OUCH. I can feel the searing heat of the midday sun scorching my back through the flimsy covering of my dress. My head, completely bare, is starting to throb as I impatiently weave my way past the tortoise-like procession that’s building up on Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian), located within the core zone of the George Town Unesco World Heritage Site.
“Hat, hat…” I chant to myself as I accidentally brush against a small pocket of people intent on taking a wefie in front of an impressive piece of iron wall caricature and in doing so, causing a mini “traffic jam”.
Wall art can wait; I need a hat, I remind myself. Just across the narrow street, I spy a sprightly-looking elderly lady, framed by all manner of hats, vigorously fanning herself with a batik fan. I amble over and stand rooted like a tree in front of the shop. Sensing my interested gaze, she cajoles: “Amoi, ini topi banyak cantik (Girl, this hat is really pretty).” Turning to the hat stand, she whips out a stylish dark blue straw hat with a contrasting light blue polka dot ribbon around it and places it onto my hand. It’s exactly what I’m looking for. I beam at her before parting with my money.
Glancing at my watch, I realise there’s still a bit of time to kill before I need to check in to the private oasis of 88 Armenian, a newly opened heritage luxury boutique hotel that will be my “home” for the duration of my stay in George Town. Despite the lure of air-conditioned comfort, I stop myself from walking in the direction of the hotel and instead, rejoin the crawl of tourists, intent on capturing as much of the culture and history of this bustling enclave.
The gentle albeit persistent tinkling from a trishaw bell stops me in my track and slices through my midday reverie. A strapping young man, cap jauntily perched on his head, calls out for me to take a ride on his heavily-decorated trishaw.
“Tak pe bang. Saya jalan (It’s okay, I’ll walk)!” I reply, much to the amusement of a group of older men huddled around him. “Panas, tak payah jalan dik (no need to walk in this heat),” he coaxes again, and again, I shake my head before thanking him for his offer. A chorus of chuckles erupts as the young man clutches his heart in mock dismay.
Crossing the street hastily, I make a beeline for a modest-looking cafe offering what appears to be reasonably-priced local fare. A teh-o-ais (ice tea) would be just the ticket in this heat, I think to myself before entering the café to a chorus of welcoming chants by a couple of Bangladeshi waiters.
Electing to sit myself nearest to the entrance where I’d be able to watch the world go by, I place my orders and settle down to do some background reading on Armenian Street – a street which was once a Malay settlement and known also as “Malay Lane” (this was how it was labelled on the 1803 map of Governor George Leith in a nod to the Malay and Achehese presence in the area), and was occupied by an influx of Armenian traders who’d arrived in Penang by way of India sometime in the early 1800s…
CHANGING FACE OF ARMENIAN STREET
From Chinese clan houses, to museums, to quaint shop-houses selling all manner of interesting antiques and the ubiquitous tourist souvenirs, it’s no surprise that Armenian Street is a tourist magnet.
Its history too, I duly discover, is no less colourful. At one time, the street was also known by its Chinese Hokkien name, Pak Thang-Ah Kay, which translates to “Coppersmith’s Street”, in a nod to a flourishing copper and brass products industry here back in the mid-19th century.
As the years passed, most of the Armenian traders left, and the street was subsequently populated, from the turn of the 20th century, by Chinese immigrants who went on to build some of the prominent clan houses which can be seen in the area, such as the Khoo Kongsi.
Traders and merchants from these clans helped to finance the mining of tin in Perak’s Larut district, which resulted in much prosperity flowing into the Armenian Street area from the 1860s right through to the early 20th century.
Records show that the street was also famous for Chinese triad activities, numerous gang fights and the infamous 1867 Penang Riots, between coalitions of secret societies. For nine days, George Town was shaken by fighting between the Tua Peh Kong society, supported by the Malay Red Flag, and the Ghee Hin, allied with the Malay White Flag.
Areas around Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Chulia were witness to the fights. Meanwhile, around the Khoo Kongsi, barricades were erected. Some of the fiercest skirmishes took place here and in fact, it’s still possible to find remnants of bullet holes in the surrounding shops and houses.
Fast forward to today, and the narrow Armenian Street is a charming hotbed of cultural offerings, with eye-catching street arts and a plethora of local delicacies to lure visitors from all corners of the world to this part of Penang.
“Cik, ada lagi mau order? (Miss, would you like to order anything else?)” So engrossed in my reading that I barely notice the looming presence of the same Bangladeshi waiter who’d taken my orders earlier. A quick glance at my watch and I realise with horror that I’ve had my butt parked in the same spot far longer than I’d wanted. Suffice to say, I’m running late for my hotel check in.
“No, thank you. Bill please,” I mumble to him and hastily prepare to take my leave. Minutes later, I find myself in the bright sunshine once again, but this time, a pleasant calm permeates. The tourists must have moved on, I think to myself before hastening my steps in the direction of 88 Armenian.
It’s not long before I find myself staring at the distinctive white façade of a 3-storey boutique hotel, restored in an early Straits Eclectic-style building, located along a more tranquil stretch of the street. A camera museum, just metres away from where I’m standing piques my curiosity but that’s going to have to wait, I tell myself, whilst peering into the hotel’s tinted sliding glass door.
My incongruous presence eventually catches the attention of the receptionist inside and within seconds, the door slides open to reveal a dimly-lit, chic cocoon. A modest lobby is the first thing I spy and then, at the other end, bathed in a dreamy blanket of natural sunlight filtering in from what appears to be a very high airwell, is a cosy restaurant serving a bold reinterpretation of traditional Malaysian flavours and classic dishes. “Copper Restaurant and Bar” reads the sign on the wall and I make a mental note to find out more later.
Check-in process completed, I’m led to a small lift (which reminds me a lot of those pre-war lifts one finds in Europe) that will take me to my luxurious abode located on the next level. There are six rooms in total here, including a spacious 57 square metre suite, and all named after the world’s six most distinguished coppersmiths – Rodin, Bartholdi, Dunand, Mackenzie, Pearson and Revere.
“Yours will be the Rodin room,” the reception manager tells me with a smile. Ah yes, Auguste Rodin, the French artist widely regarded as the father of Modern sculpture. Known for his expressive depictions of the human form, Rodin, who worked with metals like bronze and copper alloy, is responsible for iconic works such as The Kiss (c. 1882) and The Thinker (1903). Can’t wait!
OASIS OF CALM
Flinging open the door to my room, I’m pleasantly surprised by the sight of an understated yet classy abode. The palette is sophisticatedly muted and dominated by copper trimmings. Eyeing the rest of the space, I note the “hi tech” features, such as the integrated touch panel which allows guests the control of air-conditioning and lighting without having to leave the comfort of the bed.
The sight of a 49” UHD TV and a Nespresso coffee machine in one corner trigger a little jig inside my head. Ah, that’ll come in handy later! Tearing my eyes away from the distractions, I note that the room is also furnished with an open concept wardrobe, which despite being somewhat minimalist in style, is embellished with burnished copper trimmings and comes with a floor-to-ceiling mirror. A work table lines one side of the space complete with an IPad.
But the piece-de-resistance is the ensuite bathroom. Like Winnie the Pooh lured to honey, I find myself gravitating towards the luxurious airy bathroom, which features a beautiful double basin marble vanity countertop with elegant copper trimmings. Rays of sunlight stream in from the large windows, basking the space in a romantic sheen.
A natural stone bath tub occupies pride of place in the centre, while a Gessi spa shower stands invitingly in the corner. The sanitary ware by Gessi, the quintessence of Italian sophisticated luxury, promises a truly indulgent shower experience.
88 Armenian is the latest venture by hotelier Dr Angeline Yong, a leading consultant dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon currently practising in Singapore. The mother of two is the lady behind Noordin Mews, a beautiful boutique hotel with a 1920s Shanghainese-inspired decor, located in the heart of George Town.
Yong decided to locate her new hotel on the bustling Armenian Street believing it (the street) to be the core of the heritage soul of Penang. When she discovered that the building was available, Yong, who’s passionate about experiential travelling and heritage buildings, aspired to turn it into something akin to a townhouse hotel.
The story goes that this building was burnt down many years ago and left abandoned before a local owner bought it. He subsequently turned it into an art gallery. The restored and refurbished 88 Armenian showcases its primordial features as tribute to its past and to serve as a reminder of the building’s origins.
The ancient aesthetics of the shophouse architecture are elevated through old-style rehabilitated wooden doors emblazoned with Chinese calligraphy, exposed original brick walls and wooden flooring that can be seen in various parts of the building. Burnt wood elements have been woven into the interior design on the hotel’s ground floor in a nod to the history of the fire that once torched its walls.
This “Shou Sugi Ban” underwent a traditional Japanese wood preservation method to weatherproof the original wood panels by means of charring using fire. Copper elements have also been used in various iterations throughout the hotel, for example, the single piece copper bar counter, the copper-coloured Gessi bath fixtures, and so on, again in acknowledgment of Armenian Street’s history as a “Coppersmith Street”.
88 Armenian’s location, smack in the pulsating heart of the historic Unesco world heritage zone, makes it the perfect starting point for those wishing to catch George Town’s numerous sights and landmarks. With so much to see – from historic temples, churches, mosques, right to the impressive Clan Jetties and museums – you’d be glad to come “home” to this heritage haven.
88, Armenian Street, George Town, Penang
Go to www.88armenian.com