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Notes on the Geography of Malaysia: George Town

Also known as Penang or Pinang, George Town has about 200,000 people, a fifth of the island's million. More than half are Chinese. That's because, along with Singapore, George Town was created by the British, became a major part of the Straits Settlements, and flourished as a trading center. Since the creation of Malaysia, Penang had prospered as a high-tech center, though bruised of late by the commodification of computers. Despite the island's prosperity, downtown George Town is surprisingly unchanged from colonial times, thanks mostly to a rent-control law that for many years discouraged investment. The bright side of that decrepitude is that, now that preservation has become a byword of economic development, there is plenty left to preserve.

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Named for George III, George Town was established in 1786 by Francis Light, an employee of the East India Company. He chose the site at the northeastern corner of what he called Prince of Wales Island. That name did not stick, and the island continued to be known as "Penang," a name derived from Tamil pinang, the areca nut that for centuries had brought Indian traders here. Light built a fort named Fort Cornwallis for the Company's governor-general. A few years later, Penang was designated as an Indian penal colony, and in 1793 Light had convicts rebuild the fort's walls in brick. They remain today, though the enclosed space is little used. The coastline has changed since Light's time, mostly with reclamation projects creating commercial ground, and the sea is now a block or so to the north, or left.

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A mile to the west, there's a Christian cemetery, consecrated in 1818. Filled by 1900, it was then closed.

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In it is Light's own tombstone.

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Nearby is the tombstone of the first governor, who coincidentally died the year Singapore was created. Penang remained part of India until 1867, when it was transferred to the Colonial Office. Long before then, in 1826, it was linked with Singapore in the Straits Settlements; for a few years it was the capital of the Settlements, but booming Singapore assumed that role in 1832.

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A curiosity: the tombstone of the husband of "Anna," she of "The King and I." It makes no mention of her, nor does she in her book make mention of it.

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On the west side of Fort Cornwallis there is a park once known to the British as the Esplanade and to residents today as the padang. On its west side, shown here, is George Town's Town Hall (1883) and City Hall (1906). In the background is a World War I memorial, close to the seawall.

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Behind those buildings is the Logan Memorial, recalling James Richardson Logan, editor of The Pinang Gazette and The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. Logan died from malaria in 1869; the inscription recalls him as "an erudite and skillful lawyer" and "an eminent scientific ethnologist."

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Nearby is St. George's Church, completed in 1818 and modelled on St. Andrew's Church in Madras.

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On the church grounds there's a now-empty memorial to Light, whose statue has been moved to the Penang Museum. Still, the name George Town seems secure. People say, "We know who we are," as if renaming their city would be a tacit admission of weakness.

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The statue turns out to be modern--cast in 1936--and the image fictitious, because no portraits of Light have survived. The building that houses the museum was built about 1900 to house the Penang Free School, established in 1816 as an English-medium school. The school moved in 1927 to Jalan Masjid Negari (then Green Lane), where it still operates.

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Upon this armature a British economy grew. Bits of that economy survive like this pharmacy, where a British lion busily prepares medicine.

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Economic development depended heavily on South Indian and Chinese immigrants. The Indians came early and ran the spice trade. The Chinese arrived after the Pangkor Treaty of 1874 opened the Malay peninsula to rubber and tin development. George Town then boomed. Its main commercial street, Beach Street, had been surveyed by Light. Running south from Fort Cornwallis, by late in the 19th century it was no longer on the waterfront: reclamation works had left it a couple of blocks inland. This Beach Street building, built in 1937 and occupied recently by the U.S. Information Service, was built by an Indian; hence its name.

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Like so many clocktowers around the British Empire, the Victoria Memorial Clocktower commemorates Victoria's 1897 jubilee. It also suggests George Town's polycultural character: despite its Islamic flavor, the tower was paid for by a local Chinese, Cheah Chen Eok.

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It was immigrants who made George Town a shophouse city, its core dominated by buildings with shops downstairs and owner-occupied homes above. George Town's few Europeans lived in villas along the northern waterfront.

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Most shophouses date from the late 19th century, when they replaced timber structures. Few are owner-occupied, however, because George Town's merchants, copying the European precedent, started moving to suburban villas about 1900. Since then, renters have lived upstairs.

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The Control of Rent Act, 1966, froze rents for more than 30 years until it was repealed in 1997, effective 2000. For all those years, owners declined to invest in their properties.

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What to do with them?

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The fear of some residents is that old George Town will be cleared away to make room for new developments. Just outside the core is this one. Can you make out the ground-floor occupant? Probably not, so let's take our lives in our hands and cross the street.

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There you go! Thirty-odd years ago, the modern tourist influx began with GI's taking a break from Vietnam.

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Run back into the old city and take refuge here in front of the Municipal Market. No luck: in the background rises the 65-story KOMTAR (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak) tower. The mall in the previous pictures is at its base.

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You can imagine the scenario, illustrated here on Jalan Penang.  You  think the old neighborhood is intact.

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Then you step back.

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The same transformation is evident along the waterfront. Here: a zoomed shot across to the container port on the mainland.

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Automobile ferries to the mainland limp along, crippled by a bridge opened in 1988.

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Passenger ferries have been abandoned, along with this dock.

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The only remaining passenger ships are cruise ships like this one, en route from Georgetown to Pulau Langkawi.

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The Penang Heritage Center is dedicated to a different future. It's housed here in the Syed Alatas Mansion, restored with French help in the 1990s.

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There isn't much in the place now: here, the front room upstairs, ventilated on three sides.

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The view the other way, into the upstairs hallways.

(Syed Alatas was a Sumatran trader who smuggled guns to his fellow Acehnese to help them fight the Dutch in the 1870s. Their defeat--and the incorporation of Aceh into the Dutch East Indies--hurt George Town's Indian community, which was largely composed of Tamil Muslims.)

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Here's another restoration project, near miraculous in view of what's happening on the perimeter. Before we look more closely, note that the house is not quite parallel to the street. That's because it's aligned to face the sea for better feng shui.

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This is the freshly (and privately) restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, completed in 1904. Cheong Fatt Tze made a fortune in Java in the 1850s, then developed steamship lines in Southeast Asia and railways in China. For a time, he was Chinese Consul-General in Singapore. This was one of his many houses and was built for his seventh wife. Despite its traditional appearance and careful attention to feng shui, it is much more European than it seems: the balustrades and columns of the interior courtyard are of Glasgow iron, and the beams that appear to be teak are actually steel, painted. Interior photography is prohibited by the owners, who run a bed-and-breakfast in the flanking wings.

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The ends of the roof beams are decorated with pictures constructed of bits of broken pottery; each one illustrates a story that teaches a moral lesson.

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This is the E&O, opened in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers, who also owned the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon. The recent renovations have been extensive: the original entrance was on a wing off to the right, and another wing, to the left, is entirely new.

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The hotel pool fronts the seawall, where a line of highrise apartments can be detected along the distant skyline.

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Across the street, a former automobile dealership has been converted to antique shops and restaurants. Things were very quiet early in 2002; business seemed dead slow.

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A downscale indicator of the same globalizing culture.

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Will heritage preservation destroy the enduring communities of George Town? "We don't want Singapore," people say, by which they mean they don't want Singapore's preservation of empty structures marketed mostly to tourists.

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There's plenty of community to lose. Here's a fragment of it: the Kwan Yin Temple, a busy place.

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Offerings at the altar.

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Outside, wishes and prayers are written on scraps of paper tossed into the cauldron, where they rise in smoke to the heavens.

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There's plenty of money spent on upkeep of George Town's temples, including the famous Khoo Kongsi, shown here while closed for restoration in 2002.

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Roof trim: hints of ships are common in the ornamentation, built by people who sailed across the sea to get here.

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You can almost feel the spray.

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It's a balancing act with an uncertain outcome. The World Monuments Fund is worried enough that it has designated George Town as among the most endangered sites on the planet.

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