George Town, Malaysia: A jewel box of color and spice

“Try this method,” says Zainal Abidin, the affable manager. prestige In Georgetown, Malaysia, I tilted my head to the side. Mr. Zainal is showing us around the hotel. The hotel is named after his 2006 Christopher Nolan film about two rival magicians. I was supposed to see a hallucination in which the entrance to the hallway turned into a mirror, but it never came.

“Or this way,” he said, bending his head to the left and then back again. I follow suit – I have to look like a nodding dashboard dog couple – and suddenly a mirror appears. I take a step back.

Zainal laughed, and I thought the effect must be confusing for patrons returning late from Georgetown’s many bars. But Zainal shook his head and said: In fact, this hallway is very popular for Instagram shots,” he says.

Most travelers know Malaysia for the beaches of Langkawi, the iconic Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, and the rainforests of Borneo. But George Town, a colonial port town on the island of Penang just off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, has its own magic. The town center – about a square mile of winding alleys lined with two- and three-story rowhouses that also serve as stores, known locally as shophouses – UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The list describes George Town as a “unique architectural and cultural cityscape unparalleled anywhere in East and Southeast Asia,” and says it is the product of 500 years of trade and exchange between East and West. . The island was annexed by Britain in 1786 and flourished as a trading center. Chinese and Indian immigrants mixed with the local Malays, creating a vibrant community where English was (and still is) the lingua franca. Although the city was overshadowed commercially by ports like Singapore decades ago, the Penans, as they call themselves, are still an inventive, multicultural community who generally define their city as such. I’m very proud.

For visitors, all this is another wonderfully photogenic building painted in a mixture of delicate pastel colors, with red or black louvered wooden doors and elaborately carved gold inlays. It leads to the serendipitous joy of wandering through intricate narrow lanes trying to find the façade.

One of those doors could lead to the perfect cup of coffee. Or a plate of fried noodles. Or Michelin’s 1, which serves Nyonya cuisine, a fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian cuisine that the Michelin Guide calls “an exhilarating combination of tangy, spicy, herbal and aromatic cuisine.” There is also a star restaurant.

Some shophouses have fully restored stucco cornices, sparkling with fresh pink, baby blue or buttercup yellow paint. But this is not a movie set. Next to the hidden door leading to the nightclub might be a garage with the sounds of falling tools and banging cars. Despite its many hidden gems, George Town is still thriving.

Back at the Prestige, the tour ended and I stepped outside to admire the gleaming white plaster walls, black metal balcony railings, and graceful colonnades on either side of the grand entrance. It is no coincidence that this design reflects the Victorian character of the surrounding original buildings. Although Prestige was built from the ground up on vacant land, the hotel’s exterior design had to blend in with the city’s existing buildings to comply with UNESCO’s strict regulations.

However, the interior is another matter. Apart from magical touches like mirror illusions and a front desk and bed that appear to be floating, the Prestige, like most new hotels in Georgetown, has a sleek, modern look inside. selected.

For visitors who want to extend George Town’s historical authenticity beyond the superficial, the owners have painstakingly decorated the interior to reflect the city’s boom years of the late 1920s. It offers a variety of boutique facilities, recreated over the past decade. Nineteenth century.

My grandfather restored a historic hotel in Georgetown. Cheung Fat Tze Mansion, named after the wealthy merchant who built it at the end of the 19th century. Also known as the Blue Mansion due to its dominant color scheme, the building enchants visitors with its shaded courtyard, carved wooden doors decorated with gold leaf, and cast iron columns imported from Scotland. . There are 18 rooms in his room, but tours are also held daily for those staying elsewhere. It is also the location where the mahjong scene at the climax of the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” was filmed.

The new one just down Leith Street Edison Hotel, and was once the residence of a millionaire. While every nook and cranny of the Blue Mansion is dominated by shadows and shades of azure, Edison’s restorers designed a color scheme of white and pale green, with delicate cast-iron lace railings and sunlight streaming in. We aimed for a more airy atmosphere that emphasizes the courtyard.

As with many boutique hotels, the owners focused most of their efforts on restoring the building itself to its original form, preferring clean, modern lines and fixtures for the furniture and decor. But Chris Ong, a former investment banker who runs his four boutique heritage hotels in the city, had different objectives. He wanted to restore everything in the house, down to the curtains, exactly as they were in their heyday 100 years ago. , furniture, chandeliers.

After spending decades abroad, Ong returned to his hometown of Georgetown for the first time with his ailing mother. His first project was to restore his parents’ home, renovated or not, despite his mother’s adamant refusal to live there. She preferred modern apartments.

He is a fifth-generation Peranakan, an ethnic group that dates back 600 years to when male immigrants from China married local Malay women. Their multi-ethnic culture flourished in Penang and other trading ports in the region such as Malacca, Medan, and Singapore. The Peranakan culture, also known as Nyonya or Baba, is especially famous for two of his fields: food and design.

The details stand out in Ong’s flagship hotel. Seven Terrace. Like other traditional homes in George Town, Seven Terraces is built around an airy courtyard and has just 18 rooms, each a showcase of Peranakan design. Wood and mother-of-pearl furniture, intricately carved four-poster beds and embroidery. Footstool, red and gold antique cabinet. Items from Ong’s personal collection also adorn the room, including richly embroidered Peranakan clothing and porcelain.

Mr. Ong’s different hotel architecture – eclectic Jawi Peranakan Mansion — combines British colonial design with Indian Muslim furniture brought back from a research trip to Rajasthan. (The Jawis are locally-born Muslims of mixed Malay and South Indian descent and are a subgroup of the Peranakans.) Jawi’s mansion, like his other properties, recreates the authentic spirit of the original. reflects his painstaking efforts. This is where colorful Mughal-style tiles with intricate geometric patterns coexist with brass mirrors and Victorian claw-foot bathtubs.

To the delight of visitors to George Town, the unique flavors of Peranakan cuisine are as lovingly preserved as the architecture.

Arguably the most famous Peranakan restaurants in the city are: Aunt Gaike Leanne’s Old School Eatery, awarded a Michelin star at the end of 2022. Auntie Gaik Lean’s, housed in a shophouse on Bishop Street, is by no means a fine dining restaurant. The focus is squarely on home-style Nyonya cuisine, most of which feature the distinctive tangy tanginess of tamarind. If you can’t get enough of the restaurant’s spicy Nyonya kick, there’s also nutmeg juice on the menu.

Penangites are known for their love of food, and that obsession naturally leads to equally strong opinions. This means that every Penangian has a favorite Peranakan restaurant, or several. For example, Ong said: baba bread, Instax and Winds Cafe It’s his go-to spot for traditional Nyonya cuisine.

If you want to be more adventurous and still enjoy local food, GenDescribing the cuisine as innovative Malaysian cuisine, it shines. The restaurant only offers a fixed price menu of 450 ringgit (approximately $100) per person for nine courses and four desserts. The cuisine is inspired by local ingredients, from citrus to fruit. bungakantanor ginger flower, a spice called Bua Krim, a fruit the size of a golf ball that smells like garlic. There’s also chocolate made from home-grown cacao pods and “tropical caviar” made from locally raised sturgeon (really).

Once you’ve had your fill, wander through the city’s narrow alleys and maybe find some charming cafes or galleries. Bars have become popular in recent years, but some are difficult to find just by chance. Adopting a speakeasy model, they often don’t even have a sign or a street address. Fortunately, Google Maps has no qualms about revealing your location.

in the case of islandsFor example, an internet search also brings up a photo of the unassuming blue doorway that leads to this delightful hideaway on Armenian Street. (Ignore what looks like his two padlocks securing the door; they’re just for show.)

Archipelago’s drinks list (cocktails start at around RM20) includes libations with Penang-enriched spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise. We also offer drinks made with rice wine, a local sake brewed in Sarawak, Borneo. Or toddy, a slightly alcoholic liquid squeezed from the trunk of a palm tree. (Penang was named after the betel tree.)

Oh My Toddy features a slightly sweet and cloudy white palm beer. asam boyChinese sour plum, and attach chi, a palm fruit similar to a lychee. The result is low alcohol, zesty flavor, and very refreshing.

another bar, mandarin The restaurant on Irving Street (about RM55 for cocktails, RM40 for mocktails) is similarly hidden, but actually has a street number on its façade. Self-taught mixologist and owner Lim Ying Wei favors an intuitive approach that relies on the classics. New arrivals to the lounge are gently asked how their day has been and are assured of a suitable respite. When we visited, my companion confided that it had been a difficult day. After a brief interlude, the smiling bartender reappeared with a greenish-citrus concoction garnished with cucumber, thyme, and edible flowers.

My friend thought it was “magical”. Like Georgetown.

stay: A basic double at Prestige costs around RM600 per night. However, like all hotels in George Town, prices increase significantly during the summer high season. Similar room rates are currently around RM630 per night at the Edison Hotel, compared to his nightly rate at Chong Fattzi Mansion. Room rates at Seven Terrace are RM630, while sister hotel Jawi Peranakan Mansion costs around RM430.

dining: Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery and its fellow Peranakan restaurants (Baba Phang, Ceki, Winn’s Cafe) have similar prices. Without drinks, expect to pay around RM130-180 for two people.

Simon Elegant is the former Southeast Asia bureau chief for Time magazine and is based in Malaysia. He recently completed his third novel, Rebel City, a mystery set in Hong Kong during the 2019 anti-government protests.

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