When someone utters the word Penang, everyone images it to be an island. While this is part true, Penang state has two parts to it – the island and mainland.
*Penang has two cities: Butterworth (on the mainland) and Georgetown (on the island). More than half the Penangites would refer to Georgetown or Penang Island as ‘Penang’ and mainland as Butterworth. So it can get rather confusing as when you mention you live on the island they would go, ‘Oh you live in Penang’ or they would say ‘I’m going to Penang this weekend’, even though they too live in Penang but not on the island.
The Indian traders have been known to visit and trade in Peninsular Malaysia well before the 1st century. Penang was then part of the Kedah kingdom and Lembah Bujang (Bujang Valley) was its centre of administration. Bujang Valley was then seen as an important centre of trade for the Indians as it was a strategic location to collect and trade herbs, spices, honey, resin, tin and gold.
Penang Island was first chartered in maps by the Chinese explorer Zheng He (or more known as Cheng Ho) in the 15th century. Penang Island was given various names by various traders thought out the century and it was the Chinese that chartered it first as ‘Ping-Lang-Yu’, the island of Betel Nut or Areca. The Portuguese called it ‘Pulo Pinaom’; they discovered Penang during their expeditions to the Far East in search of spices. They are not the only ones; the French as well as an Englishmen (Sir James Lancaster) noted the location of Penang Island around the 16th century.
A settlement was soon built around Fort Cornwallis and expended to the northeast of the island. Francis Light named this settlement George Town, after King George III.
*Due to its nature of trade in merchandise, Penang was coined ‘Pearl of the Orient’ before the 20th century by traders.
Straits Settlements was established in 1826 consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Georgetown became the capital of the Straits Settlement initially before Singapore took the crown due to its rapid growth as an important trading post.
Penang by this stage had a vast variety of people from various cultures, living and trading in Penang. With the opening of the Suez Canal the British trade in the Far East expanded vastly. The export of tin and rubber fuelled Britain’s Industrial Revolution and attracted people from a far making it a melting pot of diverse cultures.
*Ethnic groups found in Penang back then were Malays, Acehnese, Arabs, Armenians, British, Burmese, Jews, Chinese, Gujeratis, Bengalis, Japanese, Punjabis, Sindhis, Tamils, Thais, Malayalees, Rawas, Javanese, Portuguese and a few others. Though many of them no longer have a felt presence today, their presence is commemorated in names of places and streets such as Burma Road, Rangoon Road, Siam Road, Armenian Street, Acheen (Acheh) Street, Chulia Street, Gottlieb Road, Katz Street, Protestant Cemetery and the Jewish Cemetery to name a few.
As much as Penang and other parts of Malaya then, was not directly involved in World War I, the war did reach this far out. A German cruiser attacked and sank Allied warships just off the harbour of Penang in 1914. A Russian cruiser, the Zhemchug, was sunk here and some of their comrades were buried on Jerajak Island (just off Penang island) and on Penang Island.
*Two out of the twelve soldiers were buried on Jerajak Island. Years later their bodies were excavated and moved to a proper burial site at the Western Road Cemetery on Penang Island. Only a wooden structure is left on Jerajak Island marking their initial burial site.
World War II however did affect Penang. While the Europeans and British fled Penang in lead of the Japanese forces, Penangites were left to fend for themselves against the Japanese forces. The Japanese Occupation in Penang and Malaya lasted for 3 and a half years where unimagined terror rained. These were dark times for Penang and Malaya. Soon after the incident of Pearl Harbour, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered and retreated. This was soon followed again by the return of the British but their strong hold in Penang would never be the same as it once was.
*I remember my grandmother telling me stories, when she was younger, of the Occupation; how brutal their regime were and how her uncle was tortured and murdered for information. Grim times...
In 1957, Penang became one of the many states that made up independent Malaya. And in 1963 it was one of thirteen states that make up Malaysia, as we know today.
Next time you’re in Penang, strike a conversation with one of the old folks. They have some interesting stories to share – plus you’re most likely to make their day cheery.