In the Hong Kong bar there was the usual ex-pat crowd. John had willingly given up his T-shirt for 50 Ringgit – about the price of 5 beers, and was focussed on maintaining his equilibrium on the cracked vinyl seat of a tall time-worn bar stool. Fred had a rich brother in Canada whose address had become lost to alcoholic amnesia. Mark, a sallow faced, intense chap, was writing a book examining the American relationship with Muslim countries, supported by minimal financial help from a buddy at The Washington Post. He was suffering from beer induced writer’s block. Throughout its history, Penang has always attracted adventurers, dreamers, dissidents and rogues!

In 1786, a swashbuckling Captain Light dropped anchor off this relatively deserted island of some 285 square kilometers in the Straits of Malacca, to found the first British settlement in the region. On behalf of the British East India Company, he convinced the local Sultan of Kardah to give up ownership in return for promises of protection against the neighbouring “Siamese hordes”. A promise he kept only after negotiating a strip of the mainland, now the town of Butterworth, to secure the harbour.

Folklore has it that he cunningly filled his cannons with gold and silver doubloons. Stoked with gunpowder, he let them rip deep into the jungle whereapon his sepoy troops, armed with machetes, cleared a swath of land in search of the bounty. This became the site of  the capital, Georgetown, of the island he renamed Prince of Wales. A few battered Morris Oxfords and Mini Minors still limp along Love Lane, Farquar, King, Queen and Pitt Streets – more a testament to Malaysian mechanical ingenuity than the preservation of a colonial past!

Captain Light created a duty free trading zone to undercut the Dutch, who had seized the mainland state of Melaka from the Portuguese. He established a safe haven for British trading ships plying between India, China and Britain. He offered settlers as much land as each could clear, which proved particularly popular to Chinese immigrant traders who arrived in droves. It is largely due to their influence in architecture and traditions that Georgetown is so unique.

Over time, creative icons such as Hemingway, Kipling and Noel Coward have sought inspiration in this historic oupost. The anti-septic cleansing that has swept other cities of the Asian Tigers, such as Singapore or Hong Kong, in the belief that new is progress, has been eluded – so far.

Central Georgetown is a wondrous collection of colonial architecture, tatty Chinese shophouses, narrow lanes and covered walkways to shield against the year round tropical sun and flash monsoon rains. Accupuncturists, fortune tellers, street markets, steaming woks at hawker stalls. The rattle of mah-jong tiles. Pungent incense from busy Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist temples. Puppetry. Street Theatre. Song birds. Chinese funeral processions led by aging jazz bands. Purveyors of religious artefacts. Sari shops and curry houses in “little India”.

For pennies you can tour the tiny alleys in a rickshaw and discover intricate Chinese clan houses or khongsi where, like the Scots, a family name is a right to join. Members of the the Khoo khongsi, are now busy doing good works rather than dreaming up devious ways of fighting the Wu khongsi for increased gang territory!

I visited Georgetown 16 years ago and, yes, some things have changed. Hi-rises. Discos in smart residential suburbs that house the yuppie  “Intel” crowd - computer chip manufacturing is big here. Twelve thousand athletic souls participated in the 2001  “walk for charity”. International Hotels have sprung up to accommodate the increasing volume of tourists from around the world who come for the island’s beaches, golf courses, unspoilt fishing villages or just to chill out.

A 3km bridge now joins Georgetown to Butterworth on the mainland. The signs in the colourful aging ferries “Don’t spit it’s disgusting” have disappeared, along with the habit thank goodness, but despite the new bridge, they still ply past ancient Chinese shanty towns built into the harbour on wooden stilts.

The reptile population in The Snake Temple has shrunk to a handful. When urbanisation swallowed surrounding padi fields, resident snakes slithered into the temple where they were revered and fed. Perhaps when the last one dies, the notice “All mediums are forbidden to fall into a trance in the Snake Temple or it’s precinct to avoid causing inconvenience to worshippers and visitors” will go, along with the T-shirt traders at the entrance!

The Governor of Penang has applied for a UNESCO designation to preserve the character and history of central Georgetown which is threatened by rising rents, land values and the inevitable homogeneous hand of gentrification. I hope he succeeds. For my money Penang combines the best of Malaysia. A safe, modern, multi-cultural society steeped in romantic history. Smiling faces. Great beaches, temples, resorts and jungle treks. A gastronomic paradise. A perfect spot to contemplate that first novel!

Captain Light now lies in The Protestant graveyard, a stones throw from the 116 year old, E&O Hotel, which, after a 16 million dollar renovation is back on par with it’s upgraded sisters. The Strand in Yangon and Raffles in Singapore (named after his brother in law Sir Stamford Raffles who founded Singapore). He lies among such luminaries as,  past Governors, stokers, soldiers, nannies and missionaries. Many died at an early age, perhaps falling foul to malaria or just too many pink gins!

At The Hong Kong Bar, it’s last call. John is sporting a T-Shirt which barely covers his generous midriff. Fred was saving it for his brother in anticipation of the loan which he urgently needs. If he could just remember the address ---------! Arm in arm they lurch past the graveyard singing “Rule Britannia”. Will history repeat itself?



VISAS: No visas are required for Canadians.

GETTING THERE: For train buffs this is ideal. Good trains run from Thailand, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth. The ferry is next to the station. Cathay Pacific flies to KL via Hong Kong from Vancouver.

ACCOMMODATION: All types and generally good rates. (negotiable at the moment). Try website www.penang-hotels.com – It’s full of all sorts of useful information.

WOMEN TRAVELLERS: Penang is a multi-cultural modern society. I’ve never heard about problems of sexism here.

DANGERS AND ANNOYANCES: Taxi drivers don’t like using their meters. Either insist or find out the correct fare from a local before negotiating a fair price.

EATING OUT: The food in Penang is incredible. A blend of cultures produces wondrous sauces and flavours. Seafood is excellent here – and you can drink the water. Eating is a national pastime! Booze of any type is prohibitively expensive in hotels and high end restaurants. Much more reasonable in local bars or cafes.  Max out your duty free!!


Copyright © 2002 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.