Exploring a Malaysian jewel box packed with color and spice

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Exploring a Malaysian jewel box packed with color and spice
Inside Archipelago, a hidden bar that offers cocktails made with toddy, a mildly alcoholic liquid taken from the trunks of palm trees, and rice wine brewed on the island of Borneo, in George Town, Malaysia, Feb. 16, 2023. The colonial port on Malaysia’s island of Penang dazzles visitors with its winding alleys, pastel-painted storefronts, sumptuously restored hotels and mouthwatering food. (Lauryn Ishak/The New York Times)

by Simon Elegant

NEW YORK, NY.- “Try this way,” says Zainal Abidin, an affable manager at the Prestige in George Town, Malaysia, cocking his head to one side. Zainal is showing me around the hotel, which is named after the 2006 Christopher Nolan film about two rival magicians. I’m supposed to see an illusion in which the corridor entrance transforms into a mirror, but it’s not coming.

“Or this way,” he says, bending his head to the left, then back again. I follow suit — we must look like a couple of nodding dashboard dogs — and abruptly the mirror appears. I take a step back.

Zainal laughs, and I venture that this effect must be confusing for guests returning late from one of George Town’s many bars. But Zainal shakes his head: “Guests love it. The corridors are actually very popular for Instagram shoots,” he says.

Most travelers know Malaysia for the beaches of Langkawi, the iconic twin towers of Kuala Lumpur or the rainforests of Borneo. But the colonial port city of George Town on the island of Penang, just off the Malay Peninsula’s west coast, has a magic all its own. The core of the city — about 1 square mile of twisting alleys lined with two- and three-story rowhouses that double as storefronts, known locally as shophouses — is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The listing describes George Town as “a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia,” a product of 500 years of trade and exchange between East and West. The island was annexed by the British in 1786 and flourished as a trading entrepôt, with Chinese and Indian immigrants mixing with the local Malay population to produce a vibrant community in which English was (and still is) the lingua franca. The city was eclipsed commercially by ports like Singapore many decades ago, but Penangites, as they call themselves, remain an inventive, multicultural community and are, in general, fiercely proud of their city.

For visitors, all this leads to the serendipitous pleasure of wandering the warren of narrow lanes looking to stumble across another wonderfully photogenic facade painted in a mixture of delicate pastels with red or black louvered wooden doors and elaborate carved gold inlays.

There’s also the possibility that one of those doors will lead to the perfect cup of coffee. Or a plate of fried noodles. Or a one-star Michelin restaurant serving Nyonya cuisine, a fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian cooking that the Michelin Guide calls “an exhilarating combination of all things tangy, spicy, herbal and aromatic.”

Some of the shophouses are perfectly restored plaster cornices gleaming with fresh pink, baby blue or buttercup yellow paint. But this is no movie set: The neighbor of the hidden door that leads to a nightclub might be a garage resounding with the clang of tools being dropped and car bodies being hammered. For all its hidden charms, George Town is still noisily alive.

Restored Mansions and Modern Charm

Back at the Prestige, the tour is over and I’m outside looking at the gleaming white stuccoed walls, black metal balcony railings and graceful colonnades that flank the grand entrance. It is no coincidence that the design echoes the Victorian features of the original buildings around it. Although the Prestige was constructed from scratch on an empty lot, the exterior design of the hotel had to blend into the city’s existing buildings to comply with UNESCO’s strict rules.

Interiors are another matter, though. Apart from magical touches such as the mirror illusion and a reception desk and beds that look as if they are floating, the Prestige — like most newer hotels in George Town — opted for a sleek modern look inside.

For those visitors who want their historical authenticity to extend more than skin-deep, George Town offers a range of boutique establishments in which the owners have gone to painstaking lengths to re-create the interiors as they were in the city’s boom decades during the second half of the 19th century.

The granddaddy of restored heritage hotels in George Town is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, named for the wealthy merchant who built it at the end of the 19th century. The building, also known as the Blue Mansion for the dominant color scheme, charms visitors with its shaded courtyards, gilt-adorned carved wooden doors and cast-iron columns imported from Scotland. It has 18 rooms, but also hosts daily tours for those staying elsewhere. It is also where the climactic mahjong scene in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” was filmed.

Just down Leith Street is the newer Edison Hotel, also a former tycoon’s residence. While the Blue Mansion is all nooks, shadows and azure shades, the Edison’s restorers went for a white and pale green color scheme and a more airy vibe that emphasizes delicate, cast-iron lacework railings and courtyards that let in the sun.

As with many boutique hotels, the owners concentrated most of their efforts on bringing the buildings themselves back into shape, preferring clean modern lines and fittings for the furniture and decoration. But for Chris Ong, a former investment banker who runs four boutique heritage hotels in the city, the aim was different: He wanted to restore everything in the houses to exactly the way they were in their heydays a century ago, right down to the curtains, furniture and chandeliers.

Ong first returned to George Town, his hometown, to be with his ailing mother after spending decades abroad. His first project was restoring the family home, despite his mother’s adamant refusal to live in it, remodeled or not. She preferred a modern apartment.

He is a fifth-generation Peranakan, an ethnic group whose history goes back 600 years, when male immigrants from China married local Malay women. Their multiracial culture flourished in Penang and other trading ports in the region, including Malacca, Medan and Singapore. Peranakan culture — also known as Nyonya or Baba — is particularly famous in two areas: food and design.

The details stand out at Ong’s flagship hotel, Seven Terraces. Built around an airy courtyard like other heritage houses in George Town, Seven Terraces has only 18 rooms, but each one is a showcase of Peranakan design, featuring blackwood and mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture, elaborately carved four-poster beds, embroidered footstools, and red and gold antique cabinets. Items from Ong’s personal collection, including richly embroidered Peranakan clothing and porcelain ware, also adorn the rooms.

The architecture of another of Ong’s hotels — the eclectic Jawi Peranakan Mansion — mixes British colonial design with Indian Muslim furnishings that he brought back from research trips to Rajasthan. (The Jawi, locally born Muslims of mixed Malay and South Indian ancestry, are a subgroup of Peranakan.) The Jawi mansion, like Ong’s other establishments, reflects his painstaking efforts to reproduce the authentic spirit of the original. It’s a place where colorful Mughal-style tiles with intricate geometric designs coexist with brass mirrors and Victorian-style claw-foot bathtubs.

Follow the Scent of Tamarind and Nutmeg

Happily for visitors to George Town, the distinctive flavors of Peranakan cuisine have been just as lovingly preserved as the architecture.

Without question, the city’s most famous Peranakan restaurant is Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, which was awarded a Michelin star in late 2022. Occupying a shophouse on Bishop Street, Auntie Gaik Lean’s is definitely not a fine-dining establishment. It focuses squarely on homey Nyonya dishes, most of which feature the characteristic tangy-sour taste of tamarind. There’s also a nutmeg juice on the menu for those who can’t get enough of the restaurant’s spice-heavy Nyonya kick.

Penangites are famous for their all-consuming love of eating, an obsession that naturally generates equally strong opinions. That means every Penangite has a favorite Peranakan restaurant, or several of them. Ong, for example, cites Baba Phang, Ceki and Winn’s Cafe as his go-to spots for traditional Nyonya fare.

For more adventurous but still very much local food, Gen, which describes its dishes as innovative Malaysian, shines. The restaurant offers only a fixed-price menu of 450 ringgit (about $100) a head for nine courses and four desserts. Dishes feature local ingredients prominently, ranging from citrusy bunga kantan, or ginger flower, to a spice called buah kulim, a golf-ball-size fruit redolent of garlic. There’s also chocolate made from homegrown cacao pods and even “tropical caviar” from locally raised sturgeon (really).

One you’ve eaten your fill, digest by wandering the city’s narrow alleys, where you’re likely to stumble across an intriguing cafe or gallery. Bars have also flourished in recent years, though some are hard to find through mere serendipity. Having adopted the speakeasy model, they often do not have signs or even street numbers. Happily, Google Maps has no qualms about giving away their locations.

In the case of Archipelago, for example, an internet search even provides a picture of the unassuming blue doorway that leads to this delightful hideaway on Armenian Street. (Ignore what appear to be a couple of padlocks securing the door: They are just for show.)

Archipelago’s drinks list (cocktails begin at around 20 ringgit) includes libations formulated with the spices that made Penang rich: cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise, among others. It also offers drinks made with a local liquor: rice wine brewed in Sarawak state, on the island of Borneo. Or toddy, a mildly alcoholic liquid tapped from the trunks of palm trees. (Penang is named after the betel nut palm.)

The Oh My Toddy features the slightly sweet, cloudy white palm brew enhanced by asam boi, a Chinese sour plum, and attap chi, a palm fruit that resembles lychee. The result is low in alcohol, tangy and very refreshing.

Another bar, the Mandarin on Irving Street (cocktails around 55 ringgit, mocktails around 40 ringgit), is similarly tucked away, though it does actually have a street number on its facade. Lim Yin Wei, its self-taught mixologist and owner, prefers an intuitive approach to relying on the classics. New arrivals to the lounge are gently queried on what kind of a day they have had, then promised a suitable restorative. On our visit, my companion confided that she’d had a tough day. After a short interlude, the smiling barman reappeared with a greenish, citrusy concoction decorated with cucumber, thyme and edible flowers.

My companion deemed it “magical.” Just like George Town.

If you go:

Lodging: Expect to pay about 600 ringgit a night for a basic double at the Prestige, though prices rise substantially in the summer high season, as do those for all hotels in George Town. For a similar room, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion currently charges around 540 ringgit a night, while the Edison Hotel’s rate is 630 ringgit. A night at Seven Terraces will set you back 630 ringgit, and its sister hotel the Jawi Peranakan Mansion charges around 430 ringgit.

Dining: Prices at Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery and its fellow Peranakan restaurants (Baba Phang, Ceki and Winn’s Cafe) are similar. Expect to pay roughly 130 to 180 ringgit for two without drinks.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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