Georgetown is the capital of the island of Penang which lies off the north-west coast of Peninsular Malaysia in South East Asia. Georgetown is currently undergoing a kind of renaissance due in no small part to the UNESCO Heritage inscription on the 7th July 2008. It is recognised as having “a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia”.
In 1786 it was leased by the Malay Sultan of Kedah to Captain Francis Light, an English trader who worked for the East India Company in exchange for military protection. Captain Light, known as the founder of Penang, hoisted the Union Jack taking formal possession and renamed it Prince of Wales Island (a name used until 1867)
The settlement on the north-eastern tip built around the harbour was named George Town after King George III. Fort Cornwallis formed the islands defence. The original four streets of George Town were Beach, Light, Pitt and Chulia Street, still the main thoroughfares today.
In 1826 Penang became part of the Straits Settlements under British administration and was established in 1867 as a free port and crown colony. Trading in opium, pepper, spices and exporting tin and rubber to China, India, Siam, Sumatra, Java and Britain.
In 1946 the Straits Settlements were dissolved and Penang became part of the Malayan Union before becoming in 1948 a state of the Federation of Malaya which gained independence in 1957. In 1963 it became one of the 13 states of Malaysia.
Penang and its trade attracted people from far and wide. The Chinese were the largest group acting as merchants and traders in tin and involved in pepper and sugar-cane cultivation. The Indians were merchants, plantation workers and money lenders. The Malays were largely farmers. There were Arabs, Europeans and many others. The town is still thriving as a living working city, still carrying out many of the traditional trades with a true ‘melting pot’ of diverse cultures.
The result is reflected in an equally diverse culinary heritage with the food of several countries all in one place! The most ‘famous’ is the “hawker food” or street food, sold from either roadside stalls or in the coffee shops also known as ‘Kopitiams.’ Georgetown is evolving and gentrifying and now offers an even greater choice of food. New cafes and restaurants are increasingly springing up all around town but seem to be sitting comfortably alongside the old.
PLACES AND SITES
Heritage Tour, Penang Museum, Fort Cornwallis, The Clan Jetties, Little India.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Peranakan Mansion, Khoo Kongsi Clan House.
The House of Yeap Chor Ee, Sun Yat Sen .
Kapitan Keling Mosque, St Georges Church, The Thai and Burmese Buddhist Temples.
Goddess of Mercy Temple, Han Jiang Ancestral Temple, Sri Maha Mariamman Temple.
Penang Hill and The Habitat, Kek Lok Si Temple.
Suffolk House or The Eastern and Oriental Hotel for afternoon tea.
The Botanic Gardens, The Tropical Spice Garden.
The National Park – Pantai Acheh.
The diverse ethnic mix is also reflected in the many annual Festivals no sooner does one finish and another begins! Probably nowhere else in the world could you find a Temple, a Church, a Clan House and a Mosque all within 5 minutes walk of each other.
Chinese New Year, Quing Ming, Mooncake Festival, Bangsawan, Boria, the Chingay Procession, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the Hungry Ghosts Festival, Thaipusam, Ramadhan, Deepavali Festival and many others. Many retain 19th Century rituals whilst others have evolved and have new and uniquely Malaysian elements.
Life in Penang, of which Georgetown is the heart, is becoming more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Manufacturing of the latest electronics and shopping malls compete for space with long established markets and temples. There is a burgeoning art and music scene, galleries are jostling for space alongside the cafes and cake shops.
The best way to ‘experience’ Penang? On foot definitely – just wander through the streets and Penang will reveal itself to you.