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Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia: 10 historical sights

Eastern & Oriental Hotel: Georgetown, Malaysia
Even if the notorious Hong Kong Bar was all that Georgetown had to offer, we would have been happy with our trip to the capital of Penang. As it turned out, there was so much of interest in this uniquely multicultural place city that we didn’t have time to see it all.

Destination Hotel, the E&O
There can be no better way to arrive at the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel than trundling up in a couple of trishaws. Our luggage having been dropped off a while earlier by crew from the train, we waltzed in unencumbered.

I was unprepared for the sheer grandeur of the hotel, the vast acreage of its domed lobby, the lavishness of its furnishings. And its imposing street entrance pales in comparison to the splendour of its rear aspect, situated as it is a dozen metres or so from the sea with a beautiful swimming pool and a long private promenade. It’s simply gorgeous.

It is difficult to believe that our suite, one of just a hundred in the entire hotel, is the standard accommodation. On the third level, it has sweeping views of the sea, as most of the rooms do. Its proportions remind us of the Dalat Palace Hotel in Dalat, Vietnam; the British colonial feel and its seaside location of the Brunton Boatyard in Cochin, Kerala.

Hotel History
Established in 1885 by the same four brothers (the Sarkies) who started such other stellar hostelries as our own Raffles Hotel and The Strand in Rangoon, the E&O’s unrivalled glory in the decades before World War II was followed by a series of ups and (mainly) downs. Finally, the grand old dame was closed for restoration in 1996, but recession and delays meant it was five years before she emerged from the scaffolding, wonderfully rebuilt and back in business.

Historic Highlights


The E&O Hotel is an ideal base from which to explore on foot the heritage site of old Georgetown.

1. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the “Blue House” in Leith Street, a highly recommended hotel with amazing architecture that combines Chinese, Victorian and Art Nouveau elements. In 2000, the private owners of this 1880s mansion won a Unesco award for its painstaking restoration.

2. The State Museum, a museum with thoughtful displays of cultural and historic artefacts, and a contemporary art gallery on the third level, perfect for the rainy afternoon we spent there.

3. The Goddess of Mercy or Kwan Yin Temple, patroness of virgins, fertility and other good things, built in 1800.

 

4. Little India, perhaps best enjoyed from your comfy perch in a trishaw. Hindi music wafts from numerous carpet, clothing, jewellery and spice stores; mosques and Chinese association houses are found here too; visit the Kapitan Kling Mosque in the street of the same name.

5. The Mahamariamman Hindu temple, built in 1833 for the Indian labourers, shipbuilders and deckhands brought here in the 1780s, and the merchants and traders who followed them.

6. Fort Cornwallis, built by Francis Light, who occupied Penang in 1786 and was later appointed by the East India Company as Superintendent of the island.

7. Christian edifices such as the Assumption Church (first built in 1787) and the Anglican St George Church (1817), together with a slew of schools, most notably St Xavier’s Institution (1852).

8. Penang Peranakan Mansion, a well-preserved house holding more than a thousand artefacts.

9. The Town Hall (1880) and City Hall (1903), next to The Esplanade, a popular and breezy gathering place on the seafront.

10. And, of course, the E&O Hotel. Check out the original 1903 ballroom, have a beer at Farquar’s Bar and revel in its nostalgic ambience.

Feeding Frenzy
About to head out to explore, we’re deflected from our path by the buzz coming from the hotel buffet dining room. It’s a Sunday, it’s Father’s Day, and we can’t resist joining the feeding frenzy. Of course it’s fully booked, but the magical words “We’re hotel guests” do the trick.

The buffet features almost everything imaginable, and is a great opportunity to try some of the food for which Penang is famous. Penang laksa, for example; unlike Singapore’s thick, coconut-creamy version, it has a clear broth base. More like the Vietnamese pho, it has just a few rice noodles but is brimming with fresh green vegetables and ultra-hot red chillies – fantastic!

Other standouts include a stall chopping up incredibly rich and tender roast duck with hoisin sauce; and a smoking griddle delivering succulent fillets of local mackerel, skate wings and black pepper crayfish tails. The price is 56 ringgits (about S$28) each, the atmosphere is jolly and unpretentious, and there’s not a champagne glass in sight.

Breakfast is another massive buffet in the same restaurant; I chose the local nasi kandar, rice – both the lemak version (cooked in coconut milk) and goreng (fried) – served with a choice of a dozen or so curries and other tasty toppings. So keen is the huge, friendly Malay chef to cook me eggs some way that I relent and let him add a fried egg to the top. No lunch required.

Mixed Reviews
One of the reasons it’s taken me nearly ten years to book a trip to Penang is the mixed reviews we’ve heard. The main criticism is that it’s depressingly dilapidated and that there’s little of interest to see.

It’s true that much of the historic district is maze of crumbling shophouses that haven’t seen the business end of a paintbrush since Victorian explorer Isabella Bird strode down Lebuh Light. But their mouldering authenticity is part of their charm, and there’s plenty to see, not only in the historic district, but in the rest of Georgetown; hire a car to explore the scenic Batu Ferringhi coastal resort area and the remoter parts of this green and pleasant island.

I suspect the naysayers wandered aimlessly down hot streets and smelly alleys expecting things of interest to jump out at them. Georgetown is a culturally complex place with a unique and fascinating history, so we’d recommend that you hire a guide on Day One, to help make sense of what you’re seeing. Either that, or do some research before you go.

It’s not just that I was in a good mood that weekend. Along with Malacca, Georgetown has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site for its unique cultural heritage. In essence, not much has changed since Sir George Leith, the Lieutenant Governor of Penang in the early 1800s, wrote: “There is not, probably, any part of the world, where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together, or so great a variety of languages spoken.”

 

Hong Kong Bar


According to Frommer’s, the HK Bar opened for business in 1920 and is “possibly the most notorious bar in Penang”. Ever since we moved to Singapore nearly ten years ago, my husband has been muttering into his beard about going to Penang to revisit this den of iniquity.

Forty years ago, Roy was the youthful third mate on the Amra, a British Steam & Navigation Co. vessel that did the Japan to Persian Gulf run, and he remembered this bar – old even then – as a favourite haunt of military and merchant servicemen. Mainly, he wanted to look through the photos that the owner used to take of every group of visitors, to see if he could spot himself and the guys he worked with.

Sure enough, the bar at 371 Lebu Chulia is open, despite it being a sleepy Sunday afternoon when most of the shutters are down, and a crew of tipsy yachties at the counter are steadily laying the foundations for some serious hangovers. The bad news is that when the place was gutted by fire in 1994, most of its precious store of albums full of tiny black-and-white photos were destroyed in the blaze.

Just three albums remain. As luck would have it, one of them is for 1971, and after a bit of a search, the whole bar rejoices with us as Roy manages to find a picture of himself – through all that long, thick, wavy red hair and seventies sideburns, it’s definitely my man.

Before we leave, Jenny, the daughter of the original owner, gets us to pose for a group photo. It’s fitting, and gives us a reason to return one day.

For a full history of Penang and Georgetown, its cultures, peoples and architecture, download the article “Historic Centres of Melaka and Penang”.

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