Alternatively known as ‘the White Man’s Grave’, Prince of Wales Island, and Pearl of the Orient, Malaysia’s fourth largest isle is also its most populated – and historical.
On August 11, 1786, trader Captain Francis Light came ashore to Penang and claimed the land on behalf of the British East India Company, as a base for its business in the region.
One of his first acts was to build Fort Cornwallis – named after an 18th century Governor-General of Bengal, India – as defence against the neighbouring Sultan of Kedah, rampant piracy, and the French, with whom Britain was fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.
Originally a simple stockade made from palm trees, by 1810 it had been rebuilt as a star-shaped brick and stone garrison, with a moat nine metres wide. This was the foundation of the settlement of George Town – the capital of Penang.
Named by Captain Light after King George III, it grew to become one of Britain’s most commercially successful colonies, until Malaysia declared independence on August 31, 1957.
On July 7, 2008, the city, along with Malacca on the southwest coast of the Malaysian Peninsula (along with Singapore, they were once collectively known as the ‘Straits Settlements’) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the report states: “The two towns constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia… This multi-cultural tangible and intangible heritage is expressed in the great variety of religious buildings of different faiths, ethnic quarters, the many languages, worship and religious festivals, dances, costumes, art and music, food, and daily life.”
While former British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong have destroyed much of their heritage architecture in the pursuit of development, Penang, and specifically George Town, has retained most of its.
While this can partly be attributed to the island’s gradual commercial decline – superseded in importance by the likes of the Lion City to the south – it is also greatly due to strict rent controls that were in place until 2000.
Designed to make housing affordable, they also made redevelopment an unattractive proposition for land developers. This has left the city with an enviable assemblage of 100-year old shophouses, grandiose neo-classical mansions, stately banking headquarters, and ancient temples, mosques, and even a (disused) synagogue.
Since its UNESCO listing, the state government has allocated funds for the protection and refurbishment of George Town’s most stately structures, including City Hall, and more recently, Suffolk House – perhaps the greatest example of the determination to restore the past.
The first ‘Great House of Penang’ and Malaysia’s only surviving Georgian mansion, Suffolk House was the home of Captain Light, and later served as the residence for a succession of British governors. By the 1950s it housed a Methodist Boy’s School, but a lack of upkeep meant that in 1975 it was declared unsafe and left abandoned.
In 2000, a substantial restoration effort was launched at the cost of RM5 million (B50 million), which saw the building restored to its early 19th century grandeur. Plans are already afoot to hold parties in the stately ballroom, much as they would have been done in centuries past.
With concerted government efforts, and the support of private and company donations (HSBC alone, which has had an office in George Town since 1884, contributed S$1 million – B25 million – to restore Suffolk House), the future of Penang’s past has never looked so bright.
However, preservation of historic structures is only one part of the puzzle. Just as, if not more important, is preserving the living heritage – the businesses, crafts, art and culture that together make up the wonderful tableaux that is modern day George Town.
No one is doing more to celebrate this rich mix than the folks behind the annual George Town Festival (GTF), a month-long celebration of art, music, theatre, dance opera and film that commemorates George Town’s inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage listing on 7 July, 2008.
Held each year since 2009, the unique appeal of the festival lies in its well-balanced blend of local cultural performance and events with cutting edge international performances. According to the organisers, “For centuries, Penang was renowned as an international commercial gateway. GTF was created to put George Town and Penang back on the world stage as an international boutique destination for art and culture.”
One of the highlights of the 2012 edition was launch show ‘Silat – Our Heritage for the World’, a spectacular performance held within the walls of Fort Cornwallis itself, which was commissioned especially for the gala opening of GTF 2012, and attended by the Penang Yang di-Pertua Negri (governor) Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas as well as Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.
Helmed by award-winning producer and director Saw Teong Hin, production designer Liew Kung-Yu, lighting designer Dorothy P’ng and choreographer Aida Redza, the production was a hybrid of theatrics infused with traditional music and contemporary visuals – and a hugely impressive, and successful launch for the GTF.
Highlights throughout the remainder of the festival included contemporary Finnish dance piece Blinded Mind, which told the tale of the unavoidable consequences that ensue when a single individual bravely swims against the prevailing stream; The Manganiyar Seduction, a unique confluence of traditional Rajasthani music and striking contemporary theatre; and Mirrors George Town, a street art project created by international artist Ernest Zacharevic especially for the GTF.
The project consists of 6 to 12 large-scale wall paintings strategically placed within the core heritage zone of George Town.
On July 15, the closing of the festival was marked by Tropfest 2012, officiated by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. Held in Penang Botanical Gardens, it was part of the world’s largest short film festival, with other locations in New Zealand, Australia, the US, UAE, and India. Next year should see it expand to become Tropfest Southeast Asia.
Seen in tandem with a slew of regeneration projects, and the numerous heritage hotels, art galleries, bars and restaurants, the GTF is representative of Penang’s opening up to the world. Put together with other home-grown events, such as the Little Penang Street Market (littlepenang.com.my), an arts and crafts fair held on the last Sunday of the month, it’s helping to project the island’s multicultural and historic heritage to the world – it’s ensuring George Town’s rich, historic past has a role to play in its future.
Malaysian airline Firefly flies direct from Phuket to Penang, with return ticket prices costing approximately B5,900. From Penang airport it’s about a 30 minute car journey to George Town, which should cost around RM30 (B300) in a pre-paid airport white taxi.
With joint hubs in Penang and Subang, Kuala Lumpur, Firefly also offer direct flights to a host of Malaysian destinations, including Kuantan, Langkawi, Malacca, and Kuala Lumpur, as well as Singapore and Indonesia, For more information on flights, routes and special promotions, visit fireflyz.com.my
Where to stay
For a taste of old George Town, look no further than the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel (known ubiquitously as the E&O). Founded in 1885 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers, who also built the The Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Rangoon, for well over a century, this remarkable hotel has stood as a testament to the grand elegance of the British colonial era, its name synonymous with the island of Penang.
For a more contemporary and beach-side stay, check into the E&O’s sister property, the Lone Pine, which is tucked in an idyllic spot along the north shore. eohotels.com
Before you embark on a walkabout of George Town, stop by the Penang Heritage Trust (26 Lebuh Gereja; +604 264 2631; www.pht.org.my) to pick up maps and brochures, alternatively arrange a guided tour with them ahead of time.
The Penang Global Tourism office on Beach Road is a great source of information on the island at large, with free maps, and information on their ‘Last Day of the Month’ happenings, which include fun and free activities such as a guided walk in the Penang Botanic Gardens. Open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-5.30pm. visitpenang.gov.my
As well as an abundance of heritage architecture, Penang is also rightly famed for its culinary offerings. A reflection of the state’s dynamic multicultural make-up (the only Chinese majority state in Malaysia, roughly 40 per cent of the population are Malay, and 10 per cent Indian), the cuisine is a hotchpotch of flavours and ingredients.
For authentic Chinese street food, head to the outdoor hawker centre at New Lane off Jalan McAllister, close to the landmark Komtar, where you should order the excellent durian apom manis (sweet pancake, RM2/B20 for five pieces), Penang laksa (RM3/B30), chicken satays (RM10/B100 for eight), and the chee cheong fun (RM3/B30). Wrap up your meal with a big bowl of ais kacang topped with ice-cream (RM3.50/B35).
Alternatively, if you’re seeking seafood then catch a taxi or trishaw to Gurney Drive, a coastal road home to a massive shopping mall (gurneyplaza.com.my) and great restaurants. Bali Hai is among the most popular, with huge tanks from where you can select your dinner (90 Persiaran Gurney, +604 2288 272; www.balihaiseafood.com. Prices vary). Try the unique fish head claypot, cooked with preserved salted vegetables.
Alternatively, Little India, with its booming sounds of Bollywood and scent of spices, is the best place in town for banana leaf, the filling assemblage of rice, vegetables, dhal and optional meat. Sri Ananda Bahwan on Lebuh Pendang serves probably the best in town.
Lastly, for a meal befitting a heritage tour of Penang, makes reservations at George Town’s most exclusive and famed restaurant – The 1885 at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (10 Lebuh Farquhar, +604 222 2000; www.e-o-hotel.com).
While one of the more expensive meals in town, the elegant surroundings and seafront location make this the perfect place to raise a toast to George Town’s British founder Captain Francis Light.