By Veronica Inveen
Aug 6, 2019
Beach Street, the long thoroughfare connecting George Town with the old British garrison of Fort Cornwallis, has become Penang’s most gentrified area in the past few years. Lined with colonial shophouses upholstered into industrial-chic bistros, the route sees a daily carousel of visitors ambling aimlessly between Penang’s most famous pieces of street art and the way-too-many hipster cafés.
But an intellectual kid has popped up on this gentrified block, bringing a much needed cultural spruce-up to the area. Hikayat—from the Arabic-influenced word that means “storytelling with wisdom” in Malay—redefines George Town’s cultural landscape with a mix of books, events, workshops and world cinema screenings.
Hikayat is a labor of love from Gareth Richards and Bettina Chua Abdullah, two well-respected personalities in local literary circles. “My original intention was to open a second bookshop,” says Richards, the British- Malaysian editor, writer and former co-curator of the prestigious George Town Literary Festival. In 2014, he opened Gerakbudaya Bookshop (meaning “move culture”) in George Town. Last year, Richards teamed up with Chua Abdullah, the first Malaysian to become a CNBC Asia international news presenter, and founder and director of the Fay Khoo Award for Food and Drink Writing. The idea was to create a “space beyond books”—something more innovative, vital and creative than the rest of Penang’s cultural offerings.
“I wasn’t interested in doing just another bookshop,” explains Chua Abdullah, who “wanted a place for anyone, not just readers and book lovers, to enjoy different expressions of creativity, literature and arts.” In just half a year, Hikayat has been packed to the gills with a range of eclectic events to make it Penang’s hottest cultural den.
It’s a dynamic, cozy and irresistibly chic space. On the ground floor, the large, yellow-hued bookshop has towering walls stocked with a curated selection of non- fiction, monographs and coffee-table volumes. At the back of the house is a relaxed café that extends into open-air courtyard space for alfresco and unplugged music. That’s where patrons can flip books, blend in, and converse over excellent brews.
On the first floor, Hikayat’s luxe Blue Room, strewn with comfortable couches and lounge chairs, hosts cinema screenings, yoga sessions, writing workshops, book launches and other cultural events. “It’s almost like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement,” jokes Chua Abdullah. “It can change to whatever we need it to be, fitting the needs of any activity and event.”
Hikayat’s other great perk is the podcast recording station, the very first in Penang, that visitors and guests can book and use to record interviews and broadcast their own radio shows. “It’s an extension of what we are already doing,” Chua Abdullah explains. “We want to create content and make it available even to those who can’t physically visit Penang and our space.”
Richards is equally excited about this multimedia aspect of Hikayat: “The genius of podcasts is that they give the listener a sense of control over what is downloaded and when it’s listened to,” he says. “Radio Hikayat will produce three types of materials: an archive of interviews; high-quality content for broadcast on different platforms; and commissioned work for partners such as Wawasan Open University and Think City, a Penang-based think tank.”
But the best way to take full advantage of this cool new hub and the neighborhood of which it is a microcosm is to sleep there. Hikayat’s dark-hued studio apartment is tucked at the back of the first floor, and was conceived to host two six-week-long artist and writing residencies every year. It’s the perfect bohemian haunt: think dark wooden floor panels and old-world furniture, dim lights, a spacious working desk and a king-sized bed wrapped in cotton linens. Next to the studio, a vintage pop kitchenette is perfect for self-catering on long-term stays. Right in the center of the town’s UNESCO World Heritage core, and within walking distance to street art, famous hawker food and plenty of vibrant cafés, the pied- à-terre offers casual travelers a chance to parachute into the pulsating heart of George Town’s cultural life, rubbing elbows with the local movers and shakers who constantly drop in and out of Hikayat.
“What distinguishes Hikayat,” Richards says as we amble downstairs through the multi-colored spines that bind hundreds of different literary worlds, “is not the form, but the quality of content. And that depends on intelligent, thought-provoking programming. We think of Hikayat as a moveable festival, or feast of ideas, driven by the telling of stories and the sharing of wisdoms.”
226 Beach St., George Town; doubles from RM280, minimum two-night stay; Podcast Pod open by appointment between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m., RM80 per hour.