THE UNEXPECTED APPEAL OF GEORGETOWN
As the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang, Georgetown is big, busy, and very modern; it’s also fascinating – as we found out today when we did a tour of the city’s main sights. What makes Georgetown so interesting for us is the mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, British, Thai, and Burmese cultures. All of these nationalities brought the best of their culinary traditions and an amazing wealth of architecture, some of which we got to see today. No wonder the city was granted UNESCO World Heritage status!
Georgetown was once a major trading port, where spices, timber, opium, silk, and other goods from the Far East were traded for gold, silver, and commodities from Europe and India. As a trading epicentre, the island state of Penang attracted migrants from all over Asia and grew to become a prosperous, multicultural settlement. So beautiful and wealthy was Penang that it became known as the Pearl of the Orient.
The island of Penang was part of the Sultanate of Kedah for many centuries, until Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah leased the island to British Captain Francis Light in 1786 in exchange for military protection against the Siamese. For the British, Penang was a convenient base for trade and an ideal location from which to keep an eye of French and Dutch colonial expansion in South East Asia. The Brits built a fort on the island (Fort Cornwallis) and built a settlement there which they named Georgetown in honour of King George III.
Fort Cornwallis was our first stop of the day, and we took our time admiring not just the remnants of this fortified structure, but the views as well. The fort provides great visibility across the Straits of Malacca, which would have been vital given it was built to protect Penang from pirates and invaders.
Penang was Britain’s first settlement in South East Asia and, as well as Fort Cornwallis, the other obvious remnant from the years of British rule here are the colonial era shop-houses that line many of Georgetown’s streets.
Designed to serve as both home (upstairs) and business premises (downstairs), these shop-houses were once found throughout British Malaya. In most cities they were torn down and replaced with modern high-rises; in Georgetown, however, they were never destroyed* and remain as an example of the architectural style of the time.
*The buildings were left as they are as Penang has a strict Rent Control Act which froze house rental prices for decades, making redevelopment unprofitable.
As well as the shop-houses and fort left by the British, we also saw examples of what Penang’s other inhabitants brought to the city. Indian Muslims, for example, left their mark by building mosques; and the Siamese (i.e. Thai) and Burmese community of Penang built their own temples – the most famous examples of which are the Wat Chayamangkalaram and the Dhammikarama Temple. We saw all of these, as well as a Chinese temple and one of the many Chinese clan jetties that pepper the waterfront in Georgetown.
Clan jetties were villages on stilts built by Chinese migrant families who came to Penang in the 19th century. These clusters of wooden houses sit above the shallow waters of the Straits of Malacca and to this day are still home to extended families involved in the business of fishing and trade. The stilted village we visited belongs to the Chew family and is home to dozens of descendants of the original Chew family.
The jetty was initially just rows of plank supported by stilts constructed as a gangway for loading and off-loading cargo and passengers off boats; later they were expanded to included store houses and, eventually, homes. The houses were built on an ad hoc basis and close to each other, creating a chaotic layout that seems impenetrable to outsiders like us. Many of the houses looked pretty old and dilapidated, and our guide told us that many of the family members had left the village and opted for more modern abodes in Georgetown. This leaves the jetties in some peril of falling into disrepair, though tourism is helping keep these historic sites afloat, so to speak.
As well as clan jetties/villages, Chinese migrants who came to Penang also built temples for themselves. The grandest of these is Kek Lok Si – the Temple of Supreme Bliss.
This mammoth temple was built in 1890 and is the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. It sits atop a hill and commands some amazing views of Georgetown and the surrounding sea.
The temple complex is made up of numerous pavilions, prayer halls, and pagodas, but the main draw in is the striking seven-storey Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas which holds 10,000 alabaster and bronze statues of Buddha. Worshippers and visitors also come to pray to and admire the 30m-high statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
We spent a lot of time at Kek Lok Si, admiring the bright colours, fine woodwork, fish ponds, flower gardens, and statues. The temple was certainly impressive and attested to the wealth accumulated by the Chinese migrants who came to Penang all those years ago to make their fortune.
From Kek Lok Si we went on to see 2 more temples: Wat Chaiyamangkalaram and Dhammikarama Temple. Both are Buddhist temples, but the former was built by Siamese (i.e. Thai) migrants and the latter by Burmese migrants.
Wat Chaiyamangkalaram is most notable for its reclining Buddha statue. The statue is the 3rd largest of its kind in the world, being 33m in length. The temple was built in 1845 on a piece of land given by Queen Victoria to the Siamese as a gesture of goodwill to boost trading relations with Thailand. In addition to the reclining Buddha, there were a series of colourful statues of mythical creatures on display and vibrant murals depicting Buddha’s life story were painted on the temple walls.
By comparison the Burmese Dhammikarama Temple was less colourful, but no less beautiful. Built in 1803, this was the first kyaung (i.e. Burmese monastery-temple) in Malaysia.
Alongside all these amazing temples and old buildings, we discovered Georgetown also has an incredible assortment of street art to appreciate. Many of these fascinating pieces of art are designed around actual props and seem alluringly real.
Finally, after a rather long day of sightseeing, we made our way back to our hotel and called it a day. We had no idea Georgetown had so much interesting architecture, or so much interesting history. Penang has proven to be an unexpected delight, and a great stop on our tour through the Malay Peninsula. Tomorrow we will move on, though, and make our way Southwards to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.