By Carolyn Hong
It’s a good time to be young in George Town. This old city has become a hip and cool destination, opening up a wave of new opportunities for the young, creative and adventurous.
New shops and cafés pop up at such a dizzying pace that a walk amidst its warren of lanes is often an exercise in fortuitous discoveries.
George Town is undergoing a new phase of the revival which began when it was listed as a Unesco world heritage site in 2008. Well-heeled investors – from companies to expatriates and wealthy Malaysians – had rushed in with plush funds to turn rundown shops into stylish boutique hotels and elegant restaurants to cash in on the tourism boom.
But in more recent times, young Penangites have also begun to make their mark. Youth entrepreneurship has brought in a youthful vibe to complement George Town’s swish but staid heritage establishments, and its uncle and auntie hawkers. The youth-run outlets have a distinctive brand with the ideals of healthy living, environmental sustainability and community as its ethos.
They have mushroomed in George Town because the playing field there has become more level to enable small businesses to compete with bigger establishments, say these young entrepreneurs. The reason is because more people are taking to the streets – as in using their feet to walk or pedal a bicycle around.
The popularity of foot power has helped boost the visibility of small stores which get a chance to catch the eye of meandering walkers or cyclists.
“It’s not just the tourists who walk around but also local people who have begun to do so,” said Lee Siew Ching who started the Leaf Healthy House vegan restaurant with her husband two years ago. This, she said, helped bring in new customers especially as their location on Penang Street is quiet in the evenings and weekends.
People tend to walk or cycle here, partly because it’s the easiest way to navigate George Town’s narrow streets and lack of car parks. But there’s also now a new incentive: street murals painted in random locations, from back lanes to temple walls.
“I think the street paintings really helped as more people started walking to look for them. Our bicycle rental business also increased,” said Lee.
(Ms) Queen Lee who owns the quirky Chai Diam Ma café + shop in – coincidentally – Queen’s Street, agrees that foot traffic to her area has increased significantly since street art became popular. George Town, she said, is no longer a ghost town after 5pm.
Yeoh Beng Lee and Goh Hooi Cheen who opened the vegan Sushi Kitchen on Gat Lebuh Acheh this year, also has murals to thank for customers stumbling onto their café which is located slightly off the tourist thoroughfare.
“We get people walking in when they spot our shop, or coming over because they heard about us on the Internet,” said Goh.
The first nostalgic wall murals were painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic for last year’s George Town Festival. Painted in odd corners as well as main streets, they became a hit with tourists and locals. Other painters soon followed suit with more murals. This year’s George Town Festival expanded on the concept by commissioning secret gardens to spur more people to walk around.
George Town appears to have hit on a winning formula in attracting the young into this risky business of running a business. Although these young entrepreneurs confess that running a business was a lot harder than they had initially anticipated, these young people also believe that they have a good chance of success in George Town.
The old city is still young at heart.
Photo credit: Carolyn Hong