George Town, the capital of the island of Penang was established by Capt Francis Light in 1786. Just off the northwest coast of the Malay Peninsula, Penang is the oldest British settlement in Malaysia. It is said that the island was a dank tangle of dense undergrowth and impassable forests and it took a cannon shot of gold coins to motivate hired labourers to start clearing the area! Capt Light named the capital of this new territory after his king, George III of England.
Penang soon grew into a thriving port and trading outpost of the Far East and George Town into one of the most attractive locations in the east. So attractive that Penang’s colourful history notwithstanding, it is vibrant, sparkling George Town that draws in tourists by the ferry-full! It’s admixture of colonial British and traditional Asian give it an extremely pleasant and interesting personality as two very diverse cultures come together in Anglican churches, Chinese temples, Malay mosques, bustling bazaars and crowded market streets. George Town’s flavour is quintessentially Chinese – old men play mahjong on street corners, trishaws peddle their way madly through narrow alleys, the air is heady with the salty aroma of soy sauce mingling with the sweet smell of incense from temples and stone dragons glare balefully from their vantage positions on gateways.
Faced with the inexorable march of time, old George Town gave way to modern high rises, government offices and temples dedicated to Mammon. The single-minded pursuit of commerce transformed the old city into a booming commercial centre, the financial heart of Penang. But winds of modernisation notwithstanding, all it needs is a whiff of salt air with underlying hint of curry to evoke images of a different era. The streets of George Town teem with life, particularly after dark and offer a glimpse of the history and culture of this city – Carnarvon St. Love Lane, Pitt Street or Campbell Street evoke memories of British rule as do the buildings along Beach Street and Light Street.
Fort Cornwallis: the heart of George Town and the starting point of Capt Light’s forays into this uninhabited island became an outpost of the Empire when the fort was constructed in the early years of the 19th century. Named after Lord Cornwallis, Viceroy of India, the fort protected British regional interests, particularly from the French forces in the area. The fort precincts have been converted into a public park with an open-air theatre, a gallery and souvenir shops selling local crafts.
The highpoints of a visit to Fort Cornwallis’ fortified compound are the many cannons that lie scattered around – some were captured from the marauding pirates of the South China Sea, most have interesting tales to tell like the old Dutch cannon that witnessed the ebb and flow of many powers and some like Seri Rambai, the largest and most important cannon that is venerated for its procreative powers. Dating back to the 1600s, it is hugely popular with childless women who come especially to lay flowers in the barrel of ‘the big one’ and pray for a child. St. George Church on Farquahar St. is one of the oldest Anglican churches (1818) in the region and so a landmark in its own right. It was built by convict labour and still has a daily morning and evening service.
Next door to the fort is the Esplanade – a promenade that stretches along the waterfront and has streetside hawkers extolling the virtues of their wares in full-throated volume. Right in the middle of the Esplanade is a large square around which are old colonial buildings housing the city administration offices. Particularly impressive is the City Hall, an imposing edifice of soaring columns and tall windows characteristic of the neo- Palladian architecture so popular in Imperial England at the time.
In consonance with their colonial past, George Towners keep time with their colonial past – literally, with the 60 ft tall Jubilee Clock Tower on Jalan Tun Syed Sheik Barakbah – each foot of height represents one year of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Philanthropist-millionaire, Cheah Chen Eok gifted the clock tower to the state of Penang in 1897, the Diamond Jubilee year of the Empress’s rule.
Visitors to George Town find its ambience reflecting its multicultural society whether it is in the numerous Chinese, Buddhist or Hindu temples, mosques or the ornate mansions of the wealthy Chinese merchants.