Penang – a tale of two hotels


MALAYSIA (eTN) – Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu, the man behind Penang’s growth from a little known island into a model of economic success died last week at 91. His death closes an important chapter in Penang’s history, as Dr. Lim was instrumental in Penang’s economic development when he was chief minister. He transformed Penang from an economy that depended solely on in its free port status to an urbanized and industrialized state good enough to be known as the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.

Penang is also regional headquarters to major multinational corporations such as Intel and Motorola.

Even as the industrialized side of Penang marches on so does its cultural heritage, and local governments continue to be ever more creative in seeking ways to preserve its rich and colorful past.

My last business trip to Penang turned into an unexpected voyage into Penang’s past.

Having been to Penang on past trips, I had only ventured to the more “touristy” areas in the north known as Gurney Drive and Batu Feringhi. This time I was determined to explore the inner city of Georgetown, one of Malaysia’s oldest settlements, which had just been awarded the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008.

Getting oneself lost in a maze of narrow streets and alleys in the old Georgetown is part of the fun. Much like a walk into the past, time stopped somewhere around 1958. The feeling is like old Havana without the vintage cars. Paint peels from the facades of temples, and nothing has been spruced up, well almost nothing.

In the past few years, many old heritage buildings in Penang have been restored and given new leases on life while maintaining old world charm. One such project is the Straits Collection in the core zone of the UNESCO Heritage Georgetown. The restored shop houses in Georgetown’s heritage enclave along Stewart Lane and Armenian Street were bought back to life with a mixture of retail, cafe, public reading, film space, and short- and long-term residences.

Replicating the lifestyle of early Penang, circa 1900, is something Australian-born Narelle McMurtie does very well. Already running a resort on the neighboring island of Langkawi, the Bon Ton Resort, which is a collection of old Malay and Chinese houses richly furnished in similar styles, her intentions have been equally matched in Georgetown with the Straits Collection. The hotel itself consists of several renovated town houses, all equipped with the amenities of a five-star hotel, such as air conditioning in all the apartments and mini bars, as well as an excellent Wi-Fi system and direct dial telephones.

Part of Penang’s road to achieving world heritage status can also be shared by another iconic building, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (E&O Hotel), which laid dormant for many years and was lovingly restored to its former Grand Dame status in 2001.

Perhaps nothing better than an excerpt from a hotel brochure written in 1922 can sum up that moment in time, “Visible from the distance at sea, this island of Penang, the pearl of the Malay Archipelago, appears to float above the horizon” continuing with, “It is not, therefore, a matter of wonder that those who have visited the famous hotel, regard the E&O as a heaven to be sought again and again as the traveler returns to his home of affection.”

This is just how I feel about the new Penang.