Local's Guide to Penang
Meet Your Guide
After a career as an investment banker in Sydney, Chris Ong opened his first hotel in Sri Lanka in 2003, the Galle Fort Hotel. He returned to his birthplace of Penang in 2007 and began lovingly restoring its crumbling properties, spurred on in 2008 when George Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ong’s George Town Heritage & Hotels has four properties, and all showcase heritage architecture.
I AM FIFTH-GENERATION Peranakan, but it did take me a long time to see the full, true beauty of my home. I was 42 and working in Sydney as a fund manager when I went on a holiday. Of course, I was then supposed to go back to my workplace, but I couldn’t settle, and these days I am a busy hotelier in my hometown of Penang in Malaysia. Seriously, I think this is why many employers do not allow you to take long holidays.
In the old days, you would come to Penang for its stunning beaches, or for its strong connections to Australia. The Royal Australian Air Force has long been here, conducting missions from the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth, which is eight kilometres east of George Town. There used to be Australian radio stations and even Aussie swimming clubs when I was growing up. But now, people probably visit for its culture, or the UNESCO World Heritage part of George Town.
A stroll around the listed site is a real must, but beforehand you must ditch Google Maps. Get lost, and you will experience what is really amazing about the place — it can be like walking through a film set. Penang was a prosperous mercantile town with Chinese, Malay, Indian and British people all trading and mixing to create incredibly unique architecture and crafts. You can even find a little Dutch influence if you look hard enough.
The late 19th-century Straits Chinese shophouses are truly beautiful — I developed one of my hotels, Seven Terraces, out of a row of them. In the heritage zone, you have to visit Cheong Fatt Tze (The Blue Mansion), Pinang Peranakan Mansion, and, of course, the kongsi, the Chinese clan houses. The Chinese had so much wealth, and they created these grand buildings that, in my mind, really parallel the Renaissance in Italy, as in the way the Medici had all of their great palaces built.
If you absolutely must leave George Town (which I try not to do) then visit the newly completed canopy and treetop walk at The Habitat Penang Hill. It’s a great way to get in touch with the island’s natural environment, and it’s so inspiring at sunset.
When visiting Penang, make an effort to stay in a heritage hotel. It’s not off the beaten track, but try the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, or as we call it, the E&O. It’s so reminiscent of the grand Sarkies brothers’ hotels in other parts of Asia, you have to check it out. If you are seeking a boutique hotel, stay at 23 Love Lane. It has remarkable local artworks and there are rumours it was once a brothel, so it has a very interesting past. In the 1970s Love Lane was where all the hippies gravitated to, braiding each other’s hair and getting tattoos in the street. Now, it’s rather like a newer version of Khao San Road in Bangkok.
Penang is known for its street food but sometimes you can be disappointed at a stall that only sells one thing. So, you need to go to a coffee shop, or what we call here a kopitiam, where you can try several dishes of good quality. One of my favourites is Kafe Kheng Pin, where the decor is straight out of a 1950s movie set. Its chicken rice and wonton noodles are good, though it’s most famous for its loh bak (five-spice pork rolls). One of the best servings in town of nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves) is at Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay & Canteen, and Sin Hwa Coffee Shop is as far as I would venture out of George Town for char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles).
It has been exciting to see a burgeoning of 1930s-style ‘secret’ speakeasy-type bars in Penang during the last year. They’re quite fun because you don’t know how to get in — there’s no sign, no obvious door. My favourite one is probably 12 Senses — it’s very much Chinese shophouse meets Suzie Wong; retro China chic! Also try Out Of Nowhere and Manchu, with its Ming dynasty theme.
I am an avid collector, so perhaps my arm is being twisted here, but I tend to shop for antiques and bric-a-brac on Chulia Street, especially at Gallery 1961 and Lean Giap Trading Co. I’m passionate about kamcheng (Peranakan porcelain ware); it is so colourful and beautiful. I love sharing my collections with people, some of which are on display in my hotels. Even if you can’t afford an original 19th-century piece, the 21st-century porcelain is still made using the old techniques at a fraction of the price. For clothes, Sams Batik House is a hidden gem. It might look slightly cheesy, but don’t be put off. The owner can help you find embroidered silk tops and lace table runners as well as other treasures. I sent an American billionairess to check it out and after 15 minutes she was completely addicted.
A cool region to visit is an area I like to call the Ninth Avenue district, running from Magazine Street down to Nanking Road, just outside the heritage zone. It has gorgeous wide streets, and modern architecture mixed with Art Deco and Straits Chinese houses, all still very much intact. It’s a great place to wander and see the transformation of Penang over time. I love how the past is on display everywhere in the city.
Virgin Australia offers flights to Penang with its codeshare partner Singapore Airlines/Silkair. To book, please visit our website or call our reservations team on 13 67 89 (from Australia). Thank you.