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Asia travel

Penang island’s strong Chinese influences can be seen through its art, eats and old streets

From its tasty street food scenes to George Town’s architecture and umbrella-topped cycle rickshaws, the legacy left by China’s migrants is still abundantly clear

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 4:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 6:12pm

Penang is the rare tropical island where hitting the town beats lazing on the beach.

Fortune-seekers from China, Europe and India have been drawn to this Malaysian island for more than two centuries, creating along with local Malays an eclectic mix that can feel both seductively familiar and exotic at the same time.

The good, bad and ugly sides to a holiday in Penang, Malaysia

The colonial capital they’ve left behind oozes a hauntingly rustic charm, with colourful street art as much a draw as the historical architecture and one of southeast Asia’s tastiest street food scenes.

Wander the old town

There are plenty of tourist-friendly stretches of sand if that is what you’re looking for. The most popular are along the resort strip of Batu Ferringhi on the island’s northern coast.

Where Penang really shines, though, is in the scrappy but alluring lanes of the provincial capital George Town. Its historical centre is listed along with Melaka, another enchanting Malaysian city further down the coast, on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Although founded by the British as a trading hub, Penang has strong Chinese influences, the legacy of waves of migrants who settled here for work generations ago.

Craftsmen still tinker away in Chinese-signposted shophouses nestled up against busy dragon-topped temples swaddled in incense, and gather for rounds of mahjong as the sun sets.

“Penang people … are very slow and very relaxed. We are living on a small island so we are happy with the situation,” explains local artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, who grew up in the shadow of a traditional Chinese clan meeting hall known as a kongsi. “We still keep a simple lifestyle in George Town.”

A handful of restored heritage buildings such as the Penang Peranakan Mansion and the grand Khoo Kongsi clan house offer glimpses into how Chinese immigrants both shaped and were influenced by their adopted home.

Soak up street art

Less than a decade ago, it was George Town’s tumbledown architecture and umbrella-topped cycle rickshaws that first caught visitors’ eyes.

Turn a corner these days and you’re more likely than not to be wowed by some selfie-inspiring street art slowly fading away in the tropical sun.

On this multi-ethnic island, it is perhaps no surprise that some of the most popular were produced by an outsider, Lithuanian Ernest Zacharevic, who was inspired enough by George Town to put down roots.

10 of the best boutique hotels in historic George Town, Malaysia

“It was very fresh for me – to see all these walls and textures and inspirations that I get there,” he says. “There’s just something charming about it. It’s a place which is hard to forget.”

Other pieces to look out for are the more than four dozen cartoonish steel-rod sculptures by Malaysian artists detailing local history, including one memorialising Penang-born shoemaker Jimmy Choo, and a mural of a larger-than-life Indian boatman by Russian artist Julia Volchkova.

Feeling inspired? Rozana Mohamed runs classes teaching the traditional art of batik painting from her studio on Lebuh Aceh. Sessions start from as little as 35 ringgit (US$8.40) for one hour, materials included.

Eat on the street

Part of what makes Penang street food so good is the mishmash of cultures that have left their mark on this island.

Start the day with Indian roti canai, a flaky flatbread served with curry. Or try a true Malaysian favourite: nasi lemak – a mound of coconut-infused rice plus peanuts, crispy anchovies, sweet chilli sauce and a hard-boiled egg, served with or without meat. It’s a combination – often wrapped in a grab-and-go banana leaf parcel – that works amazingly well.

Wash it down like the locals do with a strong iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk.

From there it’s on to a parade of Chinese-inspired stir-fried noodle dishes. Char kway teow, made with flat rice noodles, sausage, shrimp, cockles and eggs, is a staple that is easy to find.

Mee goreng, another fried noodle dish, is sweeter and can have a subtle Indian curry kick, while the famous laksa noodle soup is all about the sour and spice.

None of the dishes costs much more than 6 ringgit.

Getting there

Cathay Dragon and Malaysia Airlines fly direct to Penang from Hong Kong in about three hours, 45 minutes. Alternatively, catch a short direct flight from the capital Kuala Lumpur. Bridges and ferries also link Penang to the mainland.

Accommodation

Some of the best hotels and inns are housed in renovated old buildings, such as the Blue Mansion built by 19th century magnate Cheong Fatt Tze. Another one to check out is Ren i Tang, a converted Chinese medicine hall in Little India where an ingenious pulley spares guests from hoisting bags up the narrow stairs.