Whether you’ve just arrived on the island, are merely passing through, or are an experienced habitué, there are always emerging networks and useful sources of information to enrich your experience. Frances Wilks investigates some of them.
People make a place come alive. I remember that when I moved in 1999 to Kandy, the ancient hill capital of Sri Lanka, expats were thin on the ground. To be sure, the locals were friendly and there were many kindred spirits amongst them. But sometimes you just need to talk to someone who shares your own culture and language.
Through my beautician, I heard of an English lady named Clare Leask. A couple of facials later, she gave me her number and when I made contact, Clare immediately invited me to a dinner party.
She confided that she, too, had felt lonely when she first arrived and, as so many foreign tourists came through Kandy on the cultural triangle circuit, she hadn’t wanted to accost just any foreigner. “But then I saw a European woman buying a frozen chicken in the local supermarket so I thought she was a safe bet to say hello to.” Fortunately, Penang has many more networks than Kandy did and so there are lots of much easier ways to make new friends and find out useful information about living here.
1. The Expat magazine
First things first: you may not have realised that, if you are an expat, you can subscribe to The Expat magazine for free. You can also read back copies of the magazine online – and details of how to do both are given in the sidebar of this article. Sometimes people come up to me and say that they used to get their copy of The Expat but it somehow stopped.
This is because once a year we send a reminder slip because we want our distribution list to be up to date and people are always moving on. If you don’t get your regular copy just go online and renew your subscription.
TEG also has an online presence – expatgo.com – with interesting news snippets and forums.We also hold regular Mingles, where for one low price, you get to enjoy a selection of wine, beer, finger food, and excellent opportunities to chat and network.
2. The Penang Free Sheet
If you dine out, you may have seen “The Penang Free Sheet” on your table with its quirky old-fashioned style logo. It’s actually the brainchild of three friends, Louise Goss-Custard, her husband, the chef and owner of That LittleWine Bar, Tommes, and their friend, James Springer, the sommelier there.
As Louise says, “We were frustrated that so many creative people in Penang were arranging events, shows, concerts, workshops and exhibitions, but that there was no easy way for them to get the word out to people. Meanwhile, other people were sitting around complaining that there was nothing to do in Penang!
The idea of the Penang Free Sheet was born, a weekly event listing to be distributed free of charge to hotels, cafés and tourist venues as well as by email and Facebook.” The three founders do everything themselves: Louise seeks out the events every week though increasingly people are coming to them; James does the graphic design; Tommes arranges the printing and also underwrites the cost if no advertiser takes a space in any particular week.
The three also take to their bicycles and motorbikes every Friday morning to drop off paper copies in over 200 locations around Penang, and blog about upcoming events they believe should not be missed.
3. Expat associations
Penang is rich in expat associations and societies – the IWA (international Women’s Association), PIA (Penang Irish Association), the MGS (Malaysian German Society) and the af (alliance française). All of them welcome locals as well as expats.
Although the IWA is a women’s organisation, husbands and partners are welcome at almost all the events. The IWA organises a traditional Christmas lunch at the E&O Hotel, with carols, crackers, and roast turkey. The PIA holds an amazing ball for St Patrick’s Day, and the MGS hosts Oktoberfest as well as an annual ball.
If you want to meet people, however, it may be better to go one of the less formal events, such as one of the monthly coffee mornings that the IWA organises, or one of the quarterly MGS breakfasts, or one of the film nights at the af. Another expat group that meets from time to time is the international website-based Internations, which organises evenings in wine bars and cafés.
4. Facebook community
A new initiative in providing support and information for expats is Penang Expat Wives – which isn’t an organisation as such but a Facebook page. Membership on the page is growing fast and all sorts of questions are asked and answered. It’s also a way of reaching out to others, as one young mother appealed for a friend in her area to have coffee and chats with.
Michelle Duncan, who set up Penang Expat Wives with Lisa Bachman and Agnes Kuhns, explains the need for it. “I’ve been an expat for many years. When we had just arrived in Brazil, I had to have spinal surgery following an accident. I was able to set up my entire life from my hospital bed with the help of a similar Facebook page.” Agnes was in Singapore before she and her husband came to Penang last year and was a member of Singapore Expat Wives, which has over 11,000 members.
“It was an enormous help, and I wanted to do something like that here. We’re a closed group and you have to apply to join. This is so we can feel safe asking questions and not be judged or commented on in any way. We can also exclude commercial interests so the page doesn’t become crowded with people trying to sell things.
We call the group “wives” not because you have to be a wife to be a member, but because we didn’t want to compete with the IWA, which uses “women” and also because there are expat wives Facebook pages all over the world and we felt it would be instantly recognisable.” The team has just produced an online directory of important resources that will grow over time.
5. Spiral Synergy newsletter
Penang Expat Wives does have a sister page called Second Sale for all the sorts of items that expats love to pick up second hand. But the queen of resale in Penang is undoubtedly Michelle Grimsley, who runs Spiral Synergy, a newsletter that lists all sorts of items for sale – from decorated tiffin carriers to high-end cars and everything in between.
She also organises garage sales for departing expats at which amazing bargains can be found. As Penang doesn’t have an IKEA, she also shops at the KL IKEA on your behalf.
The very reasonable 20% surcharge on your bill is normally far less than going there yourself and it must be an exhausting day for her to judge by the length of the till roll!
There are events and outings, such antique furniture tours, firefly excursions, and super stylish shopping days. Each year Michelle organises a “must-do” for anyone new to Penang – the Welcome to Penang Expo. Many useful services and businesses have a presence there and it’s also great for informal meeting and networking.
6. The National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies
And finally, NADFAS is coming to Penang. The National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) is a leading UK arts charity working to advance decorative and fine arts education and appreciation. Its remit is to open up the world of the arts for everyone to enjoy, learn, and participate in, as well as make new and lasting friendships.
Penang will become part of a new circuit, which will start in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and include KL (possibly) and either Singapore or Hong Kong. The “taster” lecture will be on 30 November with an Asian theme. Organiser Sandie Lenton says, “I am anxious that this should not become another expat society. I want it to be as inclusive as possible, as art and design should appeal to everybody.
I am very excited by the prospect of bringing this prestigious association to Penang. We are already very lucky to have so many enjoyable festivals and celebrations Penang, but I do think that there is still a lack of lectures and hopefully this will at least partly fill the gap.”
Penang Free Sheet
Read in over 200 locations in George Town, Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong or FB Penang Free Sheet. Their blog can be found at penangfreesheet.wordpress.com.
IWA (International Women’s Association)
Address: 28 Lebuh Lembah Permai 4, Tanjung Bungah 11200, Penang.
Tel: +604 898 2540
PIA (Penang Irish Association)
MGS (Malaysian-German Society)
Address: 250 B Jalan Air Itam, Air Itam, 10460, Penang.
AF (Alliance Franciase)
Address: 46, Jalan Phuah Hin Leong, 10050, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Tel: +604 227 6008
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