George Town’s culturally diverse buildings, protected by Unesco, make the perfect backdrop for a feast.
Malaysia’s tropical island of Penang became the first outpost of the British Empire in South East Asia when Captain Francis Light landed here in 1786 and declared possession in the name of the British king. Strategically placed in the Strait of Malacca, Penang grew rich as a trading hub, earning the nickname “Pearl of the Orient”, and travellers have been drawn here ever since for the island’s vegetation and golden beaches. Today Penang is making news for a very different reason: the island’s capital, George Town, has been transformed into the latest hot destination in Asia. The buzz behind its metamorphosis is heritage, ever since Unesco awarded the capital world heritage status. And so this trip I will happily forgo sunbathing and trips into the jungle and stay instead in the heart of one of the last authentic Chinatowns.
Whenever I travel to George Town, I always treat myself – at least for the first night – to one of the colonial suites at the mythical Eastern and Oriental (E&O), one of Asia’s Grand Dame hotels. Today the E&O oozes glamour and is as palatial as any modern five-star hotel, but when I used to check in here 20 years ago, the place was living on the faded glory of an illustrious past. The same could have been said of George Town itself. Until recently, it seemed only a matter of time before the demolition wrecking balls moved into Penang’s historic Chinatown. But all that changed overnight, in 2008, when the heart of George Town earned Unesco world heritage site status in recognition of its “having a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and South East Asia”. To maintain this privileged status, the UN body enforces extremely strict rules and regulations, and so – at a stroke – all plans for new development in the form of ubiquitous shopping malls or plush apartments were scrapped. Instead, a different breed of entrepreneurs came centre stage, brimming with creative ideas to convert ancient Chinese shophouses and mansions into stylish boutique hotels, hip restaurants and galleries.
This transformation has taken time, and I want to see how authentically this historical neighbourhood has been preserved. There are a host of heritage tours on offer to visitors – from riding in the back of a rickshaw to pedalling yourself on a bicycle – but to plunge headlong into George Town’s busy Chinatown, you really need to walk, braving the 95 per cent humidity and 35°C temperatures. With this in mind, I’m setting out early at 7.45am with Joann Khaw, who is a member of the Penang Heritage Trust. We begin walking along Leboh Masjid Kapitan Keling, where almost next door to each other are the calm, elegant Kapitan Keling Mosque, then a chaotic Indian street temple with devotees kneeling on the pavement offering garlands of flowers to their favourite Hindu gods, and finally, the noisy Kuan Yin – Goddess of Mercy – Buddhist temple, where the air was thick with fragrant smoke billowing from giant purple incense sticks. It is an instant reminder that in multi-ethnic Malaysia, even a Chinatown has a marked Malay and Indian presence. The heart of George Town is the Chowrasta street market, where you can buy anything from mangoes and papaya to live chickens and wriggling crabs, exotic spices, cloves that once made Penang one of the Orient’s richest entrepots, Chinese medicines and precious gems and gold jewellery.
Two landmark mansions open to the public are stunning reminders of how opulent life in George Town used to be. The Chinese inhabitants here are known as Peranakans, “the locally born”. Successful businessmen, traders and tin miners, they created their own culture mixing Chinese with Malaysian and European influences. The Peranakan Mansion museum (www.pinangperanakanmansion.com.my), once the private home of a clan leader, is full of treasures that meticulously document life at the end of the 19th century, decorated with an eclectic mix of Chinese wood-carved panels, Scottish ironworks and Art Nouveau Bohemian stained glass. The Cheong Fatt Tze mansion (www.cheongfatttzemansion.com) is somehow even more sumptuous, known as the Blue Mansion because of its distinctively painted walls. This was built in a much more classical Chinese style for a man known as the “Rockefeller of the East”. I actually wandered in here years ago, when the place was falling apart, inhabited by squatters, and the transformation today into not just a fascinating museum but also a luxurious homestay is symbolic of the changes here.
Sipping scalding Chinese tea in the Blue Mansion’s cafe, I bump into one of the real movers and shakers behind George Town’s revolution. Joe Sidek is a native Penangite, a bundle of energy who is responsible for the George Town Festival, an ambitious month-long extravaganza of music, art, photography, film and performance that is firmly putting Penang on Asia’s cultural map. “The crucial element about our festival is that it celebrates Penang with both local and international artists,” Sidek explains, “and that is the secret behind all the changes in George Town since the Unesco recognition. Creative locals have returned to the island, while a host of foreigners have decided that things can happen here and are developing really exciting projects.”
We wander over to China House, the brainchild of Australian Narelle McMurtrie and the type of artistic cultural centre that I could never have imagined in Penang. She has already opened the Straits Collection, a boutique hotel of designer apartments in a row of century-old Chinese townhouses, but China House would be a risky venture even if it was in Barcelona or Berlin. Three heritage buildings that stretch over 120 metres have been converted into a maze of 14 different spaces, from avant-garde galleries to a chic restaurant. And the place is packed out every day. “Just wander around Chinatown,” adds Sidek, “and you will discover Edelweiss, a beautiful vintage cafe run by a Chinese-Swiss couple, the chic Campbell House hotel, set up by a Venetian who decided to come to Penang after selling his Italian restaurant in London. Then there is Tommes, a Dutch chef who came here to retire and ended up creating a hip bistro, That Little Wine Bar, and now has his own TV show.”
Sidek takes me to see another Peranakan residence but this time it is neither a hotel nor a museum but a swish gourmet restaurant, 32 at the Mansion. The cuisine is known as “nonya”, a unique Peranakan fusion of Chinese cooking with Malaysian and Indian flavours that produces incredibly tasty dishes such as sour “assam laksa” soup, with fish, rice noodles, tamarind, prawn paste, fresh mint and shallots; the delicious “otak-otak”, a spicy fish paste baked in banana leaf; and “kari kapitan”, chicken stewed in a rich sauce of coconut milk, lemon grass and kaffir lime. The owner and chef of the restaurant, Kah Hock Yeoh, joins us and makes the valid point that heritage is not just about preserving buildings and temples, but local cuisine, too. The Peranakan culture is also at the heart of Singapore’s cuisine, but despite the same heritage, the two islands have headed in different directions gastronomically. Street food in George Town is arguably the best in all South East Asia and Western-style gourmet restaurants are few and far between, whereas Singaporeans have opted to develop a sophisticated fine-dining scene.
Eating out in Penang is a 24-hour experience and, the next day, Kah Hock and I embark on a frantic foodie tour. Breakfast is outside the Keramat Dato Koyah Muslim shrine, where sitting at a rickety pavement table we tuck into a wafer-thin “roti canai”, made by a smiling Tamil with the bravado of an Italian pizzaiolo, accompanied by a fiery squid curry sauce and costing the grand total of M$1 (Dh1.2). Breakfast segues into brunch, Chinese-style, back in the Chowrasta market at the Kedai Kopi Soon Yuen, where devotees flock for Penang’s most famous duck kway teow, a rich broth of the most tender duck I have tasted, with spring onion and glutinous fish balls, again hardly expensive at M$3 (Dh3.6) a bowl.
The afternoon heat fortunately rules out any more food but, in the evening, it is as if all Penang converges on Gurney Drive, a long waterside promenade. This is where you come for a great local speciality – seafood. For M$50 (Dh60) a head you can reserve at the outstanding Ocean Green Restaurant and order specialities such as sweet water prawns steamed in rice wine, a meaty garupar fish cooked with tofu, chillies and ginger or a massive plate of chilly crabs. The night is young and, towards midnight, the place to take the pulse of George Town’s street food is the scores of neon-lit night stalls in New Lane. The place is teeming with people, noise and wonderful aromas. There has always been wonderful food like this in Penang, but this whirlwind trip has convinced me that Asia really does have an original new destination, and George Town is succeeding in using heritage not just for conservation but for exciting urban and cultural regeneration.