The International Steam Pages


Relics of the Raj, Penang 2009, Part 5

For convenience I have now grouped lifestyle illustrated features by topic:


After our visit to Burma and transit in Thailand, we had an extended visit to Penang - click here for the main index page.


I have not looked up the justification for the recent designation of parts of George Town, Penang as a World Heritage Site, but one major reason must have been its British colonial heritage from the time it was established as a trading post in the late 18th century through to the time of independence. We spent just a couple of very enjoyable sessions wandering around and flashing the camera, the results reflect the cloudy weather but at least it meant it was not unbearably hot.

These are statues to Francis Light who was the initial force in the embryonic settlement and Queen Victoria, the latter remarkably outside the Chinese Recreation Club - in my day an anglophile body which resisted all attempts by certain politicians to have the statue removed:

Since I was here in the 1970s, Fort Cornwallis has been opened to the public. It never saw a shot fired in anger which is probably just as well as its walls would probably have collapsed. Some restoration and archaeological work has been done which I was happy to support by paying MYR 3 to go inside for the first time, but it's not high on my list of places to go back to. Inside is an extremely old cannon, Seri Rambai, bearing the 'VOC' inscription and was apparently made in 1603.

Almost as soon as the island was settled, the two main churches were established, first was the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption (left) soon followed by the Anglican St. George's Church. In my day there were still Irish priests teaching in the nearby St. Xavier's institution.

In the grounds of St. George's is a memorial to Francis Light, seen here with the High Court behind. Next door is the Penang Museum, a snip at just MRY 1, it's air conditioned and well worth a visit, but photography is not allowed inside... It was the original site of the Penang Free School and part was destroyed in World War 2.

Next to each other nearby are City Hall (1903) and Town Hall (1880s). The first houses the offices of the municipal council, the second was used for socialising and in my time housed the Penang Library which was a members' library which subsequently passed into public hands and relocated in the modern Dewan Sri nearby. I am not sure what goes on there these days:

Vertical monuments by their nature take up less space. The Logan memorial celebrates the life of a visionary lawyer and scholar, it was built as a gesture of appreciation of his efforts on behalf of the colony as a whole. The clock tower was erected with Chinese money to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee in 1897. The war memorial near City Hall no doubt still sees an annual ceremony on November 11th - the First World War hardly touched the island except for a raid by a passing German warship. The Second World War was another matter with the island occupied by the Japanese for several years, but apart from a few mouldy bunkers scattered around the island, no trace of their brief, but unpleasant, presence remains.

Penang never had a proper railway as such. The Penang Hill Railway is described on a separate page and I bought 'Penang - Trams, Trolleybuses & Railways' by Francis & Ganley, published locally in 2006 by Areca Books, ISBN 983-42834-0-7, excellent value at MYR 50. I found a copy in MPH at the Gurney Plaza near Bagan Jermal but no doubt it is available elsewhere. Thomas Kautzor tells me it is described on Arecas website and can be bought from them by credit card - http://www.arecabooks.com.

However, Penang did have a railway station in the form of the Malayan Railway Building which sold tickets. Passengers would have taken a ferry to the old station at Prai before the new bridge and station was built at Butterworth in (I recall) the 1960s. Of Penang's tramway, the most tangible remains are a section of track along Penang Road which was uncovered during repairs and has now been left as an attractive feature - not to mention a strong hint as to how to make the roads in George Town more civilised - unlike this visiting monk, most inhabitants seem to have lost the use of their legs:

The MR building is on the present sea front, Weld Quay, built long ago on reclaimed land. Behind it is Beach Street which has always been the commercial heart of Penang with the main banks. The RBS certainly had a different occupier when I was here but the nearby Chartered Bank (now Standard Chartered) was my bank, the original night safe is there, it was made by 'The Chatwood Safe and Engineering Co. Ltd, Shrewsbury, England'. I wonder how much use, if any, it sees today.

Nearby is this magnificent building, original purpose unknown to me, now apparently used by the state's religious affairs department. Round the corner, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (1928) is desperately in need of some attention, it's style is a grander version of the ubiquitous shop houses which still cover most of the conservation area.

In my time, a weekly trip was needed to Cold Storage in Penang Road which was essentially the only 'western' supermarket in those days. Now the original building is abandoned with an optimistic 'for rent' sign and I believe the company is present in at least one of the plazas which dot the island and there is a large Tesco down Glugor way... The final relics are this British pillar box and the Eastern and Oriental (E & O) Hotel which survived long enough to avoid demolition after a period of closure and has now, I believe, been restored to its former glory. My memory is not what it was but I do think we had dinner here for some gathering or other now and again during my stay, but that may be just wishful thinking...


Rob and Yuehong Dickinson

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