Better than new

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am

The walls of the Hong Kong Bar, Penang's oldest watering hole, are plastered with 1960s and 70s memorabilia - flags, amateur sporting plaques and sepia-tinged photographs of red-faced drinkers, sleeves rolled up and fists clenching oversized glasses of beer.

Despite the name of this George Town bar, the faces beaming out from the past are not Chinese or Malay - nor are they British or Indian, as you may have expected in these parts in colonial times. They're mostly Australian, a hangover from the days when the Royal Australian Air Force was based here.

Ask any drinking Penangite and they'll likely tell you that due to this small contingent of Australians, Penang has more pubs - of a sort - than anywhere else in Malaysia - not much of a boast, perhaps, in an Islamic country, but it's a fitting illustration of how the character of Penang, an island state in the Straits of Malacca, has been shaped by the ebb and flow of recent history.

In 1786, the British East India Company established George Town, named after Britain's King George III, as a port settlement. It soon became a trading hub and the population grew with the volume of traffic. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, Weld Quay was one of the world's busiest ports. Its industry supplemented an influx of immigrants, including ethnic Indians, Chinese and Peranakans, descend- ants of Hokkien Chinese, who emigrated from Fujian province in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Today the population is divided roughly into 40 per cent Chinese, 40 per cent Malay, 10 per cent Indian and 10 per cent others. The Peranakans have mostly been absorbed into other groups but their Baba- Nyonya cuisine and traditions are a notable aspect of the cultural landscape.

In the streets around the Hong Kong Bar, there is the most visible evidence of Penang's ethnic diversity. Thanks to strict controls over the decades, the city has retained much of its colonial-era architecture and, in 2008, an area covering less than 110 hectares was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site.

A short walk takes you past Indo-Malay, Anglo- Indian and Sino-Anglo buildings with neoclassical, art-deco and modern influences thrown in. All together, more than 1,700 buildings are listed on the heritage registry.

The old town retains its charm and authenticity; terraces of semi-dilapidated colonial-era shophouses, with crumbling roof tiles and barricaded front doors are yet to be renovated and gentrified, lending the place an exotic air of bygone days far removed from the high-rise developments popping up outside the old town and along the coast.

Among the well-kept gems awaiting attention, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is arguably the finest. This colourful two-storey building was the lavish late-19th century home of a rich Baba-Nyonya merchant and his family. In the central courtyard are mosaic tiles and balcony ironwork typical of the time, while each room has been decorated with mother-of-pearl period furniture, vast gilded mirrors, antique vases and cabinets of ornaments and curios. Like much of George Town, it presents a history lesson no textbook can compete with.

The colonial heritage of British rule is on show in the grandiose Victorian town hall, the imposing neo-Palladian court building and the Anglo-Indian state assembly.

Visitors can tick off these sites on foot in a few hours but the cultural immersion is by no means confined to the architecture. Step off the heritage trail and you'll find the streets and alleyways teem with options.

In Little India, an area covering three or four blocks around Lebuh King and Lebuh Queen, Bollywood music streams through crackling speakers into the bustling streets. Sari-clad women walk arm-in-arm past spice stalls and material shops, their clothes a colourful departure from the ubiquitous black of Muslim dress. Tandoori smoke emanates from 'vegetarian chicken' grilling on roadside hotplates and, when business slows in the heat of the day, trishaw drivers sleep sprawled across their passenger seat without apparent concern for comfort.

Stroll a few blocks into Chinatown, stretching along Lebuh Chulia, and you're likely to detect steam rising from aluminium pots of bubbling Hokkien mee, a spicy pork-broth soup, or char kway teow, delicious flat noodles with shrimp and Chinese sausage. Here, old- style Chinese shopfronts - once a feature of Hong Kong, too - are interspersed with well-kept incense-scented temples. The geometric rendering of the city's mosques occasionally punctuates the architectural mix; their regular calls to prayer an audible expression of George Town's religious diversity.

Fifteen minutes from George Town, a string of hotels, from budget options such as Baba Guest House to the five-star Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort, run along a stretch of white-sand beach at Batu Ferringhi. Slightly cloudy water and jellyfish warning signs are hardly a deterrent once the sand is underfoot and a massage has been booked.

On the northwestern tip of the island, it's possible to rent a boat for a pittance and call in at the beauti- ful beaches of Penang National Park. It is one of the few natural forests on Penang and lays claim to being Malaysia's smallest national park, at just 2,300 hectares.

The funicular to Penang Hill is a splendid option for watching the sun set over the city while, back in town, a poolside cocktail at the opulent colonial Eastern & Orient Hotel is a must. The Sarkies brothers (of Singapore's Raffles hotel fame) founded this grand old dame in 1885 to take advantage of the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal and the arrival of European steamships in Asia.

Then there's the Hong Kong Bar. It won't necessar- ily make a Hongkonger feel at home but the history is worth imbibing and, after all these years, the beer is still cold.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( and AirAsia (; four times a week) fly from Hong Kong to Penang.