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Step back in time

Experience a bygone era in the heart of Penang’s George Town


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had often wondered what it would be like to live in a traditional Chinese shophouse like the ones barely surviving in Singapore, Phuket and the other old trading ports of South-East Asia. Finally, my dream is realised on the island of Penang, the aptly called Pearl of the Orient on the northwest coast of Malaysia. The Straits Collection, as the name implies, is a group of old Chinese shophouses, painstakingly chosen for their architectural appeal and position within the UNESCO Heritage area of George Town. Built in 1927 in the straits eclectic style (characterised by arched windows with louvered wooden shutters and butterfly-shaped ventilation windows), the whole building is redolent of Raffles, who introduced the rule of covered walkways — 5 to 8-ft wide from front door to curb — to protect pedestrians from monsoonal rains and tropical sunshine. When I take possession of number 47 Stewart Lane, a hall decorated with Chinese antiques greets me as I open my front door. Upstairs, there are two bedrooms plus an indoor/outdoor bathroom. Every night when I lean out the windows to close my shutters over the quiet street, I really feel like a local. The confluence of cultures and peoples to this island began when Captain Francis Light — who was searching for a suitable port in the Straits of Malacca within easy reach of India — took over the island in 1786. He paid the Sultan of Kedah 600 Spanish dollars for it and, more importantly, pledged British protection against any of the Sultan’s enemies. The British had a long history in the area, playing sultan against sultan to gain land concessions for their rubber tree plantations and the mining of tin, essential commodities to the European Industrial Revolution. Traders from all over the world came to settle and Penang became a thriving free port, placed ideally between the changing of the monsoon winds, a place were crews plying the India-to-China sea routes could stop and get a few weeks’ calm while waiting for the winds to change. Malays from the mainland moved in, traders from Aceh and other parts of Sumatra came to establish businesses, as did Arab merchants and men from India and China. European adventurers joined in: Sufis from the mainland, Catholics from Siam and Portuguese-Eurasians from Dutchadministered Melaka also flowed into Penang. George Town reflects these immigration patterns in its street names. By the early 19th century, the Kuan Yin Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Acheen Street Mosque, Nagore Shrine, Mahamariamman Hindu Temple and St George’s Church were already built in their present locations, a stone’s throw away from the Straits Collection properties. FEBRUARY/MARCH 2011


In Penang you can go into any temple of any denomination and you will be welcomed. People try to explain the meaning of things. Incense clouds pour out of Indian temples and joss sticks burn forever in highly decorated Chinese temples. If you show up at a Sikh temple on a Sunday, the community there will not let you leave without feeding you first. There is always a parade going on, a celebration or a festivity. At Stewart Lane, three of the five houses are used for accommodation and the other two are public spaces: in the very corner, Kopi Cine is a café with the best-ever chocolate chip cheesecake. Breakfasts, lunches and tapas are excellent and undoubtedly it’s an Australian connoisseur who has chosen the wine list. Adjacent to Kopi Cine is the Reading Room, a tastefully decorated space lined with dark wood shelves full of interesting books. The back courtyard is used as an open-air cinema where vintage Asian movies can be watched from 9pm while sipping a glass of good wine and tasting a few tapas. On Armenian Street, at the start of the heritage trail, the Straits Collection has four other properties, two of which are full houses with living areas and courtyard downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. These houses are older (circa 1850) and of a simpler style. The other two houses have been transformed into gorgeous boutiques: Bon Ton The Shop and China Joes. While you’re living in the heart of the historical quarter, do as the locals do and go makan angin, literally “eating the breeze”. 38


Take Me There l Straits Collection 47-55 Stewart Ln and 89-95 Armenian St, George Town, From 420MYR ($100.70) per night per house

Restaurants Dinner l 32 at the Mansion 32 Jl Sultan Ahmad Shah, tel: +60 (4) 262 2232 l Mama’s Nvonya 3l-D Abu Siti Ln, tel: +60 (4) 229 1318 l Miraku Japanese

l Beach Blanket Babylon 16 Lebuh Bishop, tel: +60 (4) 263 8101

Lunch l Nyonya Breeze 50 Alu Siti Ln l Edelweiss 38 Armenian St, tel: +60 (4) 261 8935 l Rainforest Bakery 300 Chulia St l Sri Ananda Bahwan Cnr Penang and China St l Stalls (best at night) l New Lane, off

Macalister Rd (evenings only)

Restaurant G Hotel, 168A Persiaran Gurney, tel: +60 (4) 238 0000

l New World Park 102 Jl Burma

l Song River Cafe

l Kuay Teow Noodle Soup

Gurney Dr

Cnr Armenian and Pitt St

l Kashmir

Sunset Drinks l QE2 Church Street Pier

Oriental Hotel, 105 Penang Rd, tel: +60 (4) 263 4211 l Bali Hai Persiaran Gurney, tel: +60 (4) 228 8272

l Eastern & Oriental

Hotel 10 Lebuh Farquhar, tel: +60 (4) 222 2000

Drinks after dinner l Bagan Bar & Restaurant 18 Jl Bagan Jermal, tel: +60 (4) 226 4977 l G Spot 168A Persiaran Gurney, tel: +60 (4) 238 0000 (jazz session first Sunday of the month)

Shopping l Gurney Plaza Persiawan Gurney, tel: +60 (4) 222 8111 l Fuan Wong Gallery Armenian St l Sam’s Batik House 183 Penang St l Nam Loong Jewellers 5 Campbell St l Upper Penang Road


Vintage Penang  

I often wondered what would be like to live in a traditional Chinese shop house like the ones barely surviving in Singapore, Malacca, Phuket...

Vintage Penang  

I often wondered what would be like to live in a traditional Chinese shop house like the ones barely surviving in Singapore, Malacca, Phuket...