World Facts Index > Malaysia > Penang

From a tourist map, the island of Penang looks somewhat like a mink pelt laid flat. Georgetown, its capital, sits roughly on the right arm of the skin, while the Muka Head Lighthouse on the left signals the strategic appeal that had the British East India Company come a-calling two centuries ago. Somewhere near the head is a cluster of good beaches that lends Penang the euphemism of a resort island. Penang Hill is at the centre, near where the animal's heart might have been, while the figurative legs are hosts to an international airport and the Batu Maung Fishing Village.

As for that adjacent strip of land on the mainland called Seberang Perai (formerly Province Wellesley), the other territorial half of the Penang State, the arrival of the North-South Highway and the Penang Bridge has brought sweeping industrialisation and urbanisation to its nostalgic rural landscape of padi fields, Malay kampungs and plantation townships.


Georgetown has stayed as ruggedly antique as its kingly name suggests. Indeed, rare is a city that so authentically retraces from one end to another the footsteps of the colonialists, and the trading diasporas chasing the prosperous heels of Empire's enterprise, that its streets were nakedly captured on celluloid depicting a 19th-century scene in "Anna and the King". And as noted by the Penang Heritage Trust, a private conservation activist, "a few" first-generation brick buildings (1790-1830) survive in the old historic core, while "the majority of its 10,000 heritage buildings span the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries".

The rarity starts at Fort Cornwallis, the very spot where Captain Francis Light had disembarked on 16 July 1786 and set up a fort in wooden haste. Rebuilt later with convict labour, other modern day touristy supplements, a history gallery and a souvenir shop, within the fort have become as much its guardians as the Sri Rambai Cannon at a corner, hyped for its mystified salvage from off the shores of Penang. The empire's architectural tastes have splendidly survived in the Town Hall, City Hall and the State Legislative Building, further anglicised by the green grass field (Padang Kota Lama) at their doorsteps, a trademark of British colonial capitals. And who can say for sure on these fields sybaritic colonial ghosts may not still linger in the presence of such a stubborn relic of the imperialistic zenith as yet another Clock Tower donated by some rich local on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, Crickets are out of fashion here, though, with local sports and events being the dishes of the day.

Lebuh Pantai

More colonial artefacts line one of Penang's oldest streets, Lebuh Pantai, where palm trees once swayed in tropical elegance. It is now a congested quarter of moneylenders and noisy commerce, being the dead centre of the modern business district. The waterfront, a narrow alleyway away, is the site of Frank Swettenham's Pier and the ferry terminal, where yellow lumbering ferries preserve a reminiscent frame of life across the Penang Straits before the lengthy Penang Bridge was built. Close by, Kampung Ayer is a village on stilts and home to several generations of harbour workers and their families.

Chinatown and KOMTAR

Stepping away from the colonialists' enclave, the stuff that truly made Penang begins in an amalgam of cramped narrow bristling thoroughfares. Godowns and two-storey shop-houses built Penang. Most still stand nonchalantly about as going-concerns, a colourful fabric of russet roofs and crusted stuccos from the raised panorama of the KOMTAR, which in its aesthetic incompatibility serves remarkably well as a directional marker, for there is nothing as garishly tall on the island. The shop fronts are unmistakeably Straits Chinese with their lettered colonnades, colourful awnings and treasured delicacies and herbal roots. And for bonus, Penang's Chinatown does not lack intricate architectural adornments. The Khoo Kongsi clan house and the Cheong Fat Tze Mansion are positively among the best of their kinds.

Pitt Street

Within the borders of Georgetown lie several notable religious monuments of diverse faiths. Pitt Street may have been renamed to a mouthful Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, but the town planners' idea of a "street of harmony" had won the day. Through good and bad times, the Taoist Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Hindu Maha Mariamman Temple, the Muslim Kapitan Kling Mosque and the Acheen Street Mosque have been close neighbours for over one century.

Little India, Gurney Drive and the Suburbs

Indian and Chetty moneychangers, Singhalese silverware and lace vendors, and the "Bombay merchants" have their own corner too. Theirs are an experience of sights, smells and sounds straddling a few streets around Lebuh Pasar commonly called Little India where an abundance of saris, garlands, trinkets, sculptures, Indian music and curries jostle for the hard-earned dollar.

West of Jalan Penang hides an enclave of stylish mansions set in manicured compounds, where ethos of an exclusive brand of existence live on within the fences of the Millionaire's Row. Where tall casuarinas swayed and swimming was once a pleasant pursuit at the beach of Gurney Drive, modern cafes and bars have sprung up to serve the needs of a new age-one of high-rise condominiums, land reclamation and nighttime bike racing. Pulau Tikus, nonetheless, has charmingly remained a middle-class residential district of tree-lined avenues and pretty bungalows, and now hosts a lively wine-and-dine scene.

Alas! This island is heavy from the weight of history and culture. Everywhere one turns, a reminder pops up and burst into song like the Streisand classic "The Way We Were". St George's Church, the Penang Museum and Art Gallery, the Heritage Centre at Syed Alatas Mansion are among the many wonderful options to pass a lazy afternoon.

Northern Beaches and Batu Ferringhi

Batu Ferringhi had seen quieter days when the seventies' hippies combed its crystalline beaches and blue water. Today the 3km stretch of beachfront is packed cheek-by-jowl with world-class hotels and eateries along with a nocturnal clutch of trinket stalls, tailors, street hawkers and rowdy bars. Several other beaches of the North Coast, Teluk Bahang, Teluk Duyung, Monkey Beach, Pantai Kerachut and Pantai Mas, get progressively better and less crowded going west.

Pening Hills and Ayer Hitam

A series of hills rise up toward the centre of the Penang island and the highest of these is the Penang Hill, coming in at 821m above sea level. A big refrigerator like this could not have escaped the attention of those sweat-drenched, fair-skinned types, and it certainly did not. Today, it begs of relief from greedy developers and tardy administrators. Luckily, around the hills still scatter a few delectable attractions of the greener varieties, including the Botanical Gardens and the Ayer Itam Dam. The Kek Lok Si Temple makes an imposing spectacle on the approach to the Ayer Itam district from downtown, befitting its name the "Million Buddhas Precious Pagoda".

Seberang Perai

Three kilometres across the Penang Straits, Butterworth in the old days was better known for its ferry link to the Georgetown and as a railhead and transhipment point for the exports of the Peninsula. How things have changed! For recreation, there are Penang Bird Park, Snow Land, and the Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest. But the signboards on the spanking freeways are more likely to give directions to sprawling housing estates, mega shopping malls and rumbling industrial parks.

History of Penang

The history of Penang meaningfully began when a quick wit Francis Light discovered that this island off the northern Malaya littoral was the seamless fit in the jigsaw of the British Empire's eastern money puzzle. Then, the East India Company (EIC) had been pulling in the Empire's 18th century bacon in Asia, from India particularly, with profitable and uncompassionate finesse, but something was still missing. When it caught Francis Light's fancy and imagination in 1771, Pulau (Malay for island) Pinang (betel nut), as it was known, had a population of roughly 50 and was owned by the Sultanate of Kedah. A deal was struck only a decade later when the Sultan's heir, Abdullah, came to the throne. "Take the island and take away my enemies," were the Sultanate's terms, referring to northerly Siamese and Burmese threat, plus $30,000 a year for rent.

1786 saw Light set up a port in Penang, but British occupation of Penang was not legally ratified until five years later when gunboat diplomacy forged a 1791 treaty that imposed on the Sultanate of Kedah a reduced annual rental of $,6000. In 1800, the adjacent mainland area, Province Wellesley, was also the British to keep. The stronghold of fishing folks then on Penang island gained a new kind of life under Light's founding zeal, and generous land grants attracted large number of settlers, particularly the Chinese. The first Chinese to establish themselves in Penang came from a Chinese community in Kedah, and the first Kapitan Cina was a baba named Koh Lay Huan.

In two years, a cosmopolitan population of largely Chinese, Indian, Sumatrans and Burmese of several thousand sprouted. Light was declared the Superintendent and Penang a free port. Light renamed Penang "Prince of Wales Island", while Georgetown was named after the reigning king, George III.

Light passed away in 1796, overworked and disillusioned, and was buried at the Protestants' Cemetery. His legacy abounds in Penang, from a street in his name, Lebuh Light'to a memorial at St George's Church, and a "Francis Light Well" at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, where his former residence, a handsome bungalow, remains in good condition.

Thus Penang was the first EIC settlement in Malaya, and was followed in quick succession by Singapore in 1819 and Malacca in 1824, leading to the formation of the Straits Settlements in 1826. The British Colonial Office took direct control in 1867 and Penang was officially a crown colony. From then on, Penang became as oriental as the Chinese coolies and merchants who settled on the island in increasing numbers. Chinese diasporas through the ages had sought protection and a sense of belonging in clans, which were largely organised along dialect groups or ancestral districts. Khoo Kongsi, Cheah Kongsi, Yeoh Kongsi, Chung Keng Kooi Temple, Carpenters,  Guild, Ng Fook Thong Cantonese Districts Association and the numerous guilds and clans along Lebuh King are good illustrations.

An unsavoury mutation of these benevolent self-help formations and fronts of solidarity was the infiltration of triad or secret society operations in the thick of these patriotic and hot-blooded yellow-skinned thoroughbreds. The Penang Riots marked nine days of fighting and bloodshed among the big-name secret societies in the streets of Penang. The authorities, were helpless against the rout and the jails could not keep up with a surge of criminal demand.

But soon the Malay Peninsula was to enter a new phase of interventionist rule under the British from which a semblance of civility and order gradually developed. The Pangkor Agreement in 1874 gave rise to the appointment of Sir Frank Swettenham, who lent his name to the Frank Swettenham's Pier'the first British Resident-General of the Federated Malay States who would significantly improve British political control. A historian noted, "The economic development and the law and order brought about by the British served as a great stimulus to immigration, and hence the Chinese population in Singapore and Malaya increased substantially."

In addition, the Suez Canal had opened in 1869, which had the effect of quadrupling the volume of British trade with India alone by the end of that century. The first rail line in Malaysia, 8.5 miles from Weld Quay to Taiping, started service in 1885. Penang prospered and the nouveau riche towkays built themselves grand temples of wealth along Millionaire's Row, and even grander exhibits of success, like the Cheong Fat Tze Mansion with its accompanying servants' quarters across the road which had been converted into modern dining and entertainment outlets, such as 20 Leith Street and Jaipur Court. The legacy of the Chinese immigrants lives on in the heart of Chinatown, the riots a distant and forgotten memory and the most visible landmark along Lebuh Armenian today is 120 Armenian Street, once the office of Dr Sun Yet Sun's revolutionary campaign.

The cosmopolitan population of Light's time persisted to this day, though some communities like the Jews and the Armenians had moved on long ago. The proof is in the kaleidoscopic parade of religious monuments on the island, such as the Cathedral of the Assumption and Georgetown Baptist Church; the Taoist Tua Peh Kong Temple and Snake Temple; the Buddhist Dharmikara Temple and Wat Chayamangkalaram; the Hindu Ayira Vaisyar Sri Meenakshi Temple and the Sikh Gurdwara Temple; and finally, the State Mosque and Acheen Street Mosque.

Perhaps true to Kipling's "call to humility and warning that the proudest empire is ephemeral as a day's pageant", the British walked into a moment of weakness, a permanent one in retrospect, at the Second World War. The curtains came down for the white men and his phoney "white men's burden". Nevertheless, the island inherited the best samples of British colonial architecture in this country in buildings like the Town Hall, the State Legislative Building and many more along the commercial thoroughfare of Lebuh Pantai.

Penang, free to forge its own destiny, jumped onto the 1957 Independence bandwagon as the other states of Malaya and became an inseparable part of this country's nationhood.


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Copyright 2005