City and country slogans are often cringingly bad. Incredible this, amazing that. The “Pearl of the Orient” is one of the few exceptions that ring true.
Malaysia’s small but satisfyingly formed Penang Island shines like a gem, from its photogenic heritage town (now spruced up) to its jungle-clad hills. It’s impossible not to feel seduced by it.
Penang was my first Asian destination, way back in pre-smartphone 2002 when a camera roll of 36 exposures was a luxury, and I was entranced by its exotic smells, wildlife, cultural celebrations, heritage, and prawn mee with belacan. It looked like a sprawling film-set, and the “Asia” I’d imagined.
On my second visit, in 2009, a beautiful young Malaysian couple ahead of me in a street food queue started a conversation that ended with an invitation to their wedding the following month. I returned weeks later; a random, wide-eyed foreigner attending a traditional Chinese wedding. Oddly enough, I had to wear a pair of disposable underwear over my trousers – but that’s a story for another time, as they say.
That’s the kind of place Penang is – blessed by the (many) gods – and in the years since, I have been drawn back again and again.
In more recent years, Penang has undergone a renaissance of sorts. First, Unesco World Heritage status put it firmly on the international map, resulting in a flurry of boutique hotel and hipster coffee shop openings, giant murals painted on buildings, and steel rod caricatures (some with a tacky feel) labelling key streets. The town bubbles with cultural events like the annual George Town Festival.
And people have noticed. The accolades keep coming. Last year, Lonely Planet named George Town fourth in the Top 10 Cities list for Best in Travel 2016. Conde Nast Traveller named Penang among the best places in the world for retirement.
Second, with its past a major asset that pulls in the tourists (some might say too many), George Town is now looking to its future. There is a crackle in the air, and possibly even a cheeky wink at its bigger and more conservative cousin Kuala Lumpur.
George Town is fizzing with startup energy. Mostly famous for brilliant startup Piktochart (the go to website for infographics), new projects are popping up like mushrooms after a tropical downpour.
The town’s startup culture has been aided by the recent opening of a grand coworking space near the waterfront, @CAT.
Set within a hundred-year colonial heritage building that had laid abandoned for 40 years, Wisma Yeap Chor Ee, @CAT is an ideal location for creative inspiration (film buffs might also recognise it as a filming location for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). Of course I had to check it out on my first visit to Penang in more than a year.
I was kindly shown around @CAT by Community & Operations COO & Partnerships Director Zoey Teoh, who explained that the co-working space was supported by the Penang State Government (hence the amazing location) and that its ultimate purpose was to appeal to foreign investors.
Penang was ideally suited to tech startups, Zoey added, saying that both it and Silicon Valley shared an electronics industry heritage. (They’re also on the west coast and have long-ish bridges, and that’s probably where the similarities end.) There’s also a bit of Silicon Valley at @CAT, with people from Google and what not coming over for events.
The @CAT community is made up mostly of freelance coders and digital marketers, several of whom are digital nomads who come and go (Zoey said that they were always pleased to see familiar faces return). But there were corporate faces too – two big companies (unnamed) had sent staff over to scope out the Penang scene.
Alongside a board naming startups there was a wish list. Top of the list was coffee (and why not – it tops my to do list every day), which was somewhat of a surprise as there was a huge cafe downstairs.
The Penang Science Cafe was impressive enough in its own right, replete with interesting books that didn’t include the usual tatty airport novels left behind by backpackers. There was even a 3D printed model of Penang Bridge to gaze at.
But here’s the really fun part: in an adjoining room there were things to tinker with that included a Raspberry Pi and – how else to write this – an aircraft. So in theory, you could wander over with a flat white and stare at a Cessna.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, you could probably build your own Sky Hawk II minutes later. Across an outside courtyard with potted plants there was a Makerspace and Garage with enough gizmos to make Q from the 007 movies blush. It was an electronics, woodworking and metalworking playground where you could probably just about make anything, apart from Mars exploration rovers.
I could have lingered for hours at the Wisma Yeap Chor Ee building. For young creative Penangites, it’s the stuff of fantasy. For digital nomads and entrepreneurs, it’s an affordable place to work and mingle.
Conveniently, it’s also a few Andaman island hops from Thailand’s Koh Lanta, the scene of coworking community KoHub, which would make a fun trip – something to think about if you’re stuck in a beige office on a grey November day.