George Town is home to a multitude of ethnicities and cultures. // © 2010 Tourism Malaysia
“Malaysia,” the Tourism Malaysia advertisements tell us, is “truly Asia,” but might this be an overstatement for a single nation to encapsulate an entire region?
Any doubts dissipated upon my arrival in George Town. This capital of the state of Penang is one of Southeast Asia’s most photogenic cities. Its colorful heritage buildings, pan-Asian cuisines and historic landmarks serve as a fine aperitif for exploring the rest of Malaysia.
Bounded by the Straits of Malacca and linked to the mainland by a causeway, George Town’s long history as a trading port at the crossroads of Asia’s major civilizations explains it diverse ethnic mix. Penang Island’s modern history began in 1786, when the British East India Company established a trading post on the renamed Prince of Wales Island. George Town quickly became a shipping hub for the spice trade, attracting Malay settlers, Chinese and Indian laborers, Burmese, Arabs, Armenians, Acehnese and Europeans — all of whom left their cultural marks on the city. These influences endowed George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an eclectic collection of heritage architecture.
I started my tour at the Penang Museum. Housed in a colonnaded former school that dates back to 1896, it narrates the stories of the various ethnic groups who made Penang their home. I was not expecting to spend two hours here but did, later heading toward the waterfront.
Flanking the Padang sports field are two grandiose colonial remnants. The whitewashed City Hall dates from 1903 and the lemon-yellow Town Hall was built in 1880. Both are theatrical pieces of neo-Palladian design.
George Town’s most visited site, the impressive Fort Cornwallis, is located further along the seafront. Built by Francis Light upon claiming the territory for the British, it was originally constructed from nibong palms and later reinforced with stone and brick ramparts. From here, I walked along Beach Street where comprador-style colonial buildings bore a striking resemblance to those along the waterfront of Shanghai.
Walking further, pastel-shaded shophouses, scents of incense and a bass-heavy Bollywood soundtrack told me I had reached Little India. I devoured some pan-fresh samosas from a stall on Lebuh Queen and headed for the magnificent Kapitan Keling Mosque.
The mosque is located on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, a street marking the border of Little India and Chinatown; it was constructed on an axis through George Town’s historically varied faith communities, including Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. It is also home to Saint George’s Church, Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu temple and several Chinese temples.
I ended my day in a restored Chinese shophouse located on Armenian Street. The building served as Chinese Nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen’s operational base in 1910 while plotting the overthrow of China’s imperial dynasty. Now a museum, the small home is filled with various memorabilia and personal effects.
As I sat back in a restored Chinese wooden armchair, it struck me that I had barely delved into George Town’s treasure trove of secrets. Tomorrow, I surmised, I would visit more of the 1,700 historic buildings that comprise a city that is truly Asia.