Lifestyles visits Penang
the crowd shouts for the eighth time toward six bottles of whisky
at the front of the room. They're not calling to the liquor though.
Instead, at the head of the hall stands Eugene, quizmaster for
the Penang Irish Association's second quiz night. We've just had
a warm-up round of questions and, as if the wine and beers weren't
enough, Eugene has devised 20 questions with the answer to each
either Ireland or something typically Irish. The crowd loves it,
and it's not just Irish expats here. In front of my team-Strolling
Bones, consisting of two Irishmen, one Englishman, and one that's
not quite sure-gathers a group of Indians; to the right are The
Internationals and behind, on the table that eventually wins,
I spot at least one Englishwoman, and probably a few Irish too.
ruckus recedes and up steps the president of PIA, Maggie T. There's
a huge cheer, partly because many have had a few drinks and partly
because Maggie is a very popular woman here, and she introduces
the format and rules: ten rounds of ten questions; one point per
fully correct answer; and teams can buy two answers for RM10 each
per round. We shan't be doing that, my competitive streak brags,
before admitting defeat shortly after hearing the first ten questions.
The night raised over RM1,800.
HOSTS the second largest expatriate community in Malaysia, attracting
residents with its slower pace of life and beachside lifestyle.
Life seems easy on the island-the local coffee-shop culture of
years past still exists, and expatriate societies, groups and
associations cater well to foreigners. They've brought the kopitiam
meets and hawker chats indoors to their spacious, sea-view apartments.
at one such morning. Maggie, also the co-founder of the Food Friends
group, has invited a group of friends to her Gurney Drive condo
for tea, finger foods and a catch up. They are all older than
me, all more feminine than me, and most live here in Penang, yet
I don't feel at all out of place. I'm welcomed, as I imagine all
newcomers to the island are, with open arms and a cup of freshly-brewed
tea, milk, no sugar. Mayumi Kokshoorn, a Japanese expat, is the
first to introduce me to life here. With cup and saucer in hand,
she explains how Penang contrasts to her previous stints in Kuala
Lumpur then Singapore. "Of course it's quieter, but I like
the lifestyle, it's very relaxed." That's an opinion I become
accustomed to hearing as Maggie urges me to tuck into a plate
of Parma ham and another of scones. "Go on," Mayumi
says, "she's very good at this." The ladies meet regularly,
and everyone knows their role as they gather around the dining
room table. There are plenty of expatriate groups in Penang, and
a number are represented here this morning.
been nothing unusual so far-barring, perhaps, my small invasion
of a regular coffee morning-and, in truth, we could be anywhere.
So I turn the talk to Penang: how is life here as an expat? All
the women smile, clearly satisfied with the sun, sand and accommodation.
Is there much to do beyond the obvious tourist attractions? There's
a resounding "yes," and Maggie explains how some people
moan about a lack of activity yet don't even try to get involved.
Take the theatre, she says, "People complain about not having
theatre, nothing going on. But then they go back home and only
go to the theatre once anyway. They could do more than that in
Penang." Everyone agrees that a certain level of initial
effort is required to get involved in Penang's happenings. "You
get as much back as you put in," Leigh Pratt, president of
the International Women's Association, Penang, says simply. Of
course that runs true for any city in the world and, really, getting
into the activities here isn't too difficult. With established
associations for Irish, French and German nationals, for food
lovers and for women, there are many access points for newcomers.
Even at this single coffee morning I've met two association presidents,
one vice-president, a magazine editor, two group founders and
three or four women involved in various hash groups. On a small
island like this, networks can build so quickly, and that's part
of what makes the expatriate life in Penang so comforting yet
so interesting. "It's homely here," many of the women
tell me throughout the morning. And later, Tom Lee, an Irish expat
working at the mainland power station, agrees. "It's so safe
as well," he says, in comparison to his hometown and other
European cities. "Back at home, you can't walk around after
dark!" he tells me, "but in Penang you just don't feel
threatened." That's an increasingly attractive factor considering
the rise in crime in the Klang Valley of late.
is also, surely, playing a part in the massive influx of foreigners
under the Malaysia My Second Home programme. The scheme that brings
retired expatriates to Malaysia with benefits including reduced
taxes and a promise of a warm, pleasant lifestyle has had an enormous
impact on the island in recent years. "There are a lot of
British, Japanese, Singaporeans and Koreans coming in," Sandie
Lenton, an Englishwoman herself here under the programme, says.
The slower pace of life on the island is a big attraction for
older expatriates that typically don't require such a buzzing
nightlife scene. At the moment though, despite the newcomers,
numbers are still manageable. "Penang is a secret,"
Leigh says. People on the outside can't see the benefits, don't
know of the events and activities that residents enjoy. It's part
of what creates the homely, mellow feel on the island. So is Leigh
worried about the increase in foreign residents? "No,"
she says flatly, because Penang will retain its charm, and she
relishes helping the new arrivals settle in. In fact, IWA have
already seen a large increase in numbers of members and subscribers
to their Expressions magazine.
the newcomers-and preparations for even more in the near future-means
that Penang is currently undergoing a lot of construction. The
island has seen large development in recent years. "It's
unrecognisable," Judith Ellidge, editor of Expressions, says.
"Visitors that haven't been here for one or two years say:
'that's new; that wasn't there before.'" While a certain
level of development is of course necessary, Judith thinks it
has been excessive, mentioning the new compounds that dominate
the hillside towards Batu Feringgi. "I keep thinking I'm
going to turn the corner and see a house in the middle of the
road," Davina Dunn, Maggie's partner in Food Friends, jokes.
And Bibi Van Germet, an avid hash runner, adds her concerns for
the natural health and sustainability of the island. "There's
plastic everywhere," she says. Even in the supposedly protected
national park, the kampungs are dumping waste. "And there's
so much deforestation" that you only see when you venture
off the popular jungle trails. As a long-time hasher in Penang,
Bibi knows the smaller, less followed tracks like the back of
her hand and explains that construction is really eating into
the island. "I mean the farmers claim a little bit of jungle,
but the developers are just destroying it," she complains
at the lack of programmes or initiatives to keep Penang clean
and green. In the Klang Valley recently at least, as we reported
in the last issue, corporations and authorities are stepping up
conservation efforts. Is there anything similar in Penang? "No,
nothing," the ladies call together.
present though, Penang is teaming with outdoor activity, from
running and cycling to water sports and trekking. It will take
quite something to wipe out the lot but nevertheless, steps need
to be taken to maintain what residents and tourists currently
enjoy. And that could be the key to saving the island's environment:
tourism, and crucially, Georgetown's UNESCO World Heritage Site
status. The title was "supposed to double tourist numbers,"
says Ashwin Gunasekeran, Events manager for Tourism Penang. That
didn't quite happen last year, he admits, but numbers rose significantly
and efforts to keep them doing so are clear across the island.
Tourist signs in the city centre point the way to heritage trails
and unique architecture, and further afield, attractions are advertised
a travel destination, Penang is fascinating, and it's about to
become a lot more interesting for families too, Ashwin says, with
the Hard Rock Hotel opening in September this year. "It's
going to draw a lot of people in for us, of course," he says.
Hotels and resorts on the island are also anticipating the launch
of Hard Rock's eleventh property of this type worldwide. The Shangri-La
group opened the Adventure Zone between two of their hotels-Golden
Sands Resort and Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa-at the end of 2007.
Now they face direct competition from the renowned family-friendly
resort just kilometres along the Batu Feringgi coastline. There
are many advantages to Penang, says Christian Nannucci, resident
manager at Rasa Sayang. It has a "nice and relaxed culture
[for living] but also with the weekend break potential with the
beach and resorts just a drive from KL." It makes sense as
a family holiday destination, but Christian is confident that
the new competition won't steal all of his guests. It's inevitable
that such a recognisable resort will attract new tourists to Penang,
and for that, the other properties should be grateful.
expatriates here though, things shouldn't change too dramatically
(save, perhaps, for more than a few visits to the Hard Rock Café),
and plenty of activity remains. Groups like Maggie and Davina's
Food Friends will continue to grow as they have done since 2006.
The pair started out with mornings like the one I'm attending.
Now, Davina tells me, they can get over 100 people at events sometimes.
"But there's regularly 30 or 40 in attendance," she
says, and they've recently collaborated with some of Penang's
top hotel chefs for popular cooking classes and food tips. "It
was a good time," laughs Adam Roy of Rasa Sayang's Feringgi
Grill restaurant, one of the participants. "The ladies are
great and every time it gets raunchier and raunchier. But they're
a good, good group of ladies."
has only been in Penang for three months but he's already getting
a feel for what life as an expat is like. Though he's not one
for joining the expatriate societies, he tells me, he's quite
happy to do the cooking demonstrations and "meets a lot of
people through functions here and there.
a small island," he says, "really you could go anywhere
and you'll find somebody in the supermarket, you'll find somebody
in the movie theatre, you'll find somebody in the shopping mall,
out on the hawker stall you'll see somebody and somebody will
see you too. It's okay, it's just a different kind [of life].
I've lived in bigger cities before so this is just a little bit…
well, it's more personal actually, and people know what's going
on." That has its advantages, especially for the associations
looking to get their word out, and it means that many expats here
are well connected. "Where should we try for dinner then?"
I ask the ladies. The names, including many of the high-end hotels'
eateries, come thick and fast, and Maggie says that she has a
number of restaurants on rotation. "I have my Wednesday restaurants,
my Thursday restaurants, Friday restaurants…" she laughs.
"But you always know you're going to get a good meal from
The Eclectic, Bagan, and Bella Italia and Mario's in Batu Feringgi."
The number of fine restaurants may be limited compared to the
Klang Valley but those that are here are good. They have to be
to survive on an island as passionate and knowledgeable about
its food as Penang. And as Adam says, word travels fast and sub-standards
close-knit community doesn't suit everyone though. "I'm pulling
my hair out," says Tom, a 27-year-old Brit working in Penang.
During the week, nightlife is deadly quiet. Even the main strip
of Upper Penang Road in front of the E&O hotel-complete with
Slippery Senoritas and Soho a bit further down-sees barely a patron
from Monday to Wednesday. The bands keep playing though, and the
waiters still hawk, giving the street an eerie absence. But on
the weekend, I'm told, these bars and clubs, plus a few that are
closed in the week, light up. I can see how; there's plenty of
choice in a confined area and drinks are well priced. "The
faces are always the same though," Tom says. The proprietor
of a nearby restaurant sympathises. "KL has a buzz, you know,"
says Dave of Salsas next to the Continental Hotel on Jalan Penang.
"Penang is mellow. If you want quiet with coffee shops and
cheap lifestyle, you come here. But [KL's] buzz attracts the youngsters."
Dave's restaurant does well, thanks to returning custom, he says,
and though he is clearly a fan of the life here, he is philosophical
about its problems.
is like a small person wearing a big hat. Everything is jumbled
up here. In KL there is space to expand, to move out. But Penang
is an island; we have nowhere to go." It's true; the popular
expatriate areas have become-or if they haven't yet, are becoming-very
cramped. Tanjung Bungah, Tanjung Tokong and Gurney Drive form
a desirable triangle (except that it's actually more of a line
across the north-east of the island), especially for expats. The
areas are modern, well connected and offer tremendous views, but
Gurney Drive in particular is lined almost entirely with tall,
luxury condos and hotels. Land, therefore, comes at a large premium
with prices rising along with the tourist and expatriate numbers.
Property here is now highly sought; those that bought just five
years ago are enjoying the profits, and those that didn't are
wishing they did.
Marie O'Toole, vice-president of the PIA, describes her apartment
at The Cove in Tanjung Bungah. "It's the block of four dominoes,"
she says, "each floor is an apartment-6,000 sq ft-and it
overlooks the sea, jungle and Georgetown with glass all around
the outside." Other units in the condo, Ann Marie says, are
now selling for more than double the price she paid just a year
ago. I'm told similar stories by most of the ladies at the coffee
morning, many of whom feel settled now in Penang for good. It's
the typical story: arrive in Malaysia on a temporary contract,
fall for the lifestyle and end up retiring here. Batu Feringgi
is more popular with some of the older MM2H residents, but for
expats working in Penang-with jobs typically on the mainland or
the south of the island-Tanjung Bungah and east is more favourable,
the women say. They then all laugh when I ask how bad traffic
really is over the bridge at rush hour. Yes, it's bad-inevitably
so with the amount of jobs off the island and homes on it. Relief
could come in the form of a second bridge serving the lower half
of the island but any form of completion is a long way away. For
the moment, therefore, very little can be done to avoid the backlogs
at peak times. "So I just leave early," Tom Lee tells
me before pulling out another RM10 note for an answer back at
the quiz night.
not done particularly well but that shouldn't matter. I've had
a glimpse into expatriate activity in Penang, and as Eugene closes
the quiz and hands out the whisky, it seems natural for this close-knit
community to come together for a midnight celebration. It's Maggie
T's birthday and her role in this community is evidently appreciated
so it's with a great cheer from the crowd that she receives a
bunch of flowers from Ann Marie. Everyone is in support; even
the bitterest of the losing teams: ours.
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