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Expatraite Lifestyle magazine
August 2009

Expatriate Lifestyles visits Penang

"Ireland!" 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.

The 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.

PENANG 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.

I'm 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.

There's 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.

It 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.

Accommodating 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.

At 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 widely.

As 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.

For 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."

Adam 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.

"It's 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 don't last.

The 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.

"Penang 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.

Ann 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.

We've 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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