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The Charm of Old George Town

The island of Penang is the first British trading settlement in the Far East.  It was established when Francis Light, a merchant operating in this region, successfully negotiated the handover of the island from the Sultan of Kedah, who was under the impression that the British would offer protection for his kingdom against attacks from Siam.  In reality, Francis Light had not obtained any approval from the British authorities in India.  He had written to them, but they had not responded.  As he could not delay his plans, so he proceeded to sign the agreement with the sultan.  

Under this backdrop of uncertainty Light landed on Penang island in 1786.  The island has already been known as Pulau Pinang, and the earliest reference to it appeared in the log of Admiral Zheng-He as Binláng Yù.  Light proceeded to rename the island Prince of Wales Island, after the then Prince of Wales, the future King George VI.  The main town on the island was named George Town, after the reigning King George III.  To the Malays, this part of the island the protrudes into the sea was and still is called Tanjung.  

The earliest part of town stretches all the way to the Praingin canal, which today has disappeared under the Komtar pedestrian mall and Jalan Dr. Lim Chwee Leong.  All the earliest roads were laid out according to function.  The first was Light Street, named after the founder himself, and was where he placed all the earliest administrative structures of the colony.    At one end was the jetty, now gone, and on the other end a well, which is now within the premises of the Convent Light Street Girls’ School.

Much of the east coast of the island was mangrove swamp.  This meant the area had to be reclaimed to stabilise it.  During Light’s time, Beach Street fronted the sea, hence its name.  Subsequent reclamations added new land to the eastern shore.  

A fort was placed right at the very tip of the promontory, aimed squarely at Kedah.  It was first built of nipah palms and later rebuilt with bricks.  And it was brought to good use too.  When the Sultan of Kedah realised he had been tricked into parting with Penang, he mounted an offensive to get back the island.  However the attempt was unsuccessful, and he ended up having to agree to cede the island to the British East India Company, for an annual sum of 6,000 Spanish dollars, an amount which the Penang government continues to pay the Sultan of Kedah, in ringgit, to this day.

Francis Light created George Town without much experience in town planning.  As a result, the roads of George Town branch out from the few main streets like a web.  Later on, his son William was to correct much of his town planning “mistakes”, when he founded the city of Adelaide in Australia.  Nevertheless, within this very haphazard nature that George Town was created lies much of its charms today.  There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, and alleyways that hide wonderful discoveries.  

To ensure the survival of his new trading post, Francis Light opened the port to free trade, and invited merchants from all over to settle there.  Peoples of many lands came to settle here.  There were the Achenese from northern Sumatra, Eurasians fleeing religious persecution in Phuket, Chinese traders seeking refuge from Manchu oppressions and Indian Muslim traders leaving the poverty of southern India.  Burmese merchants, Jews, Armenians, Persians, Arabs all add to this melting pot.  

Francis Light never lived long to enjoy the fruits of his labour.  He was put down by malaria in 1794, just eight years after establishing Penang.  He did leave behind a number of properties on the island, perhaps the biggest was a pepper estate named after his homeland, Suffolk.  

Each group was parcelled into its own enclave.  Although George Town is homogeneously Chinese today, as we walk its streets, we will come across street names that tell wonderful stories of the people who once settled there.  The British attempt at transcribing sounds resulted in a corruption of many local names, some bearing very little resemblance to its actual meaning.  At the top of the list is Penang, which was corrupted from Pinang.  Apart from the British, and the people in Malaysia and Singapore, everyone else calls it Pinang.  

The British and Eurasians were the earliest to occupy George Town.  Bishop Street, Church Street and Argus Lane all bear presence.   The earliest Chinese first settled along China Street, which they called Tua Kay.  It ran all the way from Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling), where they have their most important temple, the Kong Hock Keong, better known as the Kuan Yin Teng, or the Goddess of Mercy Temple, to the beach.  Later reclamation added China Street Ghaut, much to their dissatisfaction, because it blocks their temple from its auspicious sea frontage view.   

As the Chinese began to polarise among themselves, they moved south to establish respective communities centred around their own clanhouses.  As each clan grew in prosperity, so did the opulence of their temples.  The five main clan temples in George Town belonged to the Cheahs, the Khoos, the Lims, the Tans and the Yeohs.  Of these, the Cheahs were the first while the Khoos the wealthiest.  The Khoos have two ornate clan temples in Penang, namely the Leong San Tong (which everybody knows as the Khoo Kongsi), probably the biggest clan temple outside China, and the Boon San Tong (the lesser known Khoo Kongsi).

The Malays settled on the northern shore, at the first estuary, which they called Kuala Awal.  The British corrupted this name into Kelawei.  There is still a mosque and a small Malay presence along the road that bears that name.  

The Achenese, another Malay group, settled on the south side of town.  Their mosque is located along the road that bear their name, Acheen Street.  Another road which started with a sizable Malay population was called Malay Lane.  It was later made part of Pitt Street, and then today, became part of Armenian Street.  The home of a prominent Malay community leader, Syed Alatas still stands there today, and now houses the Penang Muslim Museum.

The South Hindus occupied the area between King Street and Queen Street.  The oldest temple, the Mahamariamman, is located there.  Within a stone’s throw away are the Indian Muslims, who occupied Chulia Street all the way to Penang Road.  Indeed many names within this area attest to the South Indian presence, including Chulia Street, Kampung Malabar and Chowrasta Market.  Nagore Shrine, Noordin Mausoleum, and Kapitan Kling Mosque were all of Indian Muslim origin, and can be explored along Chulia Street.  Living alongside the South Indians are the North Indians, whose most important temple, the Sri Kunj Bihari Mandir at Penang Road, lend its name to the nearby Sri Bahari Road.  

Communities of Thais and Burmese occupy the area further west.  The Thai Wat Chaiyamangkalaram and the Burmese Dhammikarama Temple stand face to face along Burmah Lane, which was named after them, as did Bangkok Lane, Burmah Road, Irrawaddy Road, Salween Road, and so on.  

Peoples from even the most obscure corners of the globe arrived to settle in Penang.  Armenian Street was given its name because a family of Armenians settled at the corner near Beach Street, and was encourage to move there.  The majority were settled along Beach Street, where they built their church, the St. Gregory, which disappeared long ago.

Although it occupies only a small area, Old George Town continues to charm visitors and guests, who come from far and wide to experience its atmosphere.  

Further reading:
Timothy Tye is the founder of AsiaExplorers and a Council Member of Penang Heritage Trust.  He has written extensively about Asia, and about Penang in particular.  To read more about the different sights in Penang, visit this list on the AsiaExplorers website:

*For more about Penang, please visit