Passage to Penang

Eleven years (give or take) since I first came to live in East Asia, I finally made it to Malaysia last week. Though I’ve been to many other places in East and Southeast Asia, Malaysia, for some reason, was never a big priority for me. Despite that, I’d always found its lively mix of ethnicities, cultures, and secular and (occasionally) more fundamentalist proclivities a fascinating story from afar.

For numerous reasons – many related to the colonial tenure of the British – Malaysia is a truly multicultural place. About half its people are of Malay stock, a quarter Chinese, 10 percent indigenous, 7 percent Indian and the rest of various backgrounds. As a result, you’ll see as many hip young Chinese or Malays as burqa-clad Muslim women, and restaurants that have everything from halal to BBQ pork to – yes! – chicken and mushroom pies.

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After just a single day in Kuala Lumpur (a situation forced on us by a 13-hour delay to our flight from Seoul) we headed to our main destination: Penang. I’d come across Penang for the first time when I was at Morning Calm, when one of our regular contributors had turned in a piece about George Town (the capital of Penang State) and its supposed status as one of the most haunted spots in Malaysia. As was always the way at MC, the photos had made George Town look stunningly beautiful, an alluring mix of ethnic trappings and glamorously faded colonial architecture. Though that certainly wasn’t the whole story — large parts of George Town are run-down and/or built over — there is a remarkable amount of buildings dating back 100 years ago or more and some gorgeous natural scenery too.

We had the pleasure of staying in two beautifully restored hotel buildings, one of which, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, is a centrepiece of George Town’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other, the recently opened Clove Hall, was actually the more comfortable of the two, coming as it did with a pool, wooden (rather than stone) floors, a balcony and a flat-screen TV. Falling asleep in a four-poster bed draped with mosquito nets or having a leisurely breakfast out in the garden, complete with English crockery, wicker seats and a ceramic patio, was like being parachuted into a Somerset Maugham novel.

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The owner of Clove Hall was a very affable and interesting fellow called Christopher Ong. A Penang native, Ong had left the country in the late ’70s, started a career as an investment banker, and then retired in the early 2000’s to become a hotelier. After achieving considerable success with Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort Hotel, Ong decided to return home and get involved with efforts to preserve Penang’s old architecture, which he did by restoring the then dilapidated Clove Hall (a former drinking and gambling club for British colonials, Ong said) to its current Anglo-Indian beauty.

Ong said that for several reasons — antiquated property laws, neglect from the stridently pro-Malay central government (Penang has a very large Chinese population), general economic decline — Penang had preserved a great deal of its architecture dating from the 19th century and before. Although much had fallen into disrepair, the town was now taking the task of preserving itself much more seriously, especially since the historical centre of George Town had gained its World Heritage status in 2008.

Though there were beautiful buildings throughout the parts of Penang we went to, some of the highlights were Suffolk House, once the home of Francis Light, the British “discoverer” of Penang, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the rather garish former abode of nouveau riche Chinese traders, and the Penang State Museum, which did a great job of detailing Penang’s singular history.

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As for Penang’s other big attraction, food, we managed to get a fair bit of that in, too. Among many other things, Penang is famous for something called Nyonya cuisine, which derives from the days when the earliest Chinese settlers arrived and intermarried with local Malay women (nyo means woman in Chinese [and Korean]). Though using primarily Chinese ingredients, Nyonya adds Southeast Asian spices such as turmeric, lemongrass and coconut leaves. We had an excellent feed of Nyonya both in KL and in Hot Wok in George Town.

In George Town’s wonderfully colourful and boisterous Little India, we tried some of the excellent local samosas and syrupy iced tea from Penang’s famed food stalls. In the resort town of Batu Ferringhi, we pushed the boat out and had a fabulous Chinese meal at the Shangri-la. And in true multicultural spirit, we even shared chicken sausage, pommes frites and a tuna pita-bread wrap at a place called Edelweiss, a beautifully restored 19th century structure now owned by a Swiss expat.

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