Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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March, 2007

by Jennifer Gampell

George Town, on Penang Island in Malaysia, faces the future with its heart and history intact - and thankfully the local powers-that-be are determined to keep it that way.

When I flew in to George Town I couldn't believe 10 years had passed since my last visit to the heart of Malaysia's Penang Island. In the ensuing decade, countless Asian cities have morphed into globalised parodies of their former selves. Yet like Rip van Winkle, George Town seems to have slept through all the changes.

The British founded George Town in 1786, transforming a mosquito-infested swamp into a bustling free port where British, Eurasians, Armenians, Chinese, Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese), Indians, Malays, Thais and Burmese traded and lived in relative harmony. "There were many cultural streams here but no single one dominated," says the eminent academic and social activist Dato (Dr) Anwar Fazal. "The essence of George Town was, and is, its openness." Local culture advocate Joe Rosli Sidek agrees: "No-one feels like a foreigner here. We've been cosmopolitan for centuries."

George Town's trading heyday finished well before WWII (when the RAF and later the RAAF arrived at Butterworth air base). After the war, stringent rent control laws imposed by the departing British in 1947-and only lifted in 2000-locked much of the city into a time warp. Today the biggest tasks facing the proactive 20 year-old Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) are safeguarding George Town's rich architectural heritage and ensuring it doesn't get Disney-fied like so much of historic Singapore.

Already many of the opulent colonial mansions along the peaceful waterfront Esplanade have been replaced by tall nondescript hotels. Elsewhere on Penang, unaesthetic highrise condos and shopping/office developments keep sprouting up. But within George Town's large historic core-roughly delimited by the port/ferry terminal, clan jetties (historic waterside villages), Komtar office/shopping complex and Penang Road-the pace of life seems as leisurely as ever. "Buildings here are not museums but active and functioning institutions," Anwar Fazal says.

Except for new paving stones and palm trees, the many restaurants, clothiers and grocery stores within the four square blocks of Little India exude the same authentic sights and smells as I remember. Likewise, little has changed around the 200 year-old Masjid (mosque) Kapitan Kelling-apart from some strange lingum-like bollards erected by city planners along the newly widened sidewalks. On Lebuh Campbell, devoted overseas customers still shopped for rare preserved sea cucumbers and exotic dried fruits at the Chinese merchants. A few doors down, placid rifletoting security guards continue to protect the many open-fronted gold emporia.

Comfortably stuck somewhere in the last century, George Town lacks many regulation tourist amenities like glamorous shopping, pulsating nightlife, ultra-hip hotels or pristine beaches. Its once renowned public transportation system has vanished, the formerly ubiquitous bicycle trishaws are disappearing, and hard-to-find taxis are best hired by the day through your hotel.

Instead, historic George Town boasts 7000-plus historic buildings, an astonishing diversity of food for every palate and wallet, and a community spirit long-gone from other regional cities. Two PHT pamphlets (on historic and trades/food trails) can guide you to its principal religious and historic buildings. Curiosity-and comfortable shoes-will carry you down its myriad fascinating streets and lanes.


14 Leith Street
(04) 262 0006

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (aka. Blue Mansion) was its wealthy owner's favorite residence, a quirky example of Chinese courtyard-style architecture with art nouveau elements. When the Rockefeller of the East died in 1916, perfect feng shui didn't save the extravagant 38 rooms and five inner courtyards from neglect. In 1989, local architect Lawrence Loh and his wife Lin Lee Loh-Lim began a six-year renovation project that spearheaded the local restoration movement and garnered a UNESCO conservation award. While still a work in progress, the interior was featured in the film Indochine. Except for during the twice-daily public tours, only registered guests are permitted inside. Frequent returnees rave about the 15 individually decorated rooms and homey ambiance. From MYR250 ($92).

10 Lebuh Farquhar
(040 222 2000

Famed for Raffles in Singapore, the Armenian-born Sarkies brothers actually opened their first hotel in George Town in 1884. Recently restored to its former colonial glory, the gracious E&O (Eastern & Oriental) is a typical five-star international property. From MYR480 ($277).

97 Batu Ferringhi
(04) 881 1511

In the resort town of Batu Ferringhi, 17 km from George Town, is the quirky E&O-run Lone Pine. Set back on a large and private grassy lawn covered with wispy casuarina trees, this 1948 beachfront property oozes character. Rooms on the older, western side of Lone Pine inherited a lot of deco furniture after renovation of the E&O. From MYR180 ($66).

Dispensed from hawker stands, open-fronted shophouse restaurants and trendily restored mansions, food is the sine qua non of George Town. With scores of vendors offering local favorites like roti canai, teh tarek, Penang laksa, satay, Hokkien mee, and rojak, choosing a particular street or streetside eatery often boils down to personal preference. The best motto is: always eat where the locals do.

Lebuh Keng Kwee

The crowds of people and cars queuing at 60 year-old Teochew Chendul (located just off Penang Road near Komtar) attest to the quality of its refreshing chendul (green pandan noodles, red beans, palm sugar and coconut milk over shaved ice) - 50 cents.

Market Street

At 25 year-old New Krishna Villas (located on Market Street between King and Queen despite the sign saying 45 Queen), a sumptuous all-you-can-eat (with your hands) banana leaf curry is just $1.25.

38 Armenian Street
(04) 261 8935

Only the name and a few menu items are Swiss at this peaceful Malaysian- eatery on up-and-coming Armenian Street. Owner and heritage tour guide Teresa Pereira Capol decorated her lovingly renovated Chinese shophouse with items from her own extensive antique collection and created a small museum on the second floor. Ask to see the kebayas (traditional Peranakan women's blouses) or just relax in the garden area with a bowl of soto ayam (Indonesian chicken soup) and a cooling tamarind drink

32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah
(04) 262 2232

An elegant bar/lounge located in a renovated 19th century mansion with a spacious dining area set under a modern glass-enclosed tent. Try the romantic and underused terrace next to the gently lapping waters of the Straits of Malacca. Continental items predominate on the large and well-constructed menu. Crispy soft shell crab in beer is a firm favorite.

18 Jalan Bagan Jermal
(04) 226 4977

You can spend the whole evening here. Bagan is a bar, jazz/latin/retro music lounge and restaurant set in a smallish converted bungalow. While beef carpaccio and tomato soup with gin are definite dinner options, locals come mainly for the spicy Peranakan specialties.

1 Green Hall
(04) 261 8585

The narrow rectangular home of the North Malaya Chinese Textile & General Merchants Association in the late 19th-century is now an elegant Indian restaurant with an extremely diverse menu. Chefs from various parts of India prepare authentic specialties from Chettinad, Goa and other regions.



29 Church Street
(04) 264 2929

Though the many artifacts displayed in the lavishly restored 1895 mansion relate to the opulent Straits Chinese culture, the East-meets-west mansion was built by a Triad leader who wanted to flaunt his wealth. Not user-friendly (unless you call ahead for a conducted tour), but riveting nonetheless.

Penang Museum
Lebuh Farquhar
(04) 261 3144

"They came to Penang from all over the world", says the poster at the entrance. Despite the museum's relatively small size, the carefully assembled and well-annotated exhibits highlight Penang's incredibly diverse multicultural origins.

88 Lebuh Armenian
(04) 262 9079

Probably the only international-quality gallery in town, Fuan Wong showcases its eponymous owner's gorgeous fused glass sculptures an
d more utilitarian - but equally beautiful -items such as lamps and bowls.

Copyright 2007 Jennifer Gampell