing in their jobs and buying a dilapidated Dutch mansion in Galle, Sri Lanka, in 2002. Now called the Galle Fort Hotel, the property won an award for heritage conservation from UNESCO. Hoping to save some of George Town’s superb architecture, Ong and Steinberg have another two projects in the works: former horse stables on Muntri Street that will become a 12-room budget hotel and a courtyard clan house on Stewart Lane that is being converted into a 12-room upmarket hotel with a Peranakan cuisine restaurant.
There is a flurry of other projects in the works, including the restoration of the Oasis Hotel, an old mansion with gardens and a private driveway, which was previously used as a backpacker’s accommodation.
The best way to take in George Town’s 7000-plus architectural treasures is by cycle rickshaw, one of the dying trades hoping to get a new lease of life with the budding tourism trade. The Penang Heritage Trust, the local watchdog for heritage, has a flutter of free pamphlets and established walking trails that take in the most important buildings and museums as well as traditional trades and stories about the old-timers who still practise them. Pick these up from their office on Church Street or join one of their walking tours (three hours, from Ringgit60 ($20) a person, book at pht.org.my).
Not-to-miss experiences include afternoon tea at the iconic Eastern & Oriental Hotel, a 101-room lodge built in 1885 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers (who also built Singapore’s Raffles Hotel) and which has had among its guests Charlie Chaplin and Rudyard Kipling. Nearby Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, nicknamed the “Blue Mansion” after its vivid blue exterior, was the family residence of Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese immigrant who arrived in Penang penniless at the age of 16 and carved out an empire selling tea, opium, pepper and rubber. Built according to the Chinese energy principals of feng-shui , the mansion is a prized contribution to George Town’s architecture. Restored, it is now run as a hotel – but, with grotty rooms, it’s better to take one of the two daily tours, 11am and 3pm, for Ringgit10.
Food is one Penang legacy not in danger of disappearing. A gastro eden, this island is famed for its culinary styles and flavours stretching the myriad of ethnicities that have settled here. Even Chinese food is broken into Hokkien, Hainanese, Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka – each maintaining distinct tastes and styles.
“Penang people live and breathe food,” explains Ong on a balmy Monday evening as we head out on a hawker-stall crawl. “In Australia we say ‘G’day’ or, ‘How’s it going?’ Here we say, ‘Have you eaten?”‘ We start the evening on Lebuh Carnarvon, gaily known as the Cantonese quarter. Portable carts with gas burners and smoking woks surrounded by a scattering of plastic tables and chairs clog the sides of the street. Ong tells me that each cart only makes one or two dishes – but for those particular dishes, you can’t find better. He places orders at several carts, grabs cups of freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice, and we wait for the extravaganza to begin. First to hit the table is fish bee hoon soup, a glutinous gingery broth simmering with fried chunks of flaky fish and rice noodles. Next to arrive is char koay kak, which is rice cake mixed with chilli egg, bean sprouts and pickled mustard. Finally, we devour ee’fu noodles, smoky double-fried noodles cooked in a wok so hot they absorb its charred flavour. What’s more, none cost more than Ringgit10 for a big plate.
I am already loosening my belt but Ong assures me this was just a starter. Hopping into the car, we now zip over to the edge of the sprawling new city edging on to George Town and a night-only street-food market called New Lane. It’s only 8pm but the place is packed, each stall six or seven people deep as patrons wait to place an order and tables overflow with diners wolfing down Hokkien and other regional dishes: fingers of grilled meat served with a sweet and spicy Indonesian satay, chicken wings marinated in a honey garlic sauce, bowls of Malay curry noodles and plates piled high with spring rolls. We tuck in, sampling from a number of stalls before ending the indulgence with sensational kuih ketayap – rice crepes that originated from India but metamorphosed when they reached Penang and are now stuffed with a sweet Malay-style coconut and pandan.
For me, kuih ketayap best sums up George Town: multicultural, loved by all and something you can never get enough of.
Malaysian Airlines flies from Sydney to Penang via Kuala Lumpur daily for $1000 return. Alternatively, Singapore Airlines flies via Singapore for $1117 (both low-season rates).
Australians do not require a visa for stays up to 90 days in Malaysia.
Where to Stay
The Straits Collection has doubles from Ringgit400 ($135) a night; apartments from Ringgit1750 a week, with a minimum two-week stay. Stewart Lane and Armenian Street.
+60 42637299; www.straitscollection.com.my
Clove Hall has double rooms from Ringgit550 a night.
11 Clove Hall Road. +60 42290818; www.clovehall.com
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel 10 Lebuh Farquhar, phone +60 42222000
Alpha Utara Gallery 83 China Street, phone +60 42626840
Gallery 29 China Street, phone +60 42643580
The Sire 4 King Street, phone +60 42645088
Suffolk House Jalan Ayer Itam, phone +60 42281109
See visitpenang.gov.my, a great source of information for everything from festivals to exhibitions and attractions.