By Felix Cheong
PENANG is the perfect getaway for actress Tan Kheng Hua because it's the sort of place you can do nothing - which doesn't mean there's nothing to do - and not feel guilty about it.
"It's a happy town," says Tan, 45, who is known for her television role as Margaret, the sister-in-law from hell in the longrunning sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd.
"You feel that everyone who's there really wants to be there rather than somewhere else in Malaysia. Penangites are so proud of their island!"
The cast having their first read in the interior of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.
She should know. Not only is the family of her husband, fellow thespian Lim Yu-Beng, from Penang, she is also fresh from an on-and-off, seven-week shoot there for Funeral Party.
In the movie, which is Glen Goei's second full-length feature film due for release next year, Tan plays the sexually repressed wife of Adrian Pang.
"Because time was limited during the shoot," she recalls, taking another bite of lunch at a café in Frankel Avenue, "our R and R was also limited.
"But there was one Sunday afternoon when some of the cast and crew, including myself, found time to hang out at the E and O Hotel. We ordered gin and tonic - coffee for me because I don't drink - pulled up chairs and sat near the concrete breakwater facing the sea and talked the whole afternoon."
Fondly referred to as E and O by locals and located along Farquhar Street, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel is one of the oldest in Georgetown.
Built by the same people behind Singapore's Raffles Hotel and since refurbished to the tune of RM75 million (S$32 million), it still retains much of its old-world colonial charm.
Tan also relishes hanging out at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, where most of the filming was done.
Winner of the Unesco Conservation Award 2000, this architectural masterpiece is an eclectic example of Straits Settlement design and detailing. It was the location for several international films, including Indochine (1992), which starred iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve.
Tan relates that the mansion's caretaker volunteered to organise tours for the cast and crew.
The most convenient way up to Penang Hill is by funicular train.
"One afternoon, he took us up to Penang Hill. The train wasn't working that day, so he hired two cars. It was quite intrepid because the road was bumpy, not like Mount Faber at all.
"There's this colonial house there that serves authentic English tea. It's called David Brown's Restaurant and Tea Terraces. We ordered practically everything on the menu, from scones to eggs Benedict.
"We just sat there and again, eating and laughing and chatting. It was a wonderful way of spending a rainy afternoon."
Another highly recommended activity, says Tan, who travels to Penang at least once every two years, is to get a rubdown at Liang Xin Massage Parlour, located just opposite the hip Momo outlet along Upper Penang Road.
"The masseurs there go by numbers," she says, chuckling. "But it's so not sleazy. Nicely decorated, in a chinoise way. We used to go there in groups of three or four. RM100 for one and a half hours, and it's open till 2am.
"You don't have to take off your clothes. Just wear the funky pyjamas.
"My favourite masseur was No. 71. I playfully called him 'my toad'. He looked like a toad, but in the cutest possible way: short, stocky and wears glasses.
"No. 71 had moves like I had never seen before. He would lift my legs and cross them, my arms behind my back, and press on my nerves.
"It was funny because I finally understood what tui na (Chinese massage) was about!"
Tan currently has two projects in the wings. She is the producer of It's My Life!, an improvised stage musical for teens directed by her husband. It is due to open on Nov 27 at the University Cultural Centre.
And she makes her directorial debut in Do Not Disturb, Late Checkout Please, slated to open on Dec 18 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
And you can bet that with such a hectic schedule, it probably won't be long before she hits the road for Penang - to do nothing.
A night shot of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the major filming location of Tan's upcoming movie, Funeral Party.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times special, "Travel Malaysia 2008", on Oct 18. It is published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.