Making Penang home

Updated: 21 Aug 2012

Big things are happening for the little island and it’s not just tourists pouring in to check out the food, heritage sites and beaches. Plenty of visitors have arrived, fallen in love with the island lifestyle and made Penang home (or at least their holiday home). Words Rosalind Chua

It’s interesting times in Penang – the island has a whole new vibe and seems to be on every travel channel or glossy magazine recently. To get to the bottom of this magnetic attraction between the rest of the world and Penang I cornered the Negotiator. What the Negotiator doesn’t know about desirable property in Penang is not worth knowing, she works for an established realtor and is a walking rolodex of contacts, sq ft, walk-in wardrobes and infinity pools. The Negotiator lifts the lid on Penang’s booming property scene. For a compact island, Penang offers a wide range of property options from typical bungalows and apartments to charming heritage homes and ecohouses off the grid. According to the Negotiator, Penang’s popularity as ‘place to call’ home has sky-rocketed over the past few years. ‘Everybody is interested in Penang, from European expats, to local investors looking for a holiday home, Singaporeans, Hong Kong-ites and mainland Chinese. Ever since George Town was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, there have been plenty of potential buyers interested in heritage properties.’ The inner city’s charm is apparent and plenty of new eateries, watering holes and boutique hotels have sprung up adding some international flavour to the neighbourhood. Despite the influx, George Town has retained its quirky charms, is well-served by public transport and is within easy reach of coffee shops, sundry shops and wet markets.

It’s not just international buyers looking for a piece of paradise as the Negotiator was quick to point out that local roots run deep. ‘I have plenty of clients who are Penangites living overseas. No matter where they end up, they’ll come home eventually to retire.’ Many local retirees have opted for the convenience and security of high-rise living; the northern tip of the island from Tanjong Tokong to Batu Ferringhi is especially popular thanks to the sweeping sea views and easy beach access. There are plenty of super condos on show, with private lift access, private gardens and pools and, of course, plenty of space.

For the international crowd, Penang is extremely popular for its all round sunny weather, beaches and cosmopolitan atmosphere. The island may be dinky but it has all the amenities of a developed city with the charm of a tropical island. There are plenty of sizeable expat communities in Penang, so making new friends and carving out a new social life is relatively easy. ‘The Hong Kong-ites and mainland Chinese love the relaxed pace of life here,’ explained the Negotiator. ‘Life is slower by comparison, but yet not that slow!’

Penang is such a melting pot of cultures, cuisines, heritage and traditions so it’s no surprise that its real estate offerings are also pretty varied. Apart from the more typical condominiums and landed properties on offer, are alternative homes that truly reflect their inhabitants’ passions and personalities – a ‘recycled’ ecohouse with a tiny energy footprint and a heritage shophouse that doubles up as a home and cozy café.

Writer Gabija Grusaite and artist Ernst Zacharevic live in a traditional shophouse in the George Town World Heritage Site. Fed up with experiencing pollution and traffic while travelling in Sumatra, they flew to Penang with every intention of moving on to Thailand. However, they ended up staying. Gabija explained, ‘When people ask me why we decided to stay here, I tell them that it was Penang that chose us! We made friends so quickly and there were so many things to do, that days turned into weeks and weeks into months before we realised that we were going to be staying put for a while.’

Of all the places you could have chosen to live in, why a shophouse in George Town? The couple decided to stay around the Armenian Street area since a good friend of theirs had a house there. Apart from that, George Town was the ideal location for ‘people not willing to drive around a lot, because everything is so close, you can get away cycling or walking. The abundance of food was one of the reasons as well.’

However, things were not all rosy. ‘The house we live in was in a horrible condition - dirty, with peeling paint and a leaking roof,’ Gabija said. ‘There was a tree growing in through the roof and it made quite a big hole. It took about a month to clean and renovate the house. We did not do any major renovations – we just painted the walls, ceilings and floor, and installed electricity and water. The house was unfurnished so we had to get all the basic things like tables, chairs and sofas that were kindly donated by our friends.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. ‘I am really happy with the end result; the interior is really cosy and chic. The other thing about living in a heritage house is the fact that you are never the sole tenant – there are lizards, bats, mice, rats and so many other animals living with you that in the end you just have to give up and accept them. Except rats – we can’t accept rats! Overall, we are pretty happy about our life in George Town.’

IT’S EASY BEING GREEN: the eco-house
Kim and Eric Chong built their dream, green home in the lush hills of Balik Pulau. Their weekend lodge set on a sprawling 16-acre durian estate is the culmination of Eric’s boyhood dream and passion for nature. As a young boy Eric’s favourite memories are the ones where he was outdoors, hiking, fishing and diving. ‘I used to fish and hunt with my dad. We never bought fish, we always caught our own and the fridge would also be full of wild boar!’

Determined to build ‘Green Acres’ from the ground up, Eric visited a timber merchant in order to source recycled wood. ‘In the end the guy told me, instead of buying wood, buy a whole house! He showed us an old kampung house that we fell in love with. It was completely dismantled in about four days and trucked to Penang. This took about five or six round trips.’ That was just the start: reassembling the house in its new environment on a hill slope took another year to complete and the results are certainly impressive and sustainable to boot. For starters, solar panels were installed to generate energy, Eric chose energy-saving LED bulbs throughout to minimise electricity usage. Drinking water is provided from a natural spring on the estate, and the water is pumped to the house with a ramp pump that doesn’t require any electricity.

Eric keenly pointed out that ‘Green Acres’ is a working organic farm, and the previous landowner still lives on the estate as the farm manager. He lets us know that no chemical fertilisers are used on the durian, cempedak, rambutan and ciku trees. Moreover, a few times a year Eric and his family roll up their sleeves and get down to the tough business of harvesting. ‘Maintenance is part of the deal, everybody forgets that a farm doesn’t look pretty by itself!'.

Tags: Features