The architecture of heritage Penang is so dominated by Chinese temples and shophouses that it is sometimes easy to overlook the British influences on the island. Most aspects of colonialism are, no doubt, best resigned to the past, but some of the buildings that the British left behind are worthy of praise. Suffolk House is one such example, where you can get a real feel for the British colonial architecture and lifestyle.
The house itself is steeped in history and stands on what used to be a pepper estate surrounded by jungle. Although these days the busy Jalan Air Itam and surrounding developments have begun to encroach a little, this is still a remarkably tranquil spot and, surrounded by sweeping lawns, gravel paths and majestic old trees, the house has lost none of its original grandeur.
The first building was a simple wooden and attap-thatched colonial bungalow, constructed in the earliest days of the settlement for the first governor of Penang, Francis Light, and named after the British county in which he was born. After Light’s death, the current Anglo-Indian Georgian-style mansion was built in 1805 by a subsequent governor, William Edward Phillips, and served as governor’s residence, government house and Methodist boys’ school, before falling into disrepair in the second half of the 20th century.
Restoration of the building was completed in 2007, winning a UNESCO award for heritage conservation. Since then, it has been open to visitors, who can view the house on a self-guided tour for 10 ringgit a person. Fans of architecture will admire the long arcades, grand columns, black and white marble floors, cool interiors and fine furnishings, which bring the character of the building alive and evoke a fascinating bygone era.
After your tour, head straight to the back verandah, where high tea is served every afternoon. There are other great places to partake in this peculiarly British tradition in Penang, including the famous Eastern and Oriental Hotel, or the garden of David Brown’s at the top of Penang Hill, but somehow, Suffolk House beats the competition for sheer ambiance. Sitting on the shady verandah, looking out over manicured lawns and ancient, gnarled hardwood trees, it transports you back to another time and you can gain a real sense of what life must have been like for those long-departed colonists.
Gorge yourself on piping hot pies, delicately cut salmon and cucumber sandwiches, a selection of cakes, tarts and biscuits, and freshly baked scones, all served on a two-tiered plate stand, and choose from a baffling variety of teas. A set for two costs 68 ringgit (plus taxes and service charge) and could easily replace lunch or dinner. It is served on the verandah daily, between 14:30 and 18:00, and booking is advised at weekends.
Alternatively, you could come to the fine dining restaurant for lunch or dinner and indulge in a little colonial-era extravagance. This is considered one of Penang’s fanciest restaurants, and the prices are therefore quite fancy, too: lunch dishes start from around 30 ringgit and dinner from 50 ringgit.
How to get there
Suffolk House is just off Jalan Air Itam, about eight kilometres outside Georgetown, and bus routes 201, 202, 203 and 204 will take you there. From Georgetown, ask the driver to drop you at the Han Chiang School bus stop, and the road leading to Suffolk House is on the opposite side of the road. Single tickets will cost you 2.70 ringgit.