News / Asia

New Businesses Emerging in Old Penang Shop Houses

Penang's Georgetown, known for its traditional businesses, is attracting its young locals back into this heritage enclave after it obtained UNESCO status as World Heritage Site in 2008.
Penang's Georgetown, known for its traditional businesses, is attracting its young locals back into this heritage enclave after it obtained UNESCO status as World Heritage Site in 2008.
Yong Nie

On a quiet Saturday morning in Georgetown, the capital town of Penang, Malaysia, the sound of wooden doors creaking and occasional bicycles bell chimes greet the day. The heritage town, located on the island-state in the north of Peninsular Malaysia, is a living museum. Although none of the 'exhibits' are staged.

In Georgetown, most of its residents have lived in shop houses for decades, with some properties here being passed down from generation to generation since the British colonized the island in 1786.

While the former colonial rulers have left Malaysia, which obtained its independence in 1957, a strong colonial heritage still exists in Georgetown. This is particularly true in its architecture and the street names that range from Love Lane to Campbell Street. Decades-old businesses are the major fascination in this heritage enclave, as shown by guide maps detailing traditional trades found here, including the bamboo curtain maker, beaded shoe designer and joss stick maker.

Cafes like these are opened by young locals who have seen opportunities arise in Georgetown.
Cafes like these are opened by young locals who have seen opportunities arise in Georgetown.

However, Georgetown is also seeing an influx of young locals into the town center to start new business ventures. Since the city obtained its status as a UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008, there has been a steady stream of new restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels sprouting in Georgetown, mostly operated by locals under the age of 40 who see potential in expanding the hospitality and services sector.

A major draw for the young businessmen and women is the town’s charm. “There is a growing appreciation for old shop houses by tourists and residents alike and hence, life in Georgetown is appealing for living and running businesses,” said Hung, who runs a little cafe on Armenien Street.

He said with the recognition of Georgetown as a World Heritage enclave, young businessmen and investors now find an alternative to run businesses here instead of investing in commercial centres.

Hung's cafe can barely fit 15 customers, but he doesn't seem to mind running a small business in Georgetown. “The rent here is cheap, and I am not obligated to operate at stipulated hours, unlike operating in a shopping mall. As long as I maintain my quality of service and food, I have my little following of customers that gives me consistent businesses,” Hung said.

Another cafe owner, Dickie Tan, said while it is still unconventional for young people to run businesses in Georgetown, he liked the location it provided for his cafe. “This place is far from the maddening crowd. There is a quality of charm here,” he said.

In a sanctuary that looks like a little sanctuary for tourists, Tan's cafe serves gourmet coffee and french toast dripped in honey.

Efforts to restore Georgetown's pre-war shop houses have intensified among the property owners that now have access to grants given by government agencies, making it easier for new businesses to take off the ground in the last two to three years.

But, he said most of the businesses run by the young locals in Georgetown are operated in rented premises. “There is no way that we can afford to own properties here, as they are too expensive, unless you have [$1.2 million] of spare cash,” he said.

Property prices in Georgetown have risen sharply in recent years, as a result of the heritage status that prompted investors with deep pockets to buy up properties there. “Apart from buying the property, the owners have to fork out at least [$60,000] for restoration works. We can't afford to do that, but the rich investors are able to, as they see this as an investment opportunity,” he said.

Hung explained that some investors snap up properties in Georgetown to flip them when prices go up for capital gains. “But, I cannot afford to do this. I am also not interested in acquiring shop houses to sell them eventually, as I am a local born and bred in Penang. This means that my businesses are here to stay for the long-term.”

Dickie Tan said having foreign investors acquiring shop houses in Georgetown is good for his businesses, as it will introduce new visitors to the heritage enclave. “Georgetown needs fresh ideas to bring in a variety of tourists as well as local patrons. These investors may target a high-end market, but bringing a niche crowd into Georgetown will keep this part of town alive and also help my businesses grow.”

He said since the concept of running businesses is still new among young businessmen, most of the new operations sprouting in Georgetown are mainly in the food and beverage industry. “It is more a more sustainable model at this point of time.” But, he has set sights in opening a bookshop in this heritage enclave, if a well-maintained shop house is available for rent.

Nazlina Hussin preparing ingredients for her cooking class that is held in a rented pre-war shop house in Georgetown, Penang.
Nazlina Hussin preparing ingredients for her cooking class that is held in a rented pre-war shop house in Georgetown, Penang.

Nevertheless, new business ideas are emerging in Georgetown. Nazlina Hussin runs a cooking class in a pre-war shop house in Love Lane, which includes teaching tourists, mostly from Western countries, about local spices, Malay cuisine and giving market tours to her students.

“My business targets tourists that stay longer in Georgetown and are looking for a unique experience while staying here. Therefore, Georgetown is my natural choice as a business location because this is where the tourists are centred,” she said.

Nazlina said young Malaysians have returned to Penang to operate businesses in recent years after gaining experience running businesses abroad. “Those that have lived abroad are [savvier] in knowing how to appeal to a younger and Western-influenced crowd. So, they tend to understand the market that suits Georgetown today, especially since Penang is a popular destination among Western tourists,” she said.

As the young business community grows in Georgetown, so are the friendships growing among the owners. “We practically know everybody running the new businesses here, as Georgetown is still a small place and [it] is relatively easy to run into each other,” Nazlina said.

You May Like

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid