Having refueled at Nasi Padang Minang after a morning photo walk through George Town, we made our way to the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Groundbreaking for the estate took place in 1897 and it was completed in 1904. Its vast indigo-hued lime wash exterior makes for a distinct landmark when strolling along Penang’s streets, and its sweeping roof conceals a lavish, eclectic interior: one that features stunning Glaswegian ironwork and Art Nouveau stained glass.
Our tour was led by the enthusiastic Loh-Lim Lin Lee, author of The Blue Mansion: The Story of Mandarin Splendour Reborn and a council member of the Penang Heritage Trust, a local conservation group. No expense was spared for the restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, as was the case when its wealthy owner had it built in the first place. Skilled artisans were brought over from China to painstakingly recreate period details, like the flowery hand-cut porcelain tiles. Donors contributed antique furniture to complete the period look.
Elsewhere, renovations in historic George Town vary wildly in quality: many were done purely with modern efficiency in mind, stripping beautiful (if aged) Peranakan details from the tiny shophouse façades instead of restoring them. This is especially true of renovations done before George Town received its UNESCO Heritage Site designation. Others successfully recreate past splendor, or at least update it for modern sensibilities.1
Nowadays, the concern is gentrification by outside developers who are scooping up properties, pushing out longtime residents, and often clumsily applying their own aesthetics—out of context—onto heritage buildings. Like a British-colonial Singaporean black-and-white façade on what would normally be a candy-colored Peranakan shophouse. Or, worse yet, demolishing buildings like the historic Runnymede Hotel for a new sprawling five-star luxury hotel. Local architectural preservationists like Lin Lee are hopeful that the UNESCO heritage zone will be enlarged to cover a wider swath of historic George Town. They are also pushing for the Penang state government to take steps to inventory (and protect) its historic buildings across the state.
Penang’s fate, however, may be out of the preservationists’ control. George Town’s UNESCO status is tied up with its southern Straits sister, Melaka City. Once the grande dame of the Straits Settlements, Melaka has a small yet significant heritage zone, a particularly fine example of Sino-Portuguese architecture that can be found across the greater region: from Macau to Singapore, and all the way to Phuket.
It was in 2007—on the fiftieth anniversary of Malaysian independence—that Melaka City and George Town were submitted together for consideration on the UNESCO World Heritage List.2 Their admission to the list was made official one year later. That means George Town’s status is contingent on Melaka’s status. However, with development continuing unabated on the Melakan harborfront,3 it’s feared that UNESCO will pull the historic designation from Melaka City—and thus, from George Town, too.
With or without UNESCO’s continued blessing, change is underway in Penang. Socioeconomic and cultural pressures within and outside of Malaysia—globalization, rental rates, population trends—all have an effect. The Hin Bus Depot Art Centre is an eye-catching example.
Located well outside of the heritage zone on the other side of KOMTAR, a decommissioned bus depot has been renovated by artist Ernest Zacharevic—yes, the same guy behind the now iconic murals—and his friends as a venue for (local and international) contemporary art and design, live entertainment, and community events.
On that Sunday, the day’s installment of the weekly pop-up market series was offering discounted yoga apparel, with a giddy sisterhood of Zumba fanatics laughing it up in the gallery’s industrial-chic café between sips of cold brew coffee. Is this Penang adapting and moving forward, a way to package local history with modern conveniences? Only time will tell. Elsewhere on the island, far from the crumbling yet vibrant bus depot, glittering residential towers were rising.4
And then there’s the aforementioned tourism, helped in large part by the meteoric growth of the Asian travel sector and the UNESCO boost—but also by the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who had repeatedly sung the praises of food culture in Southeast Asia in general, and Penang in particular. And why not? Delicious food, Instagram-worthy architecture, sandy beaches, warm smiles. That’s what this whole trip was about in the first place, right?
It’s tempting to want Penang to be frozen in time. Nostalgia oozes from sun-scorched murals painted on its colonial-era shophouses. On the other side of the island, guesthouses surrounded by durian farms and rice paddies harken back to kampung (village) life.
As the dilemma in Melaka proves, the heritage of place lies not only in its built spaces. More importantly, it lies in its people. Its food. Its rituals. Its many languages and dialects. Penangites, diverse of background and of opinion as they may be, are proud of their heritage, and many are finding ways to create a dialogue moving forward that celebrates its shared foundation. Not merely for the loads of tourists who pop in for a weekend to clog its atmospheric old town—yours truly included—but especially for themselves. But with the population of its inner city continuing to drop, either incentivized to cash out or simply pushed out by rising costs, will there still be a there there?
So, until the sad day when Starbucks supplants the last kopitiam and the last stretch of shophouses are bulldozed for some ersatz souvenir strip mall, savor Penang’s streets. Get away from the crowds and explore the many backstreets and alleys.5 Life moves on, and the day starts early in Penang. ∎
23 Love Lane. 23 Love Lane, George Town. We stayed in the romantic Anglo Indian Bungalow Grand Bedroom, which overlooks the entry courtyard. Guests are treated to an afternoon tea of local delicacies.
Campbell Street Market. At the corner of Lebuh Carnavon and Lebuh Campbell, George Town.
Tek Sen (德盛飯店). 18 Lebuh Carnavon, George Town.
Nasi Kandar Line Clear. 177 Jalan Penang, George Town.
Restoran Nasi Padang Minang. Hotel International, 92 Jalan Transfer, George Town.
Lai Yoke Kee (黎沃記肉干肉絲). 90 Jalan Pintal Tali, George Town.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. 14 Leith Street, George Town.
Penang Heritage Trust. 26 Church Street, George Town.
Kopi-C at ChinaHouse. 153 Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street), George Town. Delicious coffee and huge slices of cake (mmm, tiramisu!) at the café in this multi-venue complex of three restored buildings. Another oft-recommended café (although closed when I tried to visit that weekend) is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Narrow Marrow, at 252A Lebuh Carnavon.