Lights, Camera, Action: Penang’s Niche in Movie-Making

By Ooi Tze Xiong

May 2024 FEATURE
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CHEONG FATT TZE Mansion and Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel were thrust into international spotlight in 2018, when Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians premiered with scenes shot in these localities. Naturally, fans of the movie have since pilgrimaged here, to Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, where Rachel Chu faced off Eleanor Young in a mahjong match. The heritage hotel had even offered an extravagant accommodation package featuring “Crazy Rich Asians-like splendour” to capitalise on the hype.

George Town has, in fact, long been a filming destination. As early as 1992, in Indochine, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was turned into a set depicting French-ruled Vietnam. Later, George Town was once again the backdrop of another historical epic, Anna and the King—Armenian Street was passed off as 19th century Siam, while the Town Hall’s interior was used in the movie’s courthouse scenes. In Ang Lee’s explicit period espionage drama, Lust, Caution, Penang depicted late 1930s and early 1940s’ occupied Hong Kong and Shanghai. George Town’s unique British-era cityscape and old-world charm form the backdrop for movie producers seeking fictional representation for exotic oriental destinations.

“What inspired me (to pick George Town) was the well-maintained architecture with echoes of the British past,” says Guy Sahibjan, the location manager who played a pivotal role in scouting for Crazy Rich Asians. The producers sought to capture the extravagance of the region’s high society; but initially, Guy was struggling to persuade the producers to film in Malaysia.

“They almost went with Thailand for filming. Thankfully, with the support and advice from my dad and partners from Biscuit Films, we managed to convince them to come to Malaysia instead.”

One particular location in Malaysia stood out to the producers—Carcosa Seri Negara, a stunning, colonial-era residence in KL. Once Guy got his foot in the door with Carcosa, and the producers were introduced to George Town, with one of the largest collections of pre-war buildings in Southeast Asia, the decision was made.

“The interior courtyard of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was spacious, which was what we needed for props and camera movement. Meanwhile, the Calthorpe Hotel scene in the beginning of the movie was filmed at the E&O Hotel because it still has a concierge desk that fits the period of the scene.”

Not surprisingly, films like these inadvertently promote George Town as a tourist destination. In a survey conducted in 2019, a tourist from New Zealand shared that “My son has watched the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, multiple times… then did his research and read that this movie was partly filmed in Penang. We decided to also come to Penang and to my surprise, there is even more to see here than in the movies.”

Where Heritage Meets Drama

The diversity in culture and architectural styles in Penang was what drew Raja Mukhriz Raja Ahmad Kamaruddin to Penang for the filming of Nyonya Ronggeng, a period drama that chronicles the struggles of a Peranakan Ronggeng dancer during the Japanese invasion of Singapore.

“Penang still retains its rich Peranakan heritage, which makes up one of the many vibrant cultures in the state. The Peranakan architecture here provides an authentic setting that resonates with the period the movie was set in,” says Mukhriz.

Filming took place in March 2023, featuring several locations in both George Town and Seberang Perai. Mukhriz was left with an enduring impression.

“Certainly the Pinang Peranakan Mansion was a stunning and evocative backdrop, but it wasn’t just the architecture. One particularly unforgettable moment was when we transformed Penang’s streets to depict Singapore in the midst of World War II. We captured the tumultuous atmosphere with striking authenticity, reflecting the resilience and spirit of the locals during wartime.”

Like Guy, Mukhriz thinks that there are more genres that producers can explore in Penang.

“While Penang is famous for its history, culture and nature, there is a lot more beneath the surface. What comes to mind are food-centric shows, romantic movies, spy thrillers and comedies. Penang can leverage its unique character to a much wider cinematic preference.”

A Welcoming Canvas for Cinematic Artistry

Reflecting on his experiences in Penang, Guy is also impressed with the hospitality of the people here.

“It’s always pretty easy-going, minus the heat and traffic. I’ve been filming in Penang since 2014 and every year after that, there’s always a project that ends up here; always at the regular filming locations. I’ve made friends with the locals.”

Mukhriz, too, found the amicable nature of the locals in Penang to be captivating and believes that it could boost the state’s appeal among movie producers.

“The warmth of Penangites has left an indelible mark on all of us who were part of Nyonya Ronggeng. Producers can and should leverage the local art community, as they can offer valuable insights and add authenticity to our production.”

That being said, Guy and Mukhriz are aware of concerns over the potential negative impact of movie production on heritage preservation.

“I have been rejected by property owners who have had bad experiences with previous producers. So I take care, and try to not ruin it for others,” Guy says.

Penang has always stood out as a canvas for arts and culture, and it is time it makes its mark on the silver screen. Perhaps showcasing Penang’s rich heritage and vibrant culture to the world will inspire greater appreciation and support for their preservation.

  • [1] How Malaysia became a big part of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. The Nation. 31 August 2018.
  • [2] Sowerby, Samantha (20 August 2018). Live Like A Crazy Rich Asian At The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion In Penang. Tatler. tze-mansion-penang
  • [3] Liu, Yong (26 November 2020). “Framing Film-Induced Tourism into a Sustainable Perspective from Romania, Indonesia and Malaysia”. Sustainability. 12 (23): 9910.
  • [4] Khoo, Su Nin (2007). Streets of George Town, Penang. Areca Books.
  • [5] Kevin Vimal (15 March 2023). Culturally-driven ‘Nyonya Ronggeng’ movie to begin shooting in Penang this month. Buletin Mutiara. ronggeng-movie-to-begin-shooting-in-penang-this-month/
Ooi Tze Xiong

currently delves into content creation and enjoys piloting drones as a hobby. After years of sojourning in cities across Malaysia and Singapore, he eventually decided to call Penang home.