Penang: Straits from the heart

Oct 03, 2008


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 had 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 cosmo-politan 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 British in 1948 – 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Already, many of the opulent colonial mansions along the peaceful waterfront Esplanade have been replaced by tall, nondescript hotels.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 I remember. Likewise, little has changed around the 200-year-old Masjid (mosque) Kapitan Keling – apart from some strange lingam-like bollards erected by city planners along the newly widened footpaths. On Lebuh Campbell, devoted overseas customers still shop for rare preserved sea cucumbers and exotic dried fruits at the Chinese merchants. A few doors down, the placid, rifle-toting 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 transport system has all but vanished, the formerly ubiquitous bicycle trishaws are disappearing and hard-to-find taxis are best hired by the day through your hotel.

Instead, 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.


Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
14 Leith Street.

10 Lebuh Farquhar.

Lone Pine

97 Batu Ferringhi, Batu Ferringhi.


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 favourites 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.

18 Jalan Bagan Jermal.
+60 4 226 4977.

Edelweiss Cafe
38 Lebuh Armenian.
+60 4 261 8935.

New Krishna Villas
Market Street (between King and Queen).

Teochew Chendul
Lebuh Keng Kwee, just off Penang Road near Komtar.

Thirty Two
32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.
+60 4 262 2232.

See & Do

Pinang Peranakan Mansion
29 Church Street.
+60 4 264 2929.

Penang Museum
Lebuh Farquhar.
+60 4 261 3144.

Fuan Wong
88 Lebuh Armenian.
+60 4 262 9079.

Source: Qantas The Australian WayMarch 2007
Updated: August 2008

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