Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Historic City of George Town, Penang, Malaysia

George Town is spectacularly situated at the cape or promontory at the
north-eastern tip of the island, between the hills and the sea. The hills
provide a stunning backdrop the city which is built up to the foothills. The
settlement that Francis Light, the British country trader, had originally
created (1786) and named did not have any grand design as it was not
intended to be a “settlement colony”. Light had neither resources nor
staff to develop the town. The development of George Town during the
first century after its founding could be attributed to the courageous and
entrepreneurial spirit of early migrant communities who found in George
Town a place to make a living and begin a new life.

The 1798 map shows the early topography and morphology of the
settlement. From the map, it can be seen that the town had to be built
on land that had to be cleared of vegetation, levelled and filled. These
early settlers formed their own neighbourhoods or quarters. The
boundaries of these ethnic quarters are not clearly demarcated but
centre on certain streets or intersections. The cultural practices and
preferences of the different ethnic groups appear to have created an
impact on the development of the town, particularly in relation to the
sitting of important religious and institutional buildings, the European or
colonial quarter is to the north, close to Fort Cornwallis, the
administrative centre, and clustered around St. George’s Anglican
Church (Farquhar Street) and Armenian Church (which no longer exists)
at Bishop Street. This was indeed the best location as it was cooled by
the sea breeze from the north. The presence of the fort and police
station in this area also provided security to the Europeans. A Christian
burial ground established in 1786 is sited on the north-western side of
Penang Road, on a site that was slightly elevated and overlooking the
north beach.

The Chinese Town
The Chinese town is located within the grid of early George Town, with
China Street as the primary axis and King Street as the secondary axis.
Although no record of Chinese influence in the early town planning exists,
an analysis of the Chinese settlement and the location of key buildings
suggest that the early Chinese settlers chose to live within the town grid
and followed as closely as possible their traditional and cultural
orientation. The Chinese community thus formed not only a “city within
city” but also lived in the closed society that Victor Purcell described as
“imperium in imperio”. The Chinese were also particular in choosing the
site based on social economy and feng shui principles. First they
segregated among respective dialect groups and built their associations,
kongsi or temples as social centres. The four major dialect groups,
Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew were originated from
Guangdong and Fujian provinces in China. Each of these sub-groups had
their regional tradition in terms of dialect, customs, cuisine as well as arts
and architecture. Secondly, for major buildings to be built, the basic feng
shui followed would be “turn away from Yin and embrace Yang”. That
means the building is backed by all or high land and faces the sea.

The most important building for the Chinese society is the Kong Hock
Keong, also known as the Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) temple. It is
situated at the end of China Street on a slightly elevated site as known in
the 1798 Popham map. The temple is sited with its back towards the
central hills on the island and facing the harbour or sea with the hills on
the mainland in the distance across the channel. Stone tablets according
to Yin Yang (feng shui). Its position on the upper centre of the city grid
on Pitt Street and facing the main street (China Street) axis indicates the
importance of the building. Founded around c1800, this temple
architecture features a sweeping roof with ornate decorated copings and
ridges. Oracle sticks are a special features of this temple. Chinese opera
or puppet theatre is performed on the granite-paved forecourt on feast
days, three times a year.

The town plan and the juxtaposition of the important buildings built by
the Chinese community show a parallel to ancient Chinese city planning
which is a square or rectangular plan demarcated by perimeter walls with
a north-south primary axis and a secondary east-west axis. King Street,
which runs perpendicular to China Street, would be the secondary axis
where several institutional buildings and temples of less importance were
laid out. During the 19th century there were at least eight associations or
kongsi on King Street, one on Bishop Street and two of Church Street
which represented peoples from different parts of Guangdong and Fujian
provinces. It is noted that most of the institutions are located to the left
of the Kuan Yin Temple on the China Street axis, which is considered to
be superior to the right in Chinese cosmic order.

The Indian Settlement
Next to the Chinese town is the Indian settlement, extended to the two
sections of Chulia Street, where the Kapitan Keling Mosque is the
centre for the Indian Muslim (Chuliah) community and the Sri
Mahamariamman Temple for the Hindus.
Situated at Queen Street Sri Mahamariamman Temple was built in
accordance with the saiva agamas with an antechamber, a hall,
circumambient dome, surrounding walls and an entrance. The complexity
of Hindu mythology is reflected in the sculpture (gopuram), which is over
23 feet high and features 38 statues of gods and goddesses and four
swans over the entrance. It is from this temple that the celebration of
the Thaipusam starts every year. Built in 1833, this temple is dedicated
to the Hindu goddess Sri Maha Mariamman. Historically, it catered to the
tamil community of traders and stevedores originating from South India.

The Malay Settlement
Crowned with onion-shaped domes, Kapitan Keling Mosque is the
largest historic mosque in George Town. Founded in 1801, the original
mosque was a rectangular building with a hipped roof, built on a site
granted by the East India Company. The mosque has been enlarged
several times. Henry Alfred Neubronner, the German Eurasian architect
gave the mosque its British Raj Moghul revival appearance and an
elegant minaret in the 1910s.

Further south is the Malay town which evolved between Prangin River
and the southern portion of Chulia Street, with the Acheen Malay
Mosque as its community centre. This mosque was founded in 1808 by
Tengku Syed Hussain, a wealthy Arab merchant prince who became
Sultan of Aceh. In the old days when the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
was made by ship rather tan by airplane, Acheen Street was the centre
of haj travel. Pilgrims came from North Sumatra, Southern Thailand and
the northern states of peninsular Malaysia to purchase their tickets, shop
and attend religious classes while waiting for the Haj ship. Acheen Street
Malsy Mosque has an octagonal-shaped minaret following the 16th
century Moghul architecture common in old mosques in Aceh. The 1798
Popham map marked this mosque and tomb as a landmark of the Malay
township, it was the first Muslim urban parish and the earliest centre of
spice traders and malay entrepreneurs on the island.

The Urban Pattern
The urban pattern of the site is an overlay of buildings set within open
spaces and regular row development with vestiges of the urban village.
The early buildings were set in large open spaces or compounds, with
ancillary buildings added on as the need arose. Among important
examples of such a building layout are the St. George Church, the
Supreme Court, the Kuan Yin Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque,
and private mansions on Light Street and between the Convent and the
Esplanade, most of which were destroyed during the war and have since
been redeveloped. The elegant mansions set within spacious compound
along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (formerly Northam Road), which are
within the designated buffer zone, are examples of the legacy of the
lifestyle of early entrepreneurs who accumulated great wealth and left
their marks on society.

As development in the town became more intensive, rows of residential
and shophouses were built on available land fronting the street,
eventually hiding the earlier buildings and their compounds. Examples of
this overlay can be seen in Chulia Street where the early bungalows can
be found behind the later shophouses, this building layout was followed
by the Chinese kongsi, where the temples were set within an open
space surrounded by shophouses. For the kongsi and temples, this
arrangement of buildings provided a screen of privacy for members of
the clan or society in the early days, to assemble or hold meetings out of
view of the police and others. The Kongsi is a Chinese association based
on clan, particular dialect group or people rom the same district in their
original country, or an occupational or mutual benefit society. The Kongsi
institution is a distinctive outcome of the 19th century migration of the
Chinese to Southeast Asia (nanyang). For more than a century these
institutions have influenced to a great extent the social-economic life of
the Chinese community in George Town and created important landmark.

The Warehouse and Godowns
The warehouses and godowns near the waterfront extend from Beach
Street to weld Quay with two street frontages. The warehouses are
located behind the offices that front the main street. Stone paved
through the warehouse cum office buildings connect Beach Street and
Weld Quay. The streets extend from the waterfront jetties (ghauts) into
the town’s commercial centre. The clan jetties represent a unique form
of settlement unlike similar “water villages” elsewhere as each
community from each jetty comprise members of the same clan with the
same surname, such as the Lim, Chew, Tan, Lee and Yeoh jetties. Since
1969, the residents have been given special permission to occupy the site
in the form of “Temporary Occupation Licence” for each of the premises
they occupy.

The Timber Jetty Housing
The timber jetty housing, numbering some 249 premises, are built on
stilts on the sea shore and are spread over an area of approximately 16.8
acres. The houses are arranged in a “fishbone” layout with the jetty built
of timber planks serving as the major spine for access and
communication. Typically a temple, housing the deity brought from the
clan’s home village in China, is sited at the front or rear of the jetty. Each
of the jetty clan communities has set up a system of self-management to
look after the security, maintenance of common areas and movement of
heavy vehicles.

The Penang Harbour
The Penang harbour in its heyday, had a
number of piers: Victoria Pier (1888), Church Street Pier/ Railway Jetty
(1897), Swettenham Pier (1904). The Raja Tun Uda Pier (Ferry terminal)
was opened only in 1959. During the 1880s, a stretch of seafront was
reclaimed and named after Sir Frederick Weld, Governor of the Straits
Settlements (1885-87). Offices and godowns were built on the new
waterfront in the distinctive Anglo-Indian style typified by colonnaded
arcades. They housed the offices of European firms like Boustead, Behn
Meyer, Macalister & Co. and Peterson Simons that were shipping agents,
general importers and tin refiners. During the Second World War, many
of the fine buildings near the harbour were bombed and destroyed,
including Government offices at Beach Street and Downing Street (a
section of it survived), Victoria and Railway Pier.

While the Penang harbour continues to be an important waterway, the
harbour front activities have changed due to relocation of cargo handling
and containerization to the expanded port facilities on the mainland at
Butterworth and Prai. The Penang Bridge from the island to the mainland
spans 11.5km over the southern channel, carrying its full capacity of
vehicles. However the ferry is still an important transport link to the
mainland, carrying both vehicles and passengers from George Town to
Butterworth, both Swettenham Pier and Church Street Pier will continue
to be used and developed as passengers cruise terminal and marina

Weld quay extends from Swettenham Pier to Prangin River, linking
ghauts that provided jetties at each end. A ghaut is the stone or wooden
jetty along the water front that is constructed as an extension of the
street that runs inland from the shore. Several Chinese clan jetties later
sprouted along Weld Quay. These jetties served as landing bases for the
traditional entreport trade, that is, trade dealing in import, redistribution
and re-exporting of products from the hinterland and neighbouring
countries. This trade was normally handled by small scale Asian traders.
Today, the traditional cargo-handling business by the Weld Quay jetty
community has dwindled considerably due to the use of containers at the
Butterworth port on the opposite side of the channel.

The Goverment Offices and Administrative Buildings
Immediately west of Swettenham Pier and south of Fort Cornwallis
are the government offices and administrative buildings. This area was known as the
“Government’s Quadrangle” or King Edward Place. King Edward Place
ends with the Victoria Memorial Clock tower, built in 1897 by a
prominent Chinese business man, Cheah Chen Eok, to commemorate
Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The Tower now stands on a small
roundabout that opens to Beach Street on its south, Light Street on its
west, Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakhbah on its north and King Edward
place on its east. A 12-storey government office built by the Public Works
Department replaced the former building destroyed during the Second
World War A remaining section of the government quadrangle now
houses the Syariah Court. Among the major public buildings are the
State Legislative Assembly building (formerly the Magistrates
Court), Municipal Council buildings, Town Hall and City Hall (at
the Esplanade), Supreme Court Building at the end of Light Street;
Dewan Sri Pinang (Penang’s first auditorium) and Bank Negara (National
Bank) b. The Esplanade, an open field facing the north beach, and its
promenade was George Town’s main social and recreational centre.

Historic Commercial Centre
The original grid laid out in the late 18th
century, is framed by Light Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt
Street, the first two converging at Fort Cornwallis. The grid covers an
area of approximately 18.6 hectares (46.1 acres) and is subdivided into
18 rectangular blocks, all of unequal dimensions. The historic commercial
centre is segmented into the banking and trading areas related to the
port activities which include shipping companies, import and export trade
and the wholesalers who dominate the southern section of Beach Street.
In the northern section of Beach Street are neo-classical style buildings
that house the Standard Chartered Bank, the Algemene bank Nederland
(ABN Bank) and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Corporation which was
reconstructed after the Second World War in a late Art Deco style.
At the turn of the 19th century, the northern section of Beach Street and
its adjacent Bishop Street were the “high streets” where European stores
and stores selling exclusive goods were patronized by the European
community and the elites in Penang. The Logan Building stands as an
outstanding example of a 1880s commercial block.

The remarkable number of corner coffee shops catering to the office
workers reflects the role of this quarter as a business district. Another
distinct segment of the historic commercial centre is the shopping area of
Tamil Indians who are mainly Hindus. The Indian shops are centred at
Market Street and adjacent Penang Street. This area was called “Little
Madras” but today referred to unofficially as “Little India”. China Street
and King Street are respectively the main commercial street and social
centre for the Chinese community within this commercial quarter, as
described earlier.

The Residential Neighbourhoods
Outside the main historic
commercial centre, are largely residential quarters of terrace houses
and shophouses, interspersed with bungalows. On particular area at the
southern section of Beach Street stands out for the network of clan
houses (kongsi) which include the Cheah Kongsi, two Khoo Kongsi,
Lim Kongsi, Tan Kongsi and Yeoh Kongsi, representing the five
Hokkien kongsi. These kongsi buildings are set within a courtyard or
compound by residential or shophouses. The layout and network of
narrow alleyways, a legacy of the 19th century, are reminiscent of the
feuding secret societies of the olden days. This urban geography of clan
temples and houses is a unique feature of the historic island port
settlement of Penang. Yap Kongsi, located at the junction of Armenian
Street and Cannon Street, for example, was founded in late 19th century
building was completed in 1924 blending eastern and western
architectural influences. It is made up of two halls separated b a central
air well, fronted by a three bay façade,as typical Chinese layout while
columns and external features are in Neo-Classical style.

Residential Quarters
Another residential quarter is located behind the Goddess of Mercy
Temple and Chulia Street, where Stewart Lane, Muntri Street and Love
Lane intersect. Lying just outside the historic commercial grid, these
streets are relatively narrower, irregularly aligned and appear to be less
formal in their planning. The temple of Carpenters Guild (Lo Pan
Hang), Goldsmith Association Guild Temple and the Hainanese
Association and Temple are located in this area, dating from 19th

Nearby at Acheen Street are the first Muslim urban parish and the
earliest centre of spice traders and Malay entrepreneurs on the island.
The shophouses fronting the Acheen Street Malay Mosque printed the
Quran and Islamic religious books. The mansion of Syed Mohamad
Alatas, a 19th century Malay leader, is at the corner of Armenian Street
and Acheen Street. The building was restored and is now used as the
Penang Heritage Centre. The building was restored in a government
sponsored pilot restoration project by French conservationist in 1993, and
had won a ‘National Conservation Award’ in 1996. This double-storey
bungalow in Indo-Malay Palladian Style at No. 128 Armenian Street was
built in the mid19th century by Syed Mohamed Alatas, a leader of the
Muslim community of Lebuh Acheh and the secret society called “Red
Flag”. The facade has a series of closely spaced windows, full length
framed by moulded architraves with keystones.

Chulia Street is another major street of unique character with a strong
Indian Muslim history, a rich and varied urban form and a still vibrant
community of traditional trades and occupations. The street extends from
Penang Road to Beach Street after which it continues to Weld Quay as
Chulia Street ghaut.

The Indian Muslim community is centred around the Kapitan Keling
Mosque (founded circa 1800). There are a number of smaller Indian
Muslim shrines and mosques on Chulia Street; the oldest is probably
Nagore Shrine, a fine example of early Indian masonry which is in
highly original condition. The existence of original Anglo-Indian
bungalows dating from the early 19th century is another unique feature of
Chulia Street. Chinese institutions like the Teochew Kongsi and the
Chinese association temple known as the United Cantonese Districts
Association (Ng Fook Thong) have outstanding buildings built in the
19th century. Shophouses from different periods add to the character of
Chulia Street.

The Prangin Canal
The Prangin Canal forms the southern limit of early 19th century George
Town. The canal was built from the site of the original Prangin River
which was filled in the 1880s. The Prangin Canal is joined to another
drainage canal at Transfer Road which was appropriately named
“Boundary ditch” in the 19th century. The two canals thus logically form
the southern and western limits respectively of the nomination site of the
Hiistoric City of George Town.

The Shophouses and Townhouses
Like the Historic City of Melaka, George Town also have large collection
of shophouses and townhouses within its Core and Buffer Zones
numbering more than 1700 buildings in different styles and types. All of
these buildings normally have similar plan configuration as well as
materials used. What makes them look different is their façade. These
shophouses extend to the street without any forecourt. From the outside
one can see only the concrete walls with long rectangular windows for
the upper level and the roof which was made of tiles. The upper floor
projects out to cover the verandah in front of the main entrance. The
façade is often designed in a symmetrical organization in which the
entrance is located in the middle with windows on both sides. There are
several different architectural styles of shophoouses on the street. Some
have stylistic trends of the different periods on the front façade.
Architecturally, the shophouses and townhouses in the Historic City of
George Town can be grouped into seven categories, depending on their
façade designs. The seven groups are:
􀂃 Early Shophouse Style 1800 – 1850’s
􀂃 Early Transitional Style 1840 – 1900’s
􀂃 Early Straits Eclectic Style 1890 – 1920’s
􀂃 Late Straits Eclectic Style 1920 – 1940’s
􀂃 Neo-Classical Style 19th – early 20th century
􀂃 Art Deco Style 1930 – 1950’s
􀂃 Early Modern Style Post war


Lonelyplanet said...

Hi, nice post :)

Penang is really an amazing historical place to visit in Malaysia. I visited once and feel like visiting again :) All the buildings, temples, architecture.. everything is just amazing ...

I put up some information about Penang Travel Guide in my blog . Please visit and have some comments .. Hopefully I will visit Penang soon :)

cheers ...

dakhoos said...

Do you know what Prangin River, Prangin Canal or Prangin Road is named after?