George Town: From old to modern chic and expensive

PENANG - In just three months, best friends Catherine Yeo and Christine Ooi found, leased and refurbished a 103-year-old shoplot, opening Moustache Houze, a cake and coffee cafe, in the heart of George Town in July this year.

Their chic cafe in a 2 1/2-storey building in Campbell Street, barely 5m wide, stands out on a street that used to be filled with goldsmiths when it was known as Sin-Kay or "new street" in the Chinese Hokkien dialect.

This is the frontier of George Town where young, independent entrepreneurs like Ms Yeo and Ms Ooi, both 34-year-old marketing graduates who met at a local college, are turning old spaces into modern chic.

"We want to be part of what brings young people back to the older side of Penang," said Ms Ooi, who had been helping out at her family's Chinese eatery before striking out on her own.

These young people are filling abandoned shophouses from pre-war Penang with modern businesses, fuelling an urban renewal, and giving Kuala Lumpur a run for its money as a must-visit cultural destination.

On the flip side, to the dismay of locals, they are also helping to push up property prices to among the highest in Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur.

A walk through these streets can evoke a sense of the old meeting the new, five years after the area - roughly the size of Singapore's Gardens By The Bay - was given heritage status by Unesco.

Its buildings are a mix of the Fujian-style "three-bay" houses with a central courtyard and British colonial-style buildings with Indian influences, imported from British India.

And there's whimsy amid the history. In the alleys of George Town the intrepid explorer can find more than 30 art works on walls in the heritage zone with more being added.

Some of the more popular ones are murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic for the 2012 George Town Festival.

On weekends, long lines of tourists wait their turn to take a picture next to the pensive "Boy on a Bike" or the laughing "Little Children on a Bicycle".

The murals are complemented by dozens of welded-iron wall caricatures - there will be more than 50 eventually - that give a humorous or anecdotal description of the buildings they rest against.

These treasure troves and quaint old coffee and sundry shops within George Town are attracting a new kind of cultural tourist to the island beyond the beach crowd.

"Penang can't compare to KL, Singapore, Hong Kong, as we don't have many high-rises or sophisticated shopping. Our strength is heritage buildings," said Mr Danny Law, the Penang government executive councillor for tourism development.

"People are staying less in beach hotels and prefer the boutique hotels in George Town."

In July 2008, Penang's George Town and Malacca were declared Unesco World Heritage Sites, after years of applications and vetting.

The George Town heritage zone of pre-war charms, temples and colonial-era buildings covers 109.38ha, bound by the Straits of Malacca and Love Lane, Carnarvon Lane and Gat Lebuh Melayu.

There was a jump in visitor arrivals after its heritage status, from four million tourists a year in 2000 to more than seven million. The huge interest in old Penang has boosted property values.

"Pre-war heritage property is in hot demand with immense potential capital appreciation. The demand is from both local and foreign investors," Mr Shawn Ong, asset valuation chief at Henry Butcher Penang, told The Sunday Times.

Some 2 1/2- to three-storey shoplots like those rented by Moustache Houze cost RM400,000 before Unesco status. Today, they can fetch RM1.6 million (S$628,000).

With property prices skyrocketing and becoming a political hot potato for the Pakatan Rakyat state government, the state barred foreigners from buying apartments under RM1 million and houses under RM2 million. Permanent residents, however, may buy anything that costs more than RM500,000, but not more than two units.

Established players were the first to start refurbishing shophouses and mansions in the heritage zone.

Malaysian architect Hijjas Kasturi opened the stylish Sri Penaga Hotel in Hutton Street. Renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San followed with his Sekeping Victoria, a quirky hotel and arts space in a former warehouse.

As property prices have risen, so have hotel rates. Along Chulia Street in the heart of the zone, a room at the refurbished Yeng Keng Hotel starts as low as RM325, but expect to pay more than RM1,000 for a room with butler services.

In nearby Stewart Lane, the Peranakan-themed Seven Terraces boutique spans a row of 19th-century terrace houses with an inner courtyard. Its Argus Lane Grand Suite costs RM1,300 a night. Co-owner Christopher Ong, a Penangite, had previously opened an award-winning boutique hotel in Sri Lanka.

Mr Law said: "We encourage more boutique hotels rather than budget ones to take over the old mansions and shophouses because they have the means to refurbish them and yet keep the look."

These renovations can be arduous. Often, entire systems of pipes need to be changed and old, fragile walls need to be strengthened.

"Repairs and maintenance are a full-time job. Contractors are on my speed dial," said Ms Karen Tan, chief executive of a company that operates the Syok @ Chulia Hostel and the Spices Residence in Lumut Lane.

Refurbishment for the Syok @ Chulia Hostel with its eight dorms - with extra-long double-decker beds for taller Europeans - and two rooms took nearly a year and cost "easily" RM2 million, she said.

With the influx of tourists, there is a seamier side to the heritage zone, with homeless people and drug users out in the open. But the old city now has new life.

"Five years ago George Town was dead at night, and Penangites rarely came into the city unless they had to. George Town was seen as dirty, dangerous, a place to be avoided," said American photographer David Hagerman, who has lived in Penang since 2011.

"That has changed, and that's a good thing."

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