Party in The Past

Under the nurturing glow of spotlights, Penang’s historic architecture creates and eerily mesmerising back-drop to go out on the town.  James Springer finds out the best places to go in the UNESCO party centre of Georgetown, Penang.

Since being granted UNESCO World Heritage status in July 2008, Georgetown has enjoyed a myriad of occasions to appreciate some of Asia’s greatest architecture. The allure of historic culture paired within an exotic location has made Georgetown a ‘must see’ destination highlighted by a turned page in most peoples guidebooks of Malaysia. Interestingly, Georgetown gained this prestigious status through its attention of the following UNESCO criteria:

  • to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
  • to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
  • to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

The potential for a night out, then, seems to be pretty special to say the least. To remember that you will be socialising within ‘an important interchange of human values’ will ease that fear of a lack of conversation; to realise that drinks will be flowing under neon-lighting and the scantily clad in a place that bears ‘a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition’ creates a confusing mix of energy destined to hold the excitement;  and to top it all off – the beauty of enjoying either just good company or a wild binge amongst some of the finest architecture, viewed as an ‘outstanding example,’  in the Straits of Malacca if not the world.

Clearly, the preliminary measures in the mind of the party-goer are subconsciously checked off with flying colours. Locals or ex-pats alike all hit the town with an inimitable feeling encouraging them to make the most of the night to come, creating great energy and a friendly, vibrant atmosphere. Needless to say by creating such a hospitable environment, Georgetown caters for socialisers, pleasure-seekers and hedonists alike. But which places are best for these caricatures?

Thumping out tunes into a communal high street, Upper Penang Road (commonly referred to as UPR) is no exception to the heady mix of modern and bygone. The gauntlet of bars and clubs fill the air with the latest pop hits stirring the kaleidoscopically coloured air into an atmosphere designed to quicken the blood and send feet strutting. Boasting clubs such as Slippery Signoritas – a lynchpin in the island’s clubbing scene- Mois and Voodoo, bistro pubs and bars and restaurants not to mention Georgetown’s only cabaret bar Boom Boom Chambre. Being such a mecca for nightlife, UPR has structured and rejuvenated Penang’s going out scene. It has brought together bar and club operators in one spot where the revelry can be monitored and shared. As if it was not enough, this stretch is nestled in a triangle of heritage with the E&O Hotel a lone guardian watching from the top of UPR on Lebuh Farquhar, Cheong Fat Tze Mansion (known as the Blue Mansion) to the south-east on Lebuh Leith and Georgetown’s famous Protestant Cemetery to the south-west making sure famous names such as Captain Francis Light and Thomas Leonowens (husband of Anne Leonowens, the Royal Governess to Mongkut – King of Siam) don’t miss out on the action.

Hugely aniticipated after the island-versal hit Bagan and now open, Macalister Mansion has carved an ornate hole for itself in the Penang nightlife scene. Oozing with class and a more up-market feel to anywhere else, this venue caters for predilections like a Swiss army knife does for odd jobs. Concealed inside its starch-white, filigreed walls is a hotel, dining room and bar. If you would like to indulge in some fine cuisine along with a couple of bottles of wine then the Dining Room would suit your fancy, nurturing your mood with its mellow and minimalist white décor. If cocktails and beer are more on your mind then Bagan Bar is probably the better option. With a contemporary but New-York style, bohemian feel (felt, gold, pattern, drapes… you know the look) night owls are treated to a live band, huge Hoegaarden beers and inventive cocktails such as the Ernest Hemmingway as well as much more; a refreshing cosmopolitan vibe raising the ‘bar’ for city nightlife in Penang.

If, however, one is looking for something ‘less heady and more steady’ then Georgetown is brimming with casual drinking holes to start a night, nurse a finished one or relax after a long week day. Penang’s wine culture is an aspect growing to rival its neighbours in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore but which hopefully it will never match. Like Penang itself, it is a relief that it still remains quaint and provincial and not saturated by a wine bar on every corner so that it retains a little quality in replacement of quantity. That Little Wine Bar just outside Georgetown along Burma Road hosts an early evening crowd looking for European food and world-wide wine. Without trimmings, the simple yet sophisticated interior adds a touch of comfort to the former government servant accommodation buildings, dignifiedly retaining their homely feel.

ChinaHouse should also be on a socialite’s radar, growing into an institutional food and beverage compound and a home for 14 existing spaces with shops, cafés, restaurants, galleries and theatre. Of particular note to the drinkers in the audience are the quaint wine lounge and The Canteen, the buildings bar which at night comes alive while playing host to contemporary musical artists from around Malaysia. Designed by the owner Narelle McMurtrie, her love of antique heritage shines through in the tasteful way the rooms pop with modern furnishings surrounded by original walls and fixtures belonging to the traditional shop house’s initial interior.

With this eclectic mix of modern and old, giddy and relaxed Georgetown is turning into a classy place to go out. By catering for different drinking demographics and persuasions its allure of partying within living and breathing heritage introduces a refreshing authenticity to the sought after ‘rustic’ atmosphere. As clubs and bars around the world try to replicate the use of traditional architecture in the aim of creating a boutique feel, George Town in Penang hits the nail on the head by simply being real.


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