Friday, February 26, 2010


Penang and Singapore are quite similar in many ways. Both are islands off the coast of penninsular Malaysia. They were both, together with Melaka, part of the Straits Settlements, through which the British controlled regional 19th century trade. Both have majority Chinese populations surrounded by a sea of Malays. And both have been economically successful since independence. While not quite up to Singapore's miraculous economic level, Penang enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Malaysia, having achieved this wealth through a mix of manufacturing and tourism.

The obvious difference, of course, is that while Singapore broke off to become an independent country, the island state of Penang has remained within Malaysia. Nowhere has this had greater effect than in the demographics.

Where Singapore went to great lengths to blur racial lines in order to form a national identity, Penang's Chinese community continues to play an important role in the region's economy and politics. Far from merging into the national identity, this Chinese leadership helped deliver Penang to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the 2008 general elections, the first time the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) failed to carry the state since independence.

Physically Georgetown, with a population of just under half a million inhabitants, has the look of a booming tropical resort built around an old colonial core. Brand new condos line the azure coastline against a backdrop of jungled hills, while air-conditioned shopping malls offer respite from the tropical swelter. The town's center, with its architectural remnants of British colonial rule and old Chinese temples, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historical and modern elements coexist in Penang, with the modern element slightly dominant.

But I need to be honest about my intentions: while there is much to see in Penang, I didn't go for the scenery, I went for the food. Penang's reputation for great food is spread far and wide, and I am here to say it is richly deserved.

Along with Melaka, Penang is a center of Peranakan/Baba/Nonya cuisine, and although it has many of the same dishes as its southern neighbor, the flavors in Penang are noticeably influenced by its proximity to Thailand, with a decidedly more sour and spicy edge.

But what's truly remarkable about Penang cuisine is the diversity. The hawker stalls on Penang's Gurney Drive feature a veritable banquet of affordable eats, and four days of laksa, pasembur, char goay teow, fried oysters, grilled fish, hokkien mee, and nasi lemak were not enough to work my way through all of them. If I did nothing but eat in Penang, the food alone would have been worth the trip.

In terms of sightseeing, highlights included Ft. Cornwallis, where the British established their first toe-hold on the Straits of Melaka in 1786, and the floating mosque (Masjid Terapung) of Tanjung Bungah.

Francis Light, who commanded the settlement at Fort Cornwallis, was unusually progressive for his time. He spoke Malay, and by all accounts truly sought to use British rule to improve the lives of the people he interacted with. This notion of the "white man's burden," of course, still represented an imperialist mindset, but it helped the British gain acceptance in the region. Light's ability to balance the political demands of local leaders, while keeping the shipping lanes free from piracy, taught the British valuable lessons they were later able to use when developing Singapore.

The floating mosque of Tanjung Bungah represents the continuity of a tradition that predates British rule. Built after the 2004 tsunami had wiped out an earlier mosque, the floating mosque is a modern lifeline to Malaysia's Islamic past. Surrounded by fishing boats, the mosque rests on pillars at the edge of the sea. It has a serene, otherworldly feel, like something from an Arabian Nights tale, and is a peaceful and quiet sanctuary in the midst of Penang's economic boom.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Hal, this is Stu Orr's wife. Really great job on the history, and wonderful photos in this one. I will save a copy for you, of a book that a friend of mine wrote on earliest British engagement in Malaysia. It is called Taming the Jungle, and is very good on some of the colourful characters: also on looking at what a balancing act 'imperialism' really was. Keep up great work, Hope to meet you someday, Jenny