What Do These Two Expats Think of Penang?

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Many expats choose to make Penang their home for a variety of reasons. Here, we give them the chance to talk about what brought them to this charming island and why they have chosen to stay.

John and Wilma Bunk are a Dutch couple who live in Batu Ferringhi, Penang with the youngest of their four children.You can catch up with them at various Penang functions or find them on the web at www.jewelartistic.com.

We came to Malaysia originally for John’s work and we lived in Melaka for two years in the early years of the millenium. When we wanted to take early retirement and set up a business here, we choose Penang.That was three years ago and we feel very much at home here.

We love Malaysia for its climate and ambience, the food and the friendly people, and the relaxed lifestyle we enjoy here. As designers, nature is our greatest inspiration, and there is nature in abundance in Penang.

Penang is a treasure house for designers; there’s so much inspiration here, it’s like a museum just to walk the streets.The heritage buildings and art of George Town, the beach, and the forests are fabulous. We love the fact that you have modern shopping centres but you can also dip into nature so easily. It’s also so friendly and pretty safe too, as long as you take the normal precautions you would take in any city, anywhere in the world.The only thing we’re not so keen on is the haze, but we hope that will change one day.

When we walk on the beach, we look out for interesting things – piece of shell, fl otsam, and jetsam – that we can make into our artworks. When we walk in the forest, we fi nd interesting forms, twigs, leaves, and berries which we use in our designs. It’s never boring to look at things in Penang.

Wilma does most of the fine design of our pendants and earrings while John creates the incredibly fi ne filigree wire which supports them. Wilma often starts with a piece of shell of mother-of-pearl onto which she glues her intricate designs. We strengthen the shell with a laminate so that you can even drop it or shower in it and do no damage to the jewellery.

We are busy with many things but spend most of our time designing jewels, (under name the Willemina) and you can buy them in the heritage center of George Town (Armenian street), in several hotels in Batu Ferringhi, and now in Bran et Daguet in Straits Quay.The jewellery is all one-of-a-kind, and all handmade. We hope they will be heirlooms of the future; we’ve certainly made them to last!

We love the hawker stalls but we also enjoy our local cafés in Batu Ferringhi, such as Bora Bora or Beach café which has good meals and nice coconuts, and a view over water sports. We go to Five27, at Straits Quay, for a taste of delicious Nordic inspired food with no MSG. We also love the Ferringhi Garden Restaurant (Batu Ferringhi) which has a chic and luxurious ambience in a gorgeous garden atmosphere.


We don’t not own property here – we like to be free and we change houses every few years. It is easier for us to rent, and now we live in an apartment in Batu Ferringhi.

Like most people, we have a mixture of expats and locals as friends. We consider ourselves to be lucky to live in Penang but we do miss our children and family back home from time to time.


Elspeth McEachern lives with her husband, St-John, on board their boat at Straits Quay Marina.You can view her work – and her new paintings about Penang – at her website www.galyfreae.com.

Penang’s emerging and vibrant creative scene was the main draw card for my husband and I when we were deciding where to locate ourselves in Southeast Asia.We had cruised our boat from New Zealand to Australia through Indonesia and spent some time in Thailand, but we felt that Penang offered the best, inspirational atmosphere with its historic architecture and unique cultural mix.This is important, as I am now painting full-time and St-John has returned to his writing.The biggest decision we made was to place our much loved Grand Banks Heritage Trawler, “Shadow Trader”, on the market so that we could move ashore and transition from our original “sea change” back to a “tree change”.

Malaysia offers variety and affordability with extremely friendly people. I have had the pleasure of meeting and collaborating with a number of art studios in both Langkawi and Penang and painted alongside local Malaysian and expat artists. I am currently painting at the TAES art studio at Straits Quay, where I rung workshops in exchange for space to paint. Already a month has passed and our hope is to settle in Penang full time as soon as we have sold our boat.

For many years, Penang held a special place in my memory as an island full of character and old world charm. I backpacked through Southeast Asia when I was in my twenties and vividly remember the distinctive Chinese shop-house architecture, the food, and the friendliness of its people. I never imagined on the day I looked out at the yachts in the old Royal Penang Yacht Club marina that I would return to Penang on a boat. Since that time, Penang has changed significantly, with the exception of old George Town, where UNESCO has helped save a precious piece of history.

As I have lived on the sea for the past six years, the biggest changes for me are associated with the coast and waters around of Penang.Where it was once clear, the sea is now murky. There has been wasteful over-fishing, thoughtless pollution, the destruction of natural habitats of turtles and otters, and an alarming increase of box jelly fish and stingers, of which turtles are their natural predator. On land, the massive boom in property development has resulted in obscuring Penang’s magnificent mountain vista but, thankfully, the forest remains to offer cool breeze and fresh air.

Penang offers so much to the senses, but, as a visual artist, the image of Penang which always comes to mind is that of a brief instant when an old man opened the upstairs shutters of a heritage shop-house in a winding back street of old George Town.The cultural vibrancy, its blend of cultures, add color and excitement to the island, while you really pass up on the wonderful array of food.There is a sense of artistic emergence that I haven’t found anywhere else in Malaysia.


Penang is the sort of place that offers just about anything for any taste but for me, the most pleasurable part of Penang is the old section of George Town. To walk the narrow back streets, where life continues as if untouched by time, is a must, as is taking in the colonial architecture and temples and dipping into the past at the many private and state museums.

Both St-John and I get enormous pleasure from eating at the hawker food courts.While there are plenty of good restaurants to choose from, we tend to like the vibrancy and activity that hawker food courts offer, and you get to see your food being prepared as you wait. Our favorite food courts are the CF in Georgetown and a few in Tanjung Tokong.There is also a fabulous Yum Cha coffee house just near Campbell House in Campbell Street. For a relaxed atmosphere, we go to Flavors of India.


Source: Penang International June 2013 – July 2013
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