George Town’s entrepreneurs are collectively getting together to put Penang’s historic centre on the international cultural map.

It is understandable why Penang is strongly associated with its food scene. Straits cuisine blends centuries of Malay, Indian, Chinese, British and European culture into sweet and savoury dishes that are adored the world over. Yet in recent years, the Malaysian island state has become known for its excellently restored heritage buildings. Its capital George Town was honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, and visitors find there are ample activities to enjoy between meals.

One of George Town’s biggest attractions is Peranakan Mansion, housed in the former courtyard home of Chung Keng Quee. Originally a Hakka peasant, Chung made his fortune in Malaysia’s mines and was later granted the title of Mandarin by the Qing Dynasty. Lillian Tong, the museum’s director, leads a tour of each room, pointing out the eclectic mixture of Chinese customs, including an elaborate wedding bed, English engineering in columns and local craftsmanship such as decorative silver jewellery.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is another courtyard house that set the benchmark for Penang’s boutique hotels when it first opened more than 15 years ago. A labour of love for its owner and architect Laurence Loh, the mid 19th century house, affectionately known as Blue Mansion, offers 18 rooms and a restaurant. It is also open for guided tours and private events.

“The public only knew about relics, not living culture,” Loh says. “I wanted to save Blue Mansion for the people of Penang – and it eventually became a benchmark for conservation in Malaysia.”

Another accidental hotelier was Chris Ong. Originally a banker who worked in Hong Kong and Sydney, Ong was looking for a home when he returned to Penang.

That search for historic properties began a snowball effect that resulted in a quartet collectively known as George Town Heritage Hotels. Each has its own quirky story to tell: Seven Terraces is classically Chinese to reflect the building’s grandness, while Jawi Peranakan Mansion, the latest addition, features relics Ong hand-sourced from Calcutta and Rajasthan.

“So many of Penang’s grand homes have disappeared. I wanted to preserve some of it,” Ong says.
Transplanted Hong Kong native Karen Chan got into the F&B business through working with a chef she admired. After a successful string of homey restaurants and bars, she opened Macalister Mansion, an eight-room Design Hotel courtesy of Singapore’s Ministry of Design, that ups the ante for stylish minimalism in the city.

Its many restaurants and bars have become popular hangouts for locals, while the white colonial mansion is often booked for weddings.

“Macalister Mansion was a furniture shop that was really run down when we took it over,” Chan says. “My husband’s passion is art and design – and we wanted to so something for Penang.”

Chef Nurilkarim Razha, of Jawi House, similarly wanted to combine classic Peranakan dishes with a refined restaurant setting. The courtyard house is on one of George Town’s oldest streets, and includes an art gallery alongside homemade curries, laksa, cakes and coffee.

For those wanting to kick back over some beers and tunes, China House’s The Canteen offers live indie jazz bands.

The brainchild of Australian native Narelle McMurtrie, China House is a collection of courtyard houses that offers one of the region’s most impressive selections of homemade cakes, local art and crafts and comfort food at any hour of the day. After all, history and culture notwithstanding, it all comes back to good eats in Penang.