There is an overwhelming range of hotels now in George Town and they all claim to be ‘heritage’. Penang is poised at the cusp of deciding which route to follow: scratch the surface with the masses, or create real experiences that encourage visitors to return time and time again?
A few new establishments will raise the level of quality, service, experience and hospitality across the board. ‘Heritage’ will be re-interpreted and be thrown into the realms of the modern world. Heritage and contemporary attitudes will be integrated into spaces that keep buildings intact, where ‘mid-range’ doesn’t have to mean bad service, where places can inspire, and stories can come alive.
Penang is attracting returning Penangites and Malaysians who have moved lock, stock and barrel in order to add their own vision to the continuing evolution of Penang and George Town.
The great thing about Sinkeh is that you can actually miss it! It is discreetly marked by a dark green liana growing up its plain concrete frontage with a tall wooden door to the side. It’s a contemporary take on the shophouse frontage, but so minimal that it blends in perfectly with its surroundings. Once inside, the warehouse atmosphere is enhanced with wood, rubbed lime walls, glass and raw cement.
Functional is key in the ground floor space. Sinkeh is a place to come and experiment. Chee Sek Thim, the owner, has spent his life immersed in theatre and is creating programmes where artists participate in workshops on direction, movement and acting. The working space can open or enclose, with theatre lighting systems and sound equipment. Perfect for developing ideas for more ambitious projects, Sinkeh puts 20 sen of every ringgit earned back into programming. Guests contribute to building a sustainable arts culture in Penang. Introductory rates start at RM230 for a double room.
Sinkeh provides three single rooms and six doubles. The rooms are comfortable and contemporary and guests can relax in the library and the open patio upstairs. Perfect for arts-inclined singles and couples, and for those catching the arts programmes and festivals that happen throughout the year in George Town. It’s located on Malay Street, within a great food and market district. Malay Street has many warehouse businesses still in operation so the atmosphere is really ‘authentic’. This is a bonus.
The name ‘Sinkeh’ translates as ‘New Arrival’. Sek Thim is among the new wave of Penangites who left for bright lights elsewhere, now returning to build on opportunities arising with the growth of arts, heritage and culture in the State. As with all owner hosted guesthouses, the atmosphere created is special. He tells me that the silkworm cocoons in the glass jars in the entrance belonged to his mother. She bred them on Mulberry bushes at home in the hope of making plush silk-filled cushions. It is stories like this that you can take home with you now. Why would anyone want to stay in an ordinary hotel room again?
It’s not often that you arrive at a three-star multi-storey hotel with 131 rooms and think, ‘This looks good!’ GLOW is in a previously unassuming but newly refurbished building on Macalister Road. There is colour, fun, ‘real’ artwork by the Malaysian artist Zaini Zainul, a trendy vibe and friendly, energetic staff who actually look at you when you talk to them.
GLOW is a collaboration between The Nomad Group Bhd, Brand Bon Ton Sdn Bhd, and Zinc/In Vision Hospitality. It’s a great team and good news for the modern traveller. It is all about ‘basics done well’ according to the Director of Operations of the newly formed BT Zinc Sdn Bhd, Alison Fraser. This definitely comes across.
What do you get? Definitely value for money. Bedding that’s better than home, WiFi, a great shower, a hearty breakfast and access to a gym and pool. The rooms are decorated to a formula, smart and bright. There are choices of four singles, or a queen with a single, catering for a group of friends or a family. Couples, single travellers or business people can opt for any of the 17 rooms with queen-sized beds.
The lobby and all-day dining areas are compact, and the pool, small gym and bar are placed for easy access. A private meeting room with computer stations is available for small business events. This transforms into a private dining room with the restaurant Zest providing fusion dishes that include a great burger and a beautiful vegetarian platter. Tiffins can be ordered to your room.
GLOW has positioned itself as a mark of quality in its range. It will ‘up the ante’ and possibly cause quality and service expectations to rise across the field. This is a good thing for the whole hotel industry in Penang. Take advantage of the opening promotional rate of RM188 nett inclusive of breakfast. The average room rate is set at RM200+ nett.
Before the more ostentatious mansions of the late 1800s, the merchant houses along China Street were the first grand residences of George Town and Penang. The East Indies Mansion, with its colourful façade and cutwork decorations, belonged to the great Chinese merchant Koh Lay Huan, whom Francis Light described as ‘a wily old fox’. Koh assisted the entry of the East India Company into Penang. He helped organise the first police forces, designed the roads and drainage system and brought pepper cultivation to the island. This house is his only remaining tangible legacy.
Here, guests can really experience life within the confines of one of these grand merchant homes in the heart of town where even today, the street patterns have not changed since they were laid.
It was restored into a private family home in late 2008 and upon changing hands, the interiors were decorated with vintage items, colour and decorative elements that highlight the history of the house as a private residence. These heritage buildings possess their own ecosystem, and the mindful restoration of this building to its original design really allows guests to enjoy the natural airflow created by the air wells and garden courtyards.
The East Indies Mansion offers two suites with a bedroom and a living room, two family apartments with two bedrooms and a central living room, and three double rooms. All rooms have access to a courtyard or terrace area. The rental rates range from RM250 to RM650 with an increase during peak periods.
The house is ideal for celebratory gatherings and the garden courtyards and central hall areas are perfect for weddings and tea ceremonies. One can really relax and feel at home here, moving from one space to another at different times of the day.
If there is one showcase guesthouse project in George Town, this would be it. As the oldest Chinese Medical Hall in Penang, the impressive Yin Oi Tong served the local community for 124 years. It has been reborn as Ren I Tang.
Ren I Tang, the phonetic spelling in Mandarin of Yin Oi Tong, translates as 'Hall of Benevolence';. Indeed, the 'Gang of Four' proprietors from KL, Low Teng Lei, Low Teng Chui, Ahmad Zulqarnain and Eu Yeok Siew are big hearted and altruistic. After they garnered support from the State heritage authorities and worked with NGOs and the local community, the lease was secured with Cheah Kongsi after the original Yin Oi Tong medical hall moved out in 2009. Since then, this team has restored this building and has seen the return of the Chinese herbalist to the premises – a marvellous achievement.
The integrity of the building is intact and enhanced by the reuse of old timber, items and materials found on site. These efforts brought together experienced artisans: a window glass maker, a carpenter, bertam blind makers, metal workers and rattan weavers. Finally, the application of modern energy-saving systems make the place sustainable and eco-friendly.
Ren I Tang offers 17 stylish rooms over two floors, each individually designed, incorporating architectural details such as air wells, balconies and courtyards. The colours are milky and calm and inspire a sense of well-being. Couples, singles and families can choose from the range of rooms on offer. Rental rates range from RM180 to RM380.
The street-side Tang Bistro is exclusive to guests at breakfast time, but later on it offers a selection of dishes including a noodle and chicken broth made with herbs mixed by the medical hall, a delicious homemade laksa, and old club-style food like chicken brisket and a steak sandwich. The kalamansi ice really hits the spot.
The museum displays tools of the medical trade. Gunny sacks, herbs, containers, packets of lipstick paste, old packaging paper, stag horns and vintage items left behind in the hall have been carefully kept, and conjure up the workings of the original Yin Oi Tong trade. In the Medical Hall next door, make an appointment with Priscilla Chong, a certified practitioner and an original family member. She will assess your health and suggest herbal concoctions to restore and revitalise your body.
Guests will enjoy a real sense of nostalgia and whimsy here. And thanks to the management's preference for using locally sourced items, such as recycled vegetable oil liquid cleaners, Ren I Tang has already slipped into being part of the local neighbourhood.
New arrivals at Weld Quay
The Rice Miller hotel is a luxury boutique development that comprises only 48 suites. Opening its doors in the third quarter of 2014, it is part of a wider project that includes office buildings, restaurants, retail areas and low rise residences. The Rice Miller certainly breathes new life into the waterfront area of Weld Quay and it creates a unique haven full of life and vitality.
This hotel is part of The Royale Bintang Hotels & Resorts group and is managed by Boustead Hotels & Resorts Sdn. Bhd. Its address, No. 1 Weld Quay, housed the Penang Branch of Boustead & Co. a British firm founded in Singapore by businessman Edward Boustead. Situated overlooking the harbour, its impressive frontage is now restored to its former glory. 180 rooms over six storeys with views over Weld Quay.