Penang Island

Penang Island – Penang Pearl of the Orient (Pulau Pinang)
Widely known as the Pearl of the Orient, Penang is one of Asia’s most famous islands. Its natural beauty and exotic heritage have been attracting curious visitors for centuries.
Travel guides have referred to it as ” . . . a place of mysterious temples and palm-shrouded beaches”, while literary giant Somerset Maugham is known to have stayed on the island and spun tales about the romance of the white planter in South-East Asia.
Penang today is very much an amalgam of the old and the new – a bustling port, a heritage city and an industrial base. Perhaps it has more to offer per square mile than any other place in the world. For sheer variety of locales, cultures and foods, Penang is hard to beat. In it’s capital Georgetown, modern skyscrapers rise from one of Southeast Asia’s largest collections of intact prewar buildings. Manufactures of sophisticated electronic goods compete for space with wet markets and old temples. Where else can you find a century-old church, a Chinese temple, an Indian temple, and a Muslim mosque all within a five-minute walk from one another? Likewise, tall urban structures stand beside the red-tiled roofs of Chinatown and “Little India” is just across the road, while the Malay kampungs lie on the outskirts. The seamless melding of the many peoples of Penang is best reflected in the delicious hawker foods (available around the clock) and the adherence to traditions and customs. Festivals abound throughout the year.
Should one wish to get away from the busy city, the idlyllic beaches and soothing hills are but minutes away, while the industrial free trade zone, the “Silicon Valley of the East”, and the international airport are equally accessible.
Penang or its Malay name of Pulau Pinang is made up of a turtle-shaped island, a total of 285 square kilometers, and a strip of land called Seberang Prai on Peninsular Malaysia about 48 kilometers wide.
Places of Attractions
George Town
George Town, named by the British after King George III, is Penang’s capital city. The government centre and its financial heart, George Town is an interesting and bustling city with modern high rise buildings, cathedrals, mosques, government offices, temples, bazaars, shops and cafes. A myriad of delights, George Town is very compact – the older part of the city is a labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleyways, which makes it a pleasure to walk and sight-see.
Indeed, walking is highly recommended – a leisurely stroll will enable one to slowly drink in the many details that would otherwise be lost in a hurried tour. If walking is considered tiring, try a ride on the old but exciting trishaw.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (Link to feature story)
Cheong Fatt Tze (1840 – 1917), a Hakka from Tai Pu in the Teochew district, migrated to Java in the 1850s where he prospered and moved his base to Penang in the early 1890s. A powerful Nanyang industrialist and a first-class Mandarin in the Manchu government, he was made Consul-General in Singapore and economic advisor to the Empress Dowager.
Cheong Fatt Tze had eight wives and owned many residences throughout his trading empire but made Penang his base, where he raised his six sons.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was built over seven years from 1896 to 1904 by teams of master craftsmen from China. This mansion is only one of three of its kind left outside China. The mansion is the only stately Chinese-type dwelling representing the best of 18th and 19th century Chinese architecture in the State.
It was acquired and painstakingly restored to its original splendour by a group of conservationists several years back. To visit, go to Leith Street which is off Lebuh Farquhar, beside St. Xavier’s Institution school.
China Town
China Town on the island stretches from Weld Quay to Lebuh Stewart, lebuh Muntri, Lebuh Campbell and Lebuh King. China Town is so large and well-preserved that you will sense and feel the lifestyle of Chinese immigrant settlers who came here in the 1800s. Visitors will be intrigued by the many clanhouses, shophouses and temples found along these streets, which reflect the heritage left behind. Stepping into these streets will certainly take you back in time.
Clock Tower, Pesara King Edward
The clock tower was presented to Penang by local millionaire Cheah Chen Eok in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It towers 60 feet in high – one foot for each year of Her Majesty’s reign. The Queen had died by the time the clock tower was finally completed in 1920.
Next to Fort Cornwallis is the Esplanade, a popular waterfront promenade which stretches from the hawker stalls at one end to the clock tower at the other. Central in the Esplanade is the Padang, a huge square of town green. Standing proudly beside is the City Hall, a stately colonial building which is a fine example of British palladian architecture featuring magnificent Corinthian columns and huge windows. It was once the seat of local government.
Gurney Drive (Persiaran Gurney)
More commonly referred to as Gurney Drive, Persiaran Gurney used to be line with seaside bungalows and casuarina trees. Some of these bungalows have been converted to seaside cafes, while others have been replaced by hotels as well as condominiums including a new cmmercial complex. Still the most popular esplanade, the 2-kilometre Gurney Drive is the venue for early morning walks, tai-chi and herbal pork rib soup (bak kut teh), as well as for family outings in the evenings and out-of-town guests.
Fort Cornwallis
Fort Cornwallis is situated at the spot where Captain Francis Light was supposed to have landed in 1786. Originally a wooden structure, the fort was rebuilt between 1808 and 1810 with convict labour. It was named after Charles Marquis Cornwallis, a distinguished Governor General of India, and designed to protect the harbour from possible French attacks.
Today, much of the old fort remains, but its precincts have been converted into a public park and an open air theater. It is still guarded by old cannons, which were retrieved by the British from pirates who had captured them from the Johore Sultanate.
The most famous of the cannons is Seri Rambai, which dates back to 1613. Local beliefs have it that childless women can become fertile by placing flowers in the barrel of the cannon and offering special prayers.
The Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak, a prominent Penang landmark, houses Government departments, commercial offices, department stores, shops and restaurants. The 65-storey complex also contains theaters, squash courts and a geodesic dome which serves as a multi-purpose hall, while the 55th floor offers a panoramic view of the city and on clear days, also of Gunung Jerai in kedah.
Museum and Art Gallery
Located on Lebuh Farquhar, this newly-renovated museum is Malaysia’s most visited.
Nagore Shrine, Lebuh King
Constructed in the early 1880’s, the shrine is a memorial to the Caliph, Syed Shahul Hamid. Faithful devotees may be seen visiting the strine to seek favors on Thursdays.
The Streets of George Town
George Town, although multicultural in composite, is predominantly Chinese and a big portion of it is Chinatown – a noisy, crowded, delightful conglomeration of people, goods, mobile stalls and old shophouses.
For the best of George Town, walk along Love Lane, Pitt Street, King Street and Carnarvon Street. Certain streets like Chulia Street and Campbell Street are best viewed in (Not Netscape) the evening, when they burst to life with hawker stalls and nighttime activities. Incidentally, some of the best hawker food are found on these two streets. See also the Southern end of Penang Street for a taste of “Little India.” Along this street are several banana leaf rice restaurants and a Hindu temple.
For the best of colonial architecture, see Beach Street and Light Street, where financial institutions and chambers of the State Assembly are housed.
Penang’s History
In the 16th century, Portuguese traders from Goa, India sailed to the Far East in search of spices. It is said that a small rocky isle on the northern coast of a main island became a landmark for traders to stop and row in by boat to obtain fresh supplies of water from a nearby river. The local Malays called these traders ferringi, an Indian term for Europeans, especially Indian born Portuguese. That rocky isle was then referred to as Batu Ferringi, better known now as “Lover’s Isle”. The Portuguese called the main island “Pulo Pinaom” or Betel Nut Island. Probably areca nut palm trees were found abundantly then. The palm tree is known as PINANG to the Malays or PENANG to the English.
During the 17th century the turtle-shaped island of Penang situated at the northern entry point to the Straits of Malacca had provided a natural harbour during the monsoon months for Indian, Arabian, Chinese, Dutch, Danish and French ships. Penang island also became a haven for pirates who plundered ships that passed through the Straits of Malacca.
In the 18th century, the spice and opium trade between the East and west had become extremely lucrative. The Dutch dominated the Far East spice trade and the British too needed to establish themselves in the region. Thus, in 1765 Francis Light was instructed by his Company, Jourdain Sullivan and de Souza to establish better trade relations in this part of the world. During this period Penang island belonged to Kedah. In 1771, the Sultan of Kedah offered Captain Francis Light the island of Penang in return for British Protection from the constant threats of the Siamese and Burmese armies. This treaty never materialised as Francis Light’s superiors refused to offer any aid.
In 1772 Captain Francis Light left Kedah for Junk Ceylon (Phuket) to set up business with his friend James Scott. By then he was knowledgeable of the peoples’ customs and the local language. This helped him to win their trust in him. In 1786, Francis Light acted as middleman in securing Pulau Pinang from the new Sultan Abdullah of Kedah in return for a promise of British protection from his various enemies. It is said that before the agreement was signed, Light sailed in three vessels to the island with a small civilian and naval staff. He landed in that part of Penang now known as the Esplanade on July 17, 1786. On August 11, 1786, Light officially took possession of the island for the Crown and the East India Company. He christianed it “the Prince of Wales Island”, and the Union Jack was hoisted over the new stockade. So, in all legal documents, Penang was known as Prince of Wales Island. The settlement in the eastern cape of the island was called Georgetown named after the King of England, George III.
In 1790, when Sultan Abdullah heard that the British would not give protection, he formed an army to get rid of the Dutch and English. He assembled his men at Prai to retake the island of Penang but was defeated. Captain Francis Light had carried out night raids on the enemy’s fortress. In 1791, Sultan Abdullah signed a treaty with the British handing over Penang Island to the British. Light promised to pay the Sultan 6,000 Spanish dollars annually. Today, almost two centuries later, the Penang State Government still pays RM 18,800.00 to the Sultan of Kedah annually.
Captain Light’s term as the first Superintendent of the Prince of Wales Island came to an end in 1794. He died on October 21, 1794 at the age of 54 probably due to malaria. He was buried at the Protestant cemetery at the end of Northam Road (now known as Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah). He was survived by Martina Rozells, a local Eurasian of Portuguese descent and son, William Light who later founded the city of Adelaide, Australia.
After Francis Light’s death, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wellesley (Colonel Wellesley the then, future Duke of Wellington) arrived in Penang to coordinate the defences of the island. It was in 1800 that Sir George Leith, then Lieutenant Governor of the Prince of Wales Island secured a strip of land across the channel from the island. He named it Province Wellesley. This gave Penang control over its harbour and food supplies from the mainland. Till this day, the State of Penang comprises two areas – Penang Island and Province Wellesley.
In 1804, Penang was elevated from a Settlement to a Presidency. In 1805, a new Governor, the honourable Philip Dundas took over. His assistant secretary was Thomas Stamford Raffles, the future founder of Singapore in 1819. In 1832, the Straits Settlements was formed comprising the states of Malacca, Singapore and Penang. Penang became its capital but in 1935 Singapore took over Penang as capital of the Straits Settlements.
The latter part of the 19th century saw Penang enjoying a trade boom, as rich deposits of tin were found in the neighbouring state of Perak. Initially famed for clove and nutmeg, Penang gradually turned to sugar and coconut as cash crops. Pepper was imported from Acheh in Sumatra, in the Indonesian Archipelago, for re-export. With British intervention in the Malay states, Penang became rich from the tin mines of Perak. In time, Penang became an important immigration port for immigrants from various parts of the world, especially those from South China and those from South India. As Britain’s only strategic port of call in the Straits of Malacca, Penang was soon linked by ship to Madras, Rangoon, Medan and Singapore. It served as an entreport for southern Thailand, the north of peninsular Malaya, and also the northern region of Sumatra.
At the turn of the 20th century, Penang became a centre of export for rubber and tin. Rubber was in demand for the manufacturing of pneumatic tyres of the first generation of motor cars. The European planters and Chinese towkays (business leaders) made their money in the plantations and mines of the other northern states but built their mansions in Georgetown and sent their children to school here. With the advent of new food canning technology, tin was also in great demand. In 1905 the first hydroelectric scheme in Penang was completed, giving the island her first electricity. Penang’s first electric tramway appeared in 1906. By mid 20th century, other modes of transport such as the jin-rickshaws introduced by the Chinese, the bullock carts introduced by the Indian and the horse-carts gradually disappeared from the Penang roads.
By the 1930s, more than forty steamship lines connected Penang to the rest of the world, and there were already “Flying Boat” services to London and Singapore. Penang had become an entertainment centre, with cabarets, cinemas, amusement parks and gambling establishments. The popularity of the turm club led to the ruin of many rich families whose sons were tempted to bet on slow horses and fast women. Then came the depression. Penang’s economy suffered due to the Wall Street Crash. Before the people of Penang could recover from the depression, the Second World War broke out on December 8, 1941. The Japanese invaded Malaya. Penang was bombed and the British fled to Singapore. The year 1942 saw Penang living in fear. The days of the Japanese Kempettai were the days of horror, torture and executions. In September 4, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the British Forces.
This was followed by years of struggle for power between the communists and the democratic forces of Malaya and Britain. Malaya gained independence in August 31, 1957 and Penang became one of its 13 component states. Georgetown, which has the oldest municipal history in the country, was awarded City status by royal charter on 1st January 1957.

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed outstanding progress and development in commerce and industry. Presently Penang is officially known as Negeri Pulau Pinang. Those who have enjoyed the beauty of the island gave Penang various names – An Asia in Miniature, An Island in the Sun, The Garden of the East, The Pearl of the Orient and The Land of Festivals. By whatever name she is called, Penang Island’s cosmopolitan population of over one million come from a variety of backgrounds and culture. Each of the races of Penang’s multi-ethnic society has contributed to the rich potpourri of cultures.