ChinaHouse Penang

ChinaHouse Penang – George Town’s Art Cafe

ChinaHouse Penang – A Day in George Town’s Coolest Cafe

Words: Monica Tindall & Narelle McMurtrie
Photos: Han Sen Hau

Between decades-old street food stalls and shiny new Michelin establishments lies a beloved and long-standing Penang icon, ChinaHouse.

ChinaHouse breathes the spirit of Penang itself. Its walls, weathered by time and laughter, whisper tales of the island’s colonial past, of Chinese shophouses bustling with trade, and of families gathered around steaming plates of Nyonya delicacies. Yet, within this historical shell lies a vibrant, innovative soul. Modern art pieces peek from alcoves, eclectic furniture tells stories of faraway lands, and the evening air hums with the strum of live music. It’s a testament to Penang’s ability to embrace the old while dancing with the new, and ChinaHouse embodies this spirit with an infectious charm.

Since its establishment in 2011, the compound of three heritage buildings has been a consistent must-visit for locals and visitors alike. Fourteen distinct spaces have been created, connecting the property via a central courtyard. Browse the shop, linger over coffee, savour a vibrant meal, lose yourself in art, sip on natural wine, let the music move you, or feast your eyes on the jaw-dropping cake table with over 30 goodies on display. ChinaHouse seamlessly merges heritage with hip in the multi-functional space, providing a cultural kaleidoscope and a playground for the senses.

ChinaHouse Penang
ChinaHouse Penang

Founder Narelle McMurtrie walks us through a day on the job. Fourteen hours later, we’re convinced there’s enough at ChinaHouse to maintain interest for weeks on end.

ChinaHouse Penang
Founder Narelle McMurtrie

A Day at ChinaHouse Penang


Narelle says that the great thing about living in George Town, around the corner from ChinaHouse, is the short five-minute walk for coffee. “I normally arrive around 10:00 am for an espresso and a chewy cookie—my favourites being the heartbreak chocolate cookie or a good old Anzac.” Coffee is sourced from roasters in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. There’s always something new to try, and the speciality beans mean every cup is premium.

ChinaHouse Penang
Coffee is Always a Good Beginning
ChinaHouse Penang
Alternatively, Try a Kombucha or Cascara Brew

Narelle and I are fond of the Homemade Yoghurt Bowl (RM 23) for brekkie. It’s topped with a rainbow of mango, lychee, cranberries, grapes, pumpkin seeds, dried coconut and crunchy homemade granola. The yoghurt is wonderfully creamy and made by a local Japanese resident. A drizzle of honey adds a little natural sweetness.

Georgetown's Art Cafe
Homemade Yoghurt Bowl

Having secured her morning caffeine and sugar dose, Narelle says she catches “up on news and emails in The Courtyard for the next few hours. The new shaded cover is perfect outside with all the greenery and birds. Yes, birds! And lots of them right in downtown Penang.”

ChinaHouse Penang
The Courtyard – ChinaHouse Penang

At 12:30 pm, she has her first outside appointment, so she “moves into the air-conditioned reading and games room for a second espresso or kombucha with a small slice of cake—under the excuse of testing, of course!”

ChinaHouse Penang
Great Selection of Kombucha at ChinaHouse Penang

As mentioned earlier, ChinaHouse has up to 30 different cakes on display at one time. With ten bakers on site, a new recipe is tested every day. Another impressive feat is the sale of over 7000 slices of cake a month! We sample several: Lemon Winter Gateau (RM 23), Carrot, Rum and Raisin (RM 26) and Onde Onde (RM 23). Han Sen and I like the classic carrot with the moistness of rum and raisin, while Narelle’s current fave is the gateau with a great textural change from a dense chocolate cake base to fluffy lemon curd to crunchy meringue. *Pictured here are half slices, so we can try more!

ChinaHouse Penang
That Famous Cake Display
Georgetown's Art Cafe
Lemon Winter Gateau
Georgetown's Art Cafe
Carrot, Rum and Raisin – ChinaHouse Penang

All-day Menu 

Narelle continues, “By 1:30 pm, it’s lunchtime, and I have a working lunch. Most guests prefer the Kopi C area, so that’s where we dine in full view of the cake table (yummy!) and all the noise from the coffee machine and guests walking in and out. As ChinaHouse is 400 feet long, there is always movement of people, but even so, there are spaces that you can find to hide away for a few hours of peace.”

The Bento Special (RM 46) is a sound choice for a filling midday meal. It’s a good mix of fenugreek and pandan aroma rice with ayam kerisik (chicken with pounded toasted coconut), clear soup, pineapple cucumber salad, potato and lamb bergedil (patty) with a Johore-style dip.

ChinaHouse Penang
Bento Special

For Western café appeal, the Avocado, Cashew Nut, & Feta Salad (RM 44) is hard to surpass. Grapes, cranberries and rocket are tossed with the namesakes and splashed with pomegranate dressing. Parmesan biscotti adds a savoury crunch.

Georgetown's Art Cafe
Avocado, Cashew Nut, & Feta Salad

At 2:30 pm, Narelle is “back into creative work mode in one of those quiet areas—V and S, with the 12-foot-long marble table perfect for a big spread of notes. As this is also our DJ room, it has a great playlist curated by Simon DJ Lightlow and amazing digital artwork by Gilded Lion from KL. And at 5:00 pm, it turns into our natural wine bar—even better!”

ChinaHouse Penang
Vine and Single
ChinaHouse Penang
Natural Wine Dominates the ChinaHouse Penang Wine List

ChinaHouse Penang has an interesting wine list, including loads of sustainable, biodynamic and natural labels. We’re fond of the Torresella Prosecco with its floral and brioche aromas, fine bubbles and creamy fruit palate. It’s guilt-free drinking, too, knowing that it has been farmed sustainably.

ChinaHouse Penang
Torresella Prosecco
Georgetown's Art Cafe
Shelf Upon Shelf of Wine

Around the Neighbourhood

At 6:00 pm, Narelle takes a break from work and checks out the neighbourhood. “My first stop is Nala to say hello to Brendan and the two shy doggies. Next is our Art Lane to be greeted by our dog, @anna_the_spoilt_one (yes, that’s her Instagram account, and I promise I didn’t set it up!). She sits outside so regally that people can’t help but stop to pat her—what a lure to get shoppers in! Don’t worry; she is rewarded with freshly cooked food from ChinaHouse.”

Georgetown's Art Cafe
ChinaHouse Penang
Georgetown's Art Cafe
ChinaHouse Penang Retail Shop

“The Art Lane space is still 400 feet of murals with a small Malaysian artisan shop at the front and a communal library at the back where I have to promise myself not to steal a book. Other neighbours I like to visit are Sixth Sense and Warehouse, both for fashion and lifestyle. We also buy from both of them for our Bon Ton Resort Langkawi retail shop. Plus, I always have to remember not to take cash or credit cards into Hikayat, our wonderful bookshop in our Kongsi quarter. By then, it’s walk time for Anna, which gives me time to explore new streets before the sun sets.”

Georgetown's Art Cafe
Sixth Sense

“At 7:00 pm, I’m back at ChinaHouse to check out the art galleries and retail upstairs and to clear more emails.”

There’s a lot to see in ChinaHouse, with the ground floors full of food, beverage, live music and dining spaces. For a quiet break, head upstairs to see a rotating selection of exhibitions, or pick up something to take home from the gift shop.

ChinaHouse Penang
Upstairs Gallery


At 9:00 pm, Narelle has “a late dinner in BTB, our quieter dining space. We also call it the Blue Room or Art Gallery 4, as all wall space is covered with eclectic artwork.”

ChinaHouse Penang
Blue Room
ChinaHouse Penang
Art Gallery 4

Tapas are available in the drinking areas of ChinaHouse, Vine and Single, and The Canteen. The Claypot Chicken Rice (RM 36) is a popular pick for good reason. The grilled chicken thigh, curried rice pilaf, choy sum, fried egg, pickled radish, carrot and chilli oil are a great balance of spice. It feels satisfying and hearty. On the other hand, the Miso & Gochujang Chicken Yakitori (RM 20) is an ideal finger food, easily enjoyed alone or shared with a friend. 

ChinaHouse Penang
Claypot Chicken Rice – ChinaHouse Penang
Georgetown's Art Cafe
Miso & Gochujang Chicken Yakitori

From 10:00 pm onwards, Narelle heads “out the back through The Courtyard to the Victoria Street side and The Canteen, our live music venue. Each night is a different band, so it never gets boring. Sometimes, I sneak in my computer and hide at the back while I clear the night’s emails.” 

As the sun dips, The Courtyard and The Canteen at China House come alive. Fairy lights flicker like fireflies, casting a warm glow on the faces of friends sharing stories and laughter. Live music takes centre stage, weaving jazz melodies, soul anthems, and indie tunes into the balmy night air. Whether you’re swaying to the rhythm or lost in conversation, the atmosphere is infectious.

As glasses are clinked and toes are tapped, Narelle’s duty ends around 12:00 am, “and then it’s a quick walk home.”

The Canteen

ChinaHouse Penang Review

Even though we’ve covered an entire day at ChinaHouse Penang, it seems as though we’ve only just scratched the surface. I’m positive that on every return visit, I’ll discover a new artwork, recipe or beverage. And that’s not to mention the battalion of cakes on display that promise to keep any sweet tooth busy for a good month or more. 

Reasons to visit ChinaHouse Penang: a haven for the arts – visual, musical and culinary; a great place for coffee, a midday meal, a late afternoon bite or tapas and natural wine; live music and DJ; their incredible selection of cakes will make even non-dessert-eaters drool.

ChinaHouse Penang
153, Beach St, George Town
10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
+6 042637299

ChinaHouse Penang Opening Hours
Daily 9:30 am – 1 am

Find more recommendations for travel to Penang here and stay up to date with the latest gourmet happenings around Malaysia here and here.

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