Penang, also known as one of the “Pearls of the Orient,” is a small island off the coast of the Malaysian Peninsula. Known to be an affordable haven of good food, it also boasts of rich history and cultural diversity. Unlike most other states in Malaysia, Penang was a British colony for over 150 years—a free port that enjoyed exponential development during the 1800s. It was a magnet for English writers and a hub for Asian intellectuals; a population that had (and still has) an uncanny mastery of English.

Today, the city center Georgetown is a UNESCO heritage site home to buildings over two centuries old. Well preserved and documented, Georgetown is key to understanding the geo-political history of Malaysia. So please allow me, a Penangite, to give you a chronologically correct and in depth travel itinerary for exploring Penang and its history.

As of 2018, Penang’s population is 42.25% Malay, 39.42% Chinese, 9.43% Indian and 8.62% foreigner. But how did it get there?

Late 18th Century—Founding and British Influence

Up until the 16th century, Penang belonged to the Sultanate of Kedah. Following the boom of maritime trade, the Strait of Malacca became a vital point for political and economic control. The British were aware of this, and famously noted that if "Malay, Bugis and Chinese will come to reside here (Penang), it will become the Exchange of the East if not loaded with impositions and restrictions" (Lewis & Su Lin, 2016, p.34).

Penang was eventually traded to the British East India Company in 1786, in exchange for desperately needed military protection from Siam and Burma. The British built Fort Cornwallis where they landed, a site that still stands today (recent archaeological discovery). Beside the fort lies Esplanade, an unflattering field where the Union Jack was raised for the first time. Right next to that is the all important Hameed Pata Mee Sotong, a great example of cultural diversity in food that just happens to be one of my personal favorite Indian noodle shops.

Lieutenant-Governor of the Prince of Wales Island, Sir George Leith, remarked that "there is not, probably, any part of the world where, in so small a space, so many different people are assembled together or so great a variety of languages spoken." (Lewis & Su Lin, 2016, p.35)

19th Century—Migrant Influences

Traders flocked to Penang, which is reflected in a sharp increase of incoming vessels: from 85 ships in 1786 to 3,569 ships in 1802. Incoming migrants flooded Georgetown, mostly hailing from Southern Chinese, Indian, Eurasian and Siamese (Thai) origins, in effect turning Georgetown into a melting pot of cultures and religions. You can still find some of this vibe down on Pitt Street, which is known for housing places of worship from Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu cultures, plus places for Chinese ancestry worship.

Chinese Culture

The local Chinese population organized themselves into clans grouped according to their origins (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teowchew, etc.), and according to their surnames (Khoo, Cheah, Yeap, Goh, etc.). This lifestyle left a trail of stories and architecture best discovered by exploring the streets of Georgetown, which have been transformed into temples to honor the past, featuring detailed inscriptions of their history written into the walls.

Clanhouses, or Kongsi (公司 in Hokkien) served as administrative and spiritual headquarters for the operations of the various clans, whose activities ranged from providing support during ordinary times to protection during clan wars. Today, they are still used as shrines to honor the past, and many are open to the public. Some notable ones include Khoo Kongsi and Yap Kongsi.

Ng Fook Thong Temple is also an interesting place to visit, located just a short walk away. Founded in 1820, it is argued to be one of the earliest Chinese teaching academies in Malaysia. Having served as a temple and as an academy across two centuries, it is among the oldest buildings in Georgetown.

Clan Jetties are floating villages built by the early immigrants so they could reside close to the harbor area where many of them worked. Just like clan houses, they are divided according to surnames, such as Chew Jetty and Tan Jetty. Despite being a hot spot for photographers and sketching artists alike, the residents do not typically appreciate visitors treating their homes as a tourist attraction, so please be respectful when visiting.

Clan Jetties, Penang | source: unsplash

The Chinese community in Penang also hosts multiple events throughout the year to preserve and promote Chinese culture. Chinese New Year is a fortnight long celebration, though the local public holiday only spans the initial few days. As a visitor, you can join in at the parades held on these few days:

Penang Chinese New Year (CNY) Celebration 槟城庙会 - February

As the most prominently celebrated Chinese festival, the Chinese New Year celebrations last up to two weeks. Every year in Penang, NGOs, religious groups and hawkers all band together to host the Penang CNY Celebration in Georgetown. The festival is a great experience, and also among the best opportunities to understand Penang's history and culture.

Nine Emperor’s Festival 九王爺  - October


Peranakan Culture

The Peranakan people are an ethnic group descended from Chinese migrants who intermarried with Malays, and are also commonly known as Baba-Nyonya. They speak Baba Malay, a Malay creole language that contains many Hokkien words.

Peranakan Museum is arguably the best museum in Georgetown. The 19th century mansion was home to Chung Keng Quee, a Chinese tycoon, before being transformed into a museum dedicated to Peranakan heritage. Today it is filled with collections of antiques and features insightful guided tours.

Indian Culture

Indians are the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia, and represent an important part of Malaysian culture. A good place to get a feel for the Indian presence in Penang might be in Little India, which has been the center of Indian cultural activities in Georgetown since the 1800s. At the center of Little India lies the Sri Mariamman Temple. Just shy of being 200 years old, the Hindu temple is still open to worshippers and is a symbol of Indian culture in Georgetown. On the other hand, Kapitan Keling Mosque is a symbol of the Tamil Muslim presence in Georgetown. It was built in commemoration of Cauder Mohudeen, the famous Kapitan Keling (Indian Captain).

On that note, if you visit Penang, you will definitely end up visiting some Mamak Stalls or eating Nasi Kandar. Mamak stalls are Penangites' favorite hangout place: being street food stalls, they remain open well past midnight. Then, Nasi Kandar (Nasi-Rice; Kandar-Carried with a pole) are self service restaurants that serve a mix of Malay and Indian foods. Both of these types of restaurants are of Tamil Muslim culture and feature a unique Malaysian flavor of mixed Malay and Indian spices. You will also notice that they serve beef (which is forbidden in Hindu culture) instead of pork (which is forbidden in Muslim culture). You may be interested in visiting the Floating Mosque, which is a beautiful sight at sunrise.

As an aside—my personal favorite morning Nasi Kandar restaurant is Lidana.

In terms of seasonal festivities, Thaipusam is arguably the largest (and most outsider-friendly) Hindu Indian festival in Malaysia. In a devoted display of faith, the Indians in Malaysia host one of the world’s biggest Thaipusam celebrations. In Penang, the celebration takes the form of a two day parade that covers over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). During the parade, devout believers of Lord Murugan carry a 'Kavadi,' an elaborate framework that they carry by hooking it into the skin of their backs, which functions as a form of penance for their sins and a show of gratitude for their answered prayers.

If you are interested in observing the Thaipusam festival, you can check out the coconut smashing on day 1 around Jalan Magazine, or the extravagant parade on day 2 up the 512 steps of the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple. Here's a very well written article by a Belgian couple (Maarten & Katelijne) recounting their experience at the Thaipusam festival in Georgetown.

Extra Credit:
Pre-dating any of these waves of migrants, Hindu-Buddhist Indians were some of Malaysia's earliest settlers. Early traces of their culture can be found in the Lembah Bujang archeological site in Kedah, a half day trip away from Penang, if you're interested. The archeological site features a museum that contains relics over 2,500 years old, and a series of 'Candi', ancient tomb temples that are believed to be over 1,000 years old.

Developments in Pre-Independence 20th Century Malaysia

By the 20th century, Penang had developed into an essential trading post, with people of Chinese ethnicity making up 49% of the country's population, a plurality that was maintained until 2010. Boasting a high literacy rate from colonial rule and this massive Chinese population, Penang became a magnet for authors and revolutionaries such as Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, and Sun Yat-sen.


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