Malaysia: By George, it's got it

By Sheriden Rhodes

Sheriden Rhodes steps back in time to get a glimpse of old Asia.

The Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Photo / Supplied
The Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Photo / Supplied

Business is booming in George Town, but try telling that to Leong. I'm standing inside the young Chinese man's bric-a-brac shop in Penang's capital city, crammed to the rafters with old bikes and rotary-dial phones, vintage clocks and retro fans.

The first time I entered his shop, an old lady shooed me away. I've returned today and this time I ask Leong how much he wants for one of his clocks.

"Not for sale," he says, shaking his head apologetically.

"How about this one, then?" I ask. Again he shakes his head. Can I buy any of the clocks on display?

"No," he says sadly.

I'm in Armenian St, a narrow winding lane lined with boutiques and galleries where the revival of the city is best enjoyed. George Town offers a wonderful glimpse of old Asia, and is protected by a Unesco World Heritage listing.

It is also where Australian entrepreneur Narelle McMurtie and business partner Alison Fraser have transformed a century-old row of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Eurasian shopfronts into the Straits Collection, an eight-villa boutique property.

Half of the villas are in Armenian St, not far from McMurtie's shops, the Bon Ton Shop and China Joe's, filled with Chinese antiques, porcelain, quirky gifts and Asian homewares.

The other half of the Straits Collection is a short walk away in Stewart Lane, where McMurtie and Fraser also run a cafe, Kopi Cine.

Part of the cafe's interior wall still bears a sign, "Serbuk Kopi Kim Guan" (Kim Guan Coffee Powders), and giant roasting pots from the site's former life as a coffee mill are in the courtyard.

I arrive here by trishaw on a muggy morning, still wondering why I can't buy one of Leong's clocks, and take a seat on the cafe's narrow balcony fronting the lane, beneath a red-and-gold Chinese lantern. A perfectly crafted latte is followed by Peking duck-style pancakes.

The young Malay barista, Faisal, tells me he picked up his trade from McMurtie's adopted Indian daughter, Linda, and from a couple of helpful Australian customers.

Afterwards, I take a stroll which, apart from the ubiquitous man-powered trishaw, is the best way to explore this historical city. I pass shophouses inhabited by tradesman tinkering on trishaws and craftsmen creating songkok hats, paper lanterns, joss sticks and wood carvings.

One shophouse is filled with old tyres and car parts; others have become bustling cafes and diners.

You can feel the city's recent colonial past in buildings such as the iconic Eastern and Oriental Hotel, a glamorous place for afternoon tea. George Town's new life is reflected in galleries such as Fuan Wong Gallery, which showcases the owner's beautiful fused-glass sculptures, and in boutique hotels such as the Straits Collection, China Tiger, Yeng Keng, the Oasis in Love Lane and the beautifully restored Penang Hotel.

Just outside George Town is the Eastern and Oriental's sister property, Lone Pine, formerly a seaside escape for British planters and colonial civil servants. It reopened after a 57-million ringgit ($17.6 million) makeover.

George Town's heritage listing in 2008 convinced another Australian to start a business here, 30 years after leaving the city in which he was born. Hotelier Christopher Ong and his partner, Karl Steinberg, opened a boutique "flashpacker" hotel last year called Muntri Mews in old stables on Muntri St, the same street where Ong grew up.

"We were concerned this would all be destroyed, which would be heartbreaking," Ong, a former banker, tells me over tea.

He is referring to the narrow streets and lanes lined with century-old shophouses surrounding Muntri Mews. "We were worried that if we restored the old buildings, someone could just build a multistorey tower next door," he says.

"But as soon as I heard that they were close to getting Unesco listing, I came back."

Ong says developers who once would have been unmoved by heritage and aesthetics are investing in Penang's restoration, pointing out the Yeng Keng Hotel, a boutique property in a restored mansion. "It's great to see these guys embrace the heritage and culture of George Town," he says.

Ong restored old houses in inner Sydney and Melbourne and lived in Hong Kong before he and Steinberg moved to Sri Lanka in 2002 to establish the Galle Fort Hotel, a historic Dutch villa in Galle's old fort, which they converted into a 12-room hotel, picking up a Unesco heritage award in the process.

"Now, one generation later, I'm back doing it here," he says.

They returned to Penang three years ago to restore an old house for themselves. They then bought a large, dilapidated Edwardian Anglo-Malay bungalow and transformed it into the beautiful Clove Hall, a boutique hotel set in a lush tropical garden, a rarity in George Town where the predominant architecture is two-storey shophouses with little outdoor space.

Using his Peranakan heritage as inspiration for his reinterpretation of the period, Ong opened Clove Hall in 2009 and stamped it with his style, blending the past with contemporary luxuries in six elegant suites.

He refers to Muntri Mews as "flashpacker" budget accommodation, or "affordable luxury", for savvy travellers.

Situated at the heart of George Town, where arguably the town's best-preserved rows of 19th-century Straits Chinese architecture exists, Ong likens Muntri St to Singapore's Emerald Hill with its restored, two-storey Peranakan shophouses. Muntri Mews used to be the stables and carriage works of the street's grandest terraces.

Nearby is Cheong Fatt Tse, or Blue Mansion, so named for its indigo colour. It is an elaborate 1880s Su Chow Dynasty house owned by the eponymous late Chinese entrepreneur, which features in several films, including the classic 1992 Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve. The property is open for tours and as guest accommodation.

Ong and Steinberg have converted seven shophouses at the eastern end of Stewart Lane, opposite the Straits Collection, into a luxury Peranakan guesthouse, and will also open another 16-room flashpacker development Noordin Mews, heritage digs with a pool, by June this year.

Back on Muntri St, they are transforming a row of workers' cottages into boutique, self-contained accommodation called Muntri Grove.

"There's a lot of energy coming in here: small theatre groups, little cafes like mine and Narelle's, and boutique hotels," Ong says. "It's where you can experience old Asia, which is fast disappearing."

McMurtie loves the human scale of George Town. "We've got a lovely little walking map, which we give to guests so they can explore the heritage area," she says. "There's cafes, shops, galleries, mosques, Chinese temples and food on every street corner."

Encouragingly, McMurtie says, Peranakans are moving back to live in George Town. "The Chinese restaurants are full at night and there are more food stalls. Locals are becoming proud of George Town and realise they can have a successful business here."
Well, most of them. On my final day in George Town, I return to Leong's and implore him to sell me one of his clocks. "But I will have none left," he laments.

He finally agrees to sell me a retro Chinese Diamond wall clock for 90 ringgit, which needs to be converted to batteries to operate. Now the problem is time, there's less than an hour before I'm due at the airport.

"Can do, can do," Leong yells, suddenly jumping into action. I return at the last possible moment to collect the clock and I panic when I see it sitting in pieces on the shop floor as a man works on it with a screwdriver. But a minute later, the clock is complete and Leong puts it into a plastic bag as I leap back on the bus to the airport.

At home, every time I pass my vintage treasure, I dream of returning to old George Town.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines offers six flights a week direct from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur (11hrs) with convenient onward connections to Penang (55mins). Visit the site or call Malaysia Airlines Reservations on 0800 777 747.

Where to stay: * The Straits Collection is eight, two-storey, self-contained shophouses decorated in simple, contemporary Asian style with cable TV, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, rain shower, mini fridge and full housekeeping. A one-bedroom residence costs from 450 ringgit ($180) a night. Phone +604 263 7299 for Stewart Lane accommodation and +604 262 7299 for accommodation in Armenian St.

* Muntri Mews has nine "flashpacker" suites with en suite bathroom, LCD TVs, private sitting areas that open to the veranda upstairs or the garden downstairs, Wi-Fi, a small shop and a small business centre. Rooms cost from 300 ringgit ($120) a night. Phone +604 263 5125.

* Clove Hall is George Town's most luxurious accommodation: six elegant suites that cost from 550 ringgit ($221) a night, with polished floors, four-poster beds, granite baths and more. Phone +604 229 0818.

* Lone Pine is a restored colonial property of 90 rooms and suites, located 20 minutes by taxi from George Town. A deluxe room, including breakfast for two, costs from 880 ringgit including daily breakfast, Japanese set dinner or Malaysian afternoon tea for two, complimentary minibar and more. Phone +604 886 8686.

Sheriden Rhodes travelled courtesy of Malaysia Tourism and Malaysia Airlines.

- Herald on Sunday

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