Penang and Kuching Redefine Malaysia’s Urban Cool

loading Dawn colours Sarawak river a blazing pink.

These two cities – though far from each other – are dancing to a similar beat

Saying that Penang and Kuching have a lot in common can disorientate – they sit at two separate ends of the nation, with an ocean of differences in between. When thinking of Penang, it is images of heritage buildings, colourful festivals and omnipresent food that spring to mind first. Kuching, on the other hand, inspires very different visions – steamy rainforests, orangutans and Dayak blowpipes.

Similarities between the two may not seem obvious, but of late, the cities seem to have found some common ground. Besides their relationship with water – George Town sits by the sea, while Sarawak River flows through the heart of Kuching – the main parallel between Penang and Kuching is the way in which the arts have reignited the pulse of both cities, transforming once-neglected city centres into newly born hipster havens.

Some of the merit goes to the street art of Penang-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. In 2014 property developers Spago Property invited Zacharevic to make his mark on the walls of Jalan Power, the core of Kuching Old Town’s market. The series of orangutan-themed murals he painted there were certainly a marketing strategy that looked to beat Penang’s success, using the same ol’ artsy horse.

But rather than copycatting Penang’s street art craze, the heritage streets of old Kuching rapidly filled with new music and artsy hangout spots, following the footsteps of Kuching’s pioneering local mainstay, the Monkee Bar (, born of the joint efforts of local artist Marcus Lim and conservation company Orangutan Project. Decorated with Lim’s funky and nature-themed art pieces, Monkee Bar packs a mixed crowd of artists and world travellers, and has earned a reputation as the town’s best watering hole – partly because a third of the profits are contributed to the Orangutan Project.

Stronger ties with Penang were established last May when iconic boutique bistro ChinaHouse opened in the restored wings of Kuching’s Old Court House. Built in 1868, the heritage complex lies in the heart of the city, carrying the legacy of the White Rajahs – three generations of the English Brooke family who governed Sarawak from 1841 to 1946.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Kuching is experiencing an artsy upgrade.

“Since setting my eyes on it as a kid, I knew that the Old Court House deserved much more,” says Jason Tai, managing director of Pansar and investor of ChinaHouse at the Old Court House project. A Sibu native – Sarawak’s second biggest town – Tai loves to collect antiques. “Kuching’s Old Court House is a beautiful old building in a city centre that desperately needed life,” he says over coffee and a thick slice of one of ChinaHouse’s excellent signature cakes, directly exported from Penang to Sarawak.

But why should Narelle McMurtrie, the Australian entrepreneur who already uplifted Langkawi and Penang’s boutique accommodation and café scene with her hotel brand Bon Ton and the original ChinaHouse in George Town, set up shop in Kuching?

Apparently it was Tai who convinced her to move into Kuching’s Old Court House. “I visited ChinaHouse during a business trip to Penang and just loved it,” he says. “It was exactly what I had envisioned to kick-start Kuching.”

McMurtrie, who had the Old Court House complex already in her sights from previous visits to Sarawak, couldn’t refuse the offer. “ChinaHouse’s concept is inspired by traditional Chinese homes with a courtyard surrounded by three outlying buildings,” she explains. “In Penang, we had to make do with a single, long Chinese shop house split into 14 different dining and creative spaces. But in Kuching, the Old Court House’s four main wings surround a central courtyard where 14 adjacent buildings connect – a real dream match for my original concept.”

ChinaHouse is the unmistakeable starting point of a new artsy bar crawl that snakes through the web of alleys between the waterfront and Merdeka Square. Speak Eazy ( stands out as a cool hangout for musicians and hipsters. This alternative bar dishes out hearty meals – think spicy belacan, lamb stew and honey chicken – and cold beer in 1990s videogame- themed interiors filled with Star Wars and other retro-pop memorabilia. As the name suggests, Speak Eazy plays host to a very convivial crowd of like-minded artists who rub elbows and relax while enjoying shots of tuak, Sarawak’s traditional rice wine. That’s something we won’t find in Penang, unfortunately.

ChinaHouse at the Old Court House.

A real hidden surprise in Kuching is the Rooftop Jazz Lounge (, a small and cosy hangout on the fifth floor of Gibbon’s Guesthouse along Jalan Green Hill. A climb upstairs rewards one with what is possibly Borneo’s first jazz-themed bar, an intimate spot decorated with music memorabilia where impromptu saxophone performances are as ubiquitous as their wide selection of beers. Penang may have a jazz festival every year, and Kuching may have started smaller, but it is on the right track and catching up.

Karen Lai

Traditional sounds mix with modernity at ChinaHouse at the Old Court House.

And just as Penang has underground joint Soundmaker Studio, Kuching similarly has nurtured an engrossing music scene. Since the 1980s, underground heavy metal groups like Immortal, Borneo Noise Unit, Kurasakuasa and others have performed in the town’s outskirts. Flying Rock (flyingrock-themusicshop.blogspot. com) and Appleseeds jamming studios ( Studio/203213126383772) in the Matang and Satok suburbs are among the few spaces where a weekend visit guarantees the sight of young Dayak rockers manning loud guitars as prescribed by the global trends of rock-based music subcultures.

“I help local and foreign bands playing in Kuching,” says Marvin Gayle, a Bidayuh promoter and singer of pop-punk band Mavis Dirty Project: “There aren’t many dedicated underground spaces, but music truly is the lifeblood of Kuching’s people.”

And if Kuching is still lacking an artsy-cool space like Penang’s now established Hin Bus Depot, several signs indicate that even this is going to change: Indah (facebook. com/IndahHouseKuching) is a cafe and guesthouse with its own art gallery on a mission to give space to Kuching’s most promising and as yet undiscovered talent. They also organise school holiday art camps to help children familiarise themselves with diverse crafts, from collage to puppet theatre and mixed media painting.

If that weren’t enough, Tanoti House ( has made waves internationally by preserving local Sarawakian artistry from their workshop in Jalan Tabuan, equipping young ladies from poorer outskirts with the valuable skill of songket weaving.

With all these happenings, Penang and Kuching will soon be paired as two sides of the coin of urban cool. The laksa still remains distinctively different though – but the zesty flavour of both can remain as they are. We can definitely enjoy both styles separately.

Kuching laksa.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at His Asian metal punk memoir, Banana Punk Rawk Trails, is available in bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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