Thanks to some savvy innkeepers, Carol West finds a revitalised slice of Penang's history in the shop-houses of George Town.
'Let me show you what life can give you," was the beguiling clincher for 37-year-old Cedric Goh when trying to persuade his wife, Har Fong, to move to Penang from Chicago, where the internationally educated Goh had been climbing the architectural corporate ladder and Fong was working as an architect in the prestigious office of minimalist Mies van der Rohe.
"I realised that the road ahead wasn't the one I wanted to be travelling on, that I wanted to make a difference in my birthplace," he says.
In 2004, the couple returned to Malaysia, but it turned out to be a bumpy road as Goh pursued a variety of design projects. Enter Cheow Sze Wei, a woman who had been brought up in an old-school guesthouse in historic George Town. Over late-night coffee-drinking sessions, the trio blue-skied business concepts, but it was the discovery of a strip of two-storey shop-houses for rent in one of George Town's lesser-known streets that gave Mango Tree Place its genesis.
"There were no locally run B&Bs in George Town and even though we had no money, we wanted it so much that we couldn't let go of the idea," says Goh, who sold his car and took out a personal loan to realise their dream. After a 12-month struggle, their quirky B&B, Mango Tree Place, is now running out of rooms as international travellers spread the word. Along the way, the couple's minimalist design ethic has married well with Penang's vibrant colour palette, and the shop-houses provide the canvas for Goh's whimsical designs to soar.
Checking in, his oversize Mango Tree Place logo elicits smiles even from overtired international arrivals. Starting with a nomadic tent, Goh added a roof diagram that became a conical hat reminiscent of local village life and two big, bright eyes. Goh describes Mango Tree Place as a home for the happy soul, something he wants guests to feel at this home away from home. Original terrazzo flooring has been lovingly retained and recycled roof tiles create internal porches.
"It's the little things that make life wonderful" is painted on a custard-yellow wall alongside a whimsical cuckoo clock and blackbirds. We're given a quick insider's guide to George Town with all that's hot and happening. "There's a free shuttle bus service used by locals and visitors to get around town," he says.
"Don't miss the fantastic organic food at Amelie Cafe and go to Komtar, Penang's tallest building, for cheap electronics. The gallery/cafe Behind 50 is a late-night hangout and don't be put off by the junk-filled shop front at 47 Muntri Street, it's great fun inside."
With that sorted, we're taken to our suite of rooms, which lie behind heavy carved-timber doors, where the original occupants would have included a couple of generations of Penangites. Our king-size bed is tucked into an alcove that was originally an air well used for drying clothes, and two white PVC cylinders, cleverly fashioned into pendant lights, dangle either side. Large windows overlook a luxuriant private courtyard with an immaculate black-and-white-tiled bathroom to one side. There's a flat-screen TV, desk, airconditioning and free wi-fi, but in the dusky heat of late afternoon, we opt for the courtyard's white wooden swing in search of passing zephyrs.
The genesis of George Town's shop-house revival ultimately springs from its UNESCO World Heritage listing. Along with stablemate Malacca, it's described as having the Strait of Malacca's "most complete surviving historic city centres ... unique architectural and cultural townscapes without parallel anywhere in east and south-east Asia".
Over several centuries, Penang has attracted traders from across Europe, the Arab world, India, China and the Indonesian archipelago, and the shop-houses that grew out of commercial enterprises represent an old way of life, something that Wei, Goh and Fong are intent on reviving.
And they're not alone. Australian Narelle McMurtrie's Straits Collection group has expanded from eclectically converted shop-house accommodation, Aussie-style cafes and galleries to the recently opened ChinaHouse, an artful incorporation of a cafe with all-day baking, restaurant, Vine & Single - a room filled with fine wines and whiskies - celebrity-chef cooking demos and the Tex-Mex Canteen bar.
Former Sydney financier Christopher Ong, who owns the boutique hotel Clove Hall, is extending his portfolio with the recently opened Muntri Mews. He's also reimagining Seven Terraces from the shells of old shop-houses in Stewart Lane. Staying in any of these revitalised shop-houses, visitors can live Penang's village atmosphere as they take the city's pulse.
The writer was the guest of AirAsia and Mango Tree Place.
Where Mango Tree Place, 29 Jalan Phuah Hin Leong, George Town, Penang, Malaysia,mangotreeplace.com.
Getting there Penang is a 25-minute flight from Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia flies daily from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur and on to Penang. 1300 760 330, airasia.com.
How much Costs from $90, including breakfast. Transfers can be arranged.
Top marks Friendly staff ensure guests tune in quickly to the best George Town has to offer.
Black marks Only breakfast, snacks, tea and coffee is provided for guests and with no microwave in rooms, opportunities to eat in-house are limited.
Don't miss Walking George Town's heritage zone, 10 minutes away.