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Penang Heritage City

Penang Heritage City - a fitting title bestowed to this fair island. It is now part of UNESCO's World Heritage Cities Program. As a Penang born citizen, I am naturally very proud.

Queen Victoria clock tower
The firework display during the celebration of Penang Heritage City.

I know that most of us associate Penang with the beaches, the iconic Penang Bridge and its glorious food.

However, the capital city, George Town, has the most number of pre-war buildings in all of South East Asia which are still intact. That is why, the island is known as Penang Heritage City.

George Town (not "Georgetown"; as most people tend to spell it), shows the world that its heritage buildings, art and culture can co-exist alongside modern development.

The recognition by UNESCO created awareness from all levels and soon, Penang Heritage City will regain back its luster as the Pearl of the Orient.

The place is so rich with history. Since Francis Light drew out the plan of the city, it had born witness to the rise and fall of governments and ruling parties.

The city was coveted by many as a strategic and natural port. It was also the guardian to the northern entrance of the Straits of Malacca.

Fort Cornwallis, in the middle of George Town Penang

Fort Cornwallis, in the middle of George Town Penang

Before goods could be transported by airplanes, the one who ruled Penang, ruled the lucrative East-West trade.

The recognition by UNESCO to acknowledge George Town as a heritage city means that the initial heritage core zone and buffer zone should be preserved from further development that would change the skyline of Penang Heritage City.

The zones were proposed to UNESCO when the city was bidding for the title. Now, how do we balance the needs of prime real estate to the preservation of some old crumbling old heritage buildings?

A bank on Beach Street
A bank in Beach Street, Penang that occupies a heritage building

The Streets of George Town

The city was laid out in a grid that segregated the races. It was a typical way of the British to deal with their colonies.

At the cape area, from Fort Cornwallis going south, along Beach Street, Bishop Street, Church Street and part of Weld Quay, was the Eurasians zone.

Going to the east, the zone included Light Street and Farquhar Street as well.

Now, however, Beach Street remains as one of the longest streets and is well known as Penang banking district instead. A lot of heritage buildings are now headquarters of premier banks in the state.

Hmm, do I see eyes twinkling with dollar signs now? Yes, Penang has quite a number of wealthy millionaires who made their fortune, especially by trading. Stories of rags to riches are quite plenty in this part of the world. For example, the story of Boon Siew, the Honda motorcycles multi-millionaire who started only as a boy washing buses. The rise of Cheong Fatt Tze to become a Chinese Mandarin is another Penang success story.

I know that young material girls would swoon if you were to tell them that their husbands-to-be are some tycoons from Penang. By the way, the colloquial name for a rich businessman is "towkay".

church street pier in george town

Church Street Pier, established since 1897

Material wealth aside, Penang Heritage City is rich in art and culture too. But then, please remember that this wealth made the patronage of art and culture possible for any civilization.

During the British rule, Chulia Street, part of King Street, Queen Street and Market Street formed Little India. The Chinese merchants were allocated China Street but later occupied part of Armenian quarters too. Besides these areas, small streets in between were designated as the guilds for various trades.

Garden of the E&O Hotel, a great example of a heritage hotel

Garden of the E&O Hotel, a great example of a heritage hotel

Most people forgot that Penang Heritage City is, first and foremost, a port. It still is a busy one until now. Even the creation of "nasi kandar"  (one of Penang's most favorite food) originated from the needs to feed the multitude of stevedores who worked back in the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century.

Port Swettenham on the north of the Weld Quay is now the berthing place for cruise ships as well as ferries to Sumatra and Langkawi.

The newly renovated Church Street Pier is now a high-end waterfront place of leisure where a century ago, it was the main pier for small boats to unload their wares. Newly built Tanjung Marina Club next to it provides services for yachts from all over the world.

Old Penang Ferry
The faithful ferry service, a major  connection to the mainland from Penang

Since only a few of us can afford to own yachts, hire a boat or go on cruises, maybe the best way to experience Penang view from the sea is by boarding the ferry service that commutes from Butterworth to George Town.

This ferry service is a very important transportation mode for the people on the island.Before the Penang Bridge was built, it was the only way to get to the island on a daily basis (except for the flights that flew in to Bayan Lepas International airport).

People of Penang

We also should not skip the main factor that makes Penang unique is its people. Who are Penangites?

We are a nation of mixed blood so co-mingled, with ancestors from all over Asia and also the West.

Therefore, do not be surprised if I tell you that I am a Malay, though in looks many people would say I am a Chinese woman. And vice versa.

Signboard in Beach Street
A signboard for a few heritage sites in George Town

Without being arrogant, we could say that we ALL are fine examples of living heritage. The Baba and Nyonya descendants, the Indian Muslims (colloquially known as "anak Mami Tanjung, Mamak or Mami"), offspring of the South Indian Hindu Tamils, the Eurasians and the Malays from Acheh and others in the Malay archipelago make Penang their homes.

In fact, some odd Jews also used to make their living here. It is a true melting pot where inter-racial marriage is common.

With the people, comes the food! We do have our special Heritage Food Trail. You are most welcome to enjoy an extensive range of traditional food and delicacies prepared by experts in their humble little shops. The trail can be followed easily on foot. What a great way to discover a heritage city!

Among the more significant ethnic groups that built this city, the old Chinese clans, together with powerful and rich Indian and Malay traders stood out. They built beautiful mansions and places of worship that still stand till today.

Not to mention rows and rows and shop houses that act as pumps to feed the lifeblood of George Town. These are the reasons why it deserves to be called an historic city.

To the locals, the name of George Town is hardly used. It is simply called "Tanjong". It means "cape" in Malay.

trishaw or lanca
A trishaw for sightseeing around Penang Heritage City

When you go to Tanjong (or Tanjung according to the new spelling), be prepared to be assaulted by hundreds of sights, smells and sounds that overwhelm the senses. Don't complain that I never warn you!

It is especially true if your first visit is during major religious celebration such as Thaipusam, Wesak Day or Nine Emperor's Gods festivals. "Spectacular" is an understatement.

Now, let's go a bit farther than George Town. For all its high-tech buildings and industry, Penang still maintains a large part of nature intact.

The Botanical Garden, the hills that form the backbone of the island and the northwest beaches are designated green belt area. For me, this special area is a heritage that we should never give up. Ever.

I hope you would agree with me. The journey to Penang Heritage City starts here. Come back often to see current news and events relating to the topic. Since I live right here, the beat and pulse of this place is right under my skin. 

Subscribe to my RSS feed and share the bookmark with your friends. Do give feedback so that I can keep on making this site educational, full of information and entertaining for all. Maybe one day, you too can come for real to enjoy the splendor of Penang Heritage City.

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