Located on Malaysia’s northwestern coast, Penang is a multitudinous expression of a country featuring everything from UNESCO heritage sites and cultural expressions to vibrant nightlife
by Marco Ferrarese
Welcome to Penang, center of the Malaysian art renaissance, where retro and historical are the new cool. An island celebrated as must-go spot for foodies in 2014 by none other than Lonely Planet. A place where three races send prayers in three different languages to an array of polyglot gods in the sky, and joss-sticks perpetually waft before multicolored temple gates.
It’s not always been like that, though: just five years ago, what are today sparkling heritage buildings lay abandoned under the unforgiving sun, and thoroughfare Chulia Street was just a waiting room for Thailand visa runners. Penang’s UNESCO Heritage listing came handy in 2007, and with it come a phalanx of make-up artists and expert coiffeurs to spiff her up. The final facelift is a brand-new old town that’s won hearts the world over, and has become a synonym for Southeast Asian trendy.
Read on for an insider’s guide to cruising Penang’s artsy street like a local by day and soaring with its clubbers at night.
Murals are the bread and butter of Penang’s nascent tourism. Take a stroll at the end of Armenian Street to see crowds queued up for the perfect photo next to Ernest Zacharevic’s “Two Kids on a Bicycle.” Created for George Town’s Festival 2012, the Lithuanian artist’s paintings became a serious tourist draw, but they’re not the first attempt to beautify the old walls of Penang’s historic city center.
Honors were reserved for the 52 steel rod caricatures that the Kuala Lumpur–based company, Sculpture at Work, realized in 2009 for the project “Marking George Town.” Perched at the town’s most iconic corners, the metal signs help visitors learn more about each street peculiar name. For example, we learn that Love Lane—today’s backpacker central—was in colonial times the residence of the island elite’s mistresses.
Other local artists have followed the mural trend: Johor native WK Setor installed another bicycle on the façade of the Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop (26 Gat Lebuh Armenian, 10200 George Town, +60 4 261 9887, www.facebook.com/MingXiangTai1979), just a few hundred meters from Zacharevic’s iconic kids. He drew cartoons of the shop owner’s children snatching Chinese “baozi” from a basket perched at the back of the bicycle. Even itinerant travellers with a penchant for art, such as Okinawan truck driver Takayuki Miyazono, have added their touch to the city walls. He has transformed a school’s wall into the set of a Japanese fairy tale.
However, Zacharevic continues to lead Penang’s art scene: he just redecorated the walls of the old Hin Bus Depot (31A Jalan Gurdwara, www.facebook.com/hinbusdepot), where he launched his “Art Is Rubbish/Rubbish Is Art” exposition in January 2014, and quickly became the island’s premier space for visual arts. Penang is also branching out to cinema, as Australian-born short film festival Trop Fest made George Town its Southeast Asian hub this year.
George Town oozes history and art from every back street, but there’s more to be experienced by going inside. The Peranakan Mansion (+60 4 264 2929, www.pinangperanakanmansion.com.my) is a trip back to the time of the Baba-Nyonya, prominent cultured Chinese who adopted the ways of educated Malays and British settlers. Their legacy is opulent in the mansion, where antiques and luxurious halls give visitors a unique tour of an age past.
The Whiteaways Arcade (+60 4 226 1199, www.facebook.com/whiteawayspg), a renovated colonial building filled with upmarket dining and entertaining options, offers a modern take on heritage visits. Grabbing a sandwich at Subway or sipping coffee at Old Town Café is much more inspiring if done inside an 18th-century building.
Muntri Street, once a dodgy artery of Penang harbour’s underworld, today looks better than ever with its rows of renovated shophouses. Among the guesthouses and flash-packer hotels, find the interesting Camera Museum—the first in Southeast Asia—or quirky Purrfect Café (53 Jalan Muntri, +60 4 261 1197, www.facebook.com/penangcatcafe). Have coffee and cake on the second floor before you start petting one of the nine resident cats. The ground floor has a collection of cat-themed gadgets for sale to satisfy the needs of any serious feline lover.
There are several clubbing or bar-crawling options in Penang. Cuvee (Precinct 10, Jalan Tanjung Tokong 10-C-18/19) is a champagne and wine venue with psychedelic lights and a funky décor. If you want to be chic, there’s no better place in town to swing a high heel-shod foot with a wine glass in hand.
For more casual times, The Press (2, Lebuh Chulia, George Town) is a delightfully wood-themed, tunnel-shaped club with a rooftop and a view just a short walk from George Town’s main jetty. Happy hours are long, and the mix of live bands and local DJs spinning an array of vibrant dance beats keeps the parties up until late.
When looking for real clubbing, SOJU (B2, Entertainment City, Penang Times Square) offers pyrotechnic dance shows starring international artists, Russian pole dancers, and a mix of the latest, most disparate dance sounds. Book a table, bring your friends, and enjoy the show.
Alternative Parties and Live Music
If official clubs and bars are not your pick, Penang also boosts occasional alternative dance parties hosted by underground collective Ze Arcade Paint (ZAP). The collective started organizing “friends-only” rooftop parties and evolved into full-fledged events. The most spectacular was “Disappear Here” in January 2013: urban tribes of alternative rockers and dancers came together in a day and night out on the top of iconic Penang Hill, the island’s colonial hill resort. Held under an inspiring geodesic dome and its surrounding gardens, it was the first fusion of alternative rock and dance beats ever held on the quaint hill.
There’s chance to see—and move—more, as ZAP continues to organize parties (www.facebook.com/zearcadepaint for updates).
Live music is also on every weekend at Soundmaker (+60 174 287 327, www.facebook.com/Soundmakerstudio), the local den of alternative rock, punk and heavy metal bands, and a great venue in which to meet Penang’s eccentrics.