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What You Don’t Know About Georgetown, Penang

12 min read
What You Don’t Know About Georgetown, Penang


Hello and ‘lu ho boh’- that’s ‘how are you?’ in Hokkien, the main Chinese dialect in Penang.

The historic city of George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before we begin, let me tell you a little about Penang, or sometimes known as the Pearl of the Orient.

Penang used to be part of Malay Sultanate of Kedah, across the sea in the mainland. But in 1786, Captain Francis Light managed to get Penang from the Sultan of Kedah for the British East India Company, together with Singapore and Malacca. He then built what is known today as George Town.

Penang gets its name from the Malay word Pinang which means ‘betel nut’, and Pulau Pinang literally means ‘betel nut island’. It was later named Prince of Wales Island, commemorating King George IV. Georgetown was named after King George III. Today Penang is the third largest economy in the country, after Selangor and Johor.

In the World Heritage Committee Session in July 2008, Georgetown, along with Malacca were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Georgetown was voted twice as one of the best cities in Asia. It is also ranked as 10th among the top locations in Asia where Europeans prefer to work and live in, based on its weather, air quality, infrastructure, health services, housing, security and politics.


Georgetown has some of the best tourist places in Malaysia. Let’s get to know a few of them.

Fort Cornwallis

On top of our itinerary is definitely Fort Cornwallis. The largest standing fort in Malaysia, Fort Cornwallis is a star-shaped fort named after the late 18th century Governor- General of Bengal in India, Charles Cornwallis. It was built by Sir Francis Light after it took possession of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. The original fort was built with nibong, or palm trunk. A few years later, the new fort was rebuilt with manpower of Indian convicts, and finally completed in 1810.

The fort is intended to defend the island against the pirates and the French because of the Napoleonic Wars. There used to be a deep and wide moat surrounding the fort, but it is now filled due to a malaria outbreak.

Even though the fort was built for defence, it was used more for administrative purposes. In fact, the funny thing is that the fort has never engaged in any battle.

There you will see many old cannons. The largest one, called the Seri Rambai cannon, was a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johor. Later, the Potuguese took possession of the cannon where it stayed in Java until it was seized by the British and placed here in Fort Cornwallis.

This fort was gazetted in 1977 as an Ancient Monument and Historic site and today is one of Penang’s most famous tourist attractions.

Convent Light Steet

The next interesting attraction is the Convent Light Street, or Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. It was founded back in 1852 by 3 French nuns who took over the previous government house to start their convent. It originally houses within its walls the Francis Light bungalow, which was build in 1790. It was eventually leased out to the East India Company as a government house, before finally settling as a learning institution.

The building was expanded, and eventually housed a chapel, cloisters for the Sisters, an orphanage, a boarding house for students and classrooms for the school. The Convent continues to serve as a school and has been painstakingly and constantly restored in recent years with funds raised from the public.

St. George’s Church

Next is the St. George’s Anglican Church along Farquhar Street. Founded by Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, it is the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, which goes back all the way to 1818. It is designed in the Georgian Palladian style, a combination of the Georgian style, which is attribute to King George I and King George IV, and the Palladian style, which is attributed to the Grecian architecture by a Roman called Palladius.

Look at the long Roman columns and pillars and the white washed walls. The original roof was flat, but there was a tiny problem. The weather, or more precisely, the tropical rains made it unsuitable to have a flat roof and it was later made into the present shape. Look out also for the tall steeple that forms the apex of the roof.

There is a pavilion that sits opposite the church that houses a memorial to Francis Light. There is an inscription that reads: “In Memory of Francis Light, Esquire, who first established this island as an English Settlement and was many years Governor. Born in the county of Suffolk in England and died October 21st 1794. In his capacity as governor, the settlers and natives were greatly attached to him, and by his death had to deplore the loss of one who watched over their interest and cares as a father.”

The church is declared one of the 50 National Treasures of Malaysia.

The Cathedral of the Assumption

Next is The Cathedral of the Assumption on Faquhar Street. It got its name from the Feast of the Assumption, which happened to be the day when the first group of Catholics arrived in Penang in 1786. It was in 1955 that the church became a cathedral according to a decree by the Vatican.

This majestic greyish white coloured building with horizontal bands is an example of fine colonial architecture.

Eastern and Oriental Hotel

Next is the world renowned Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Once known as the “Premier Hotel East of Suez,” it is commonly called the E&O Hotel or Eastern & Oriental Hotel.

The E & O Hotel was one of the few hotels in the region that was managed by the Sarkies Brothers. The Sarkies also operated the Raffles in Singapore, the Strand in Rangoon and the Crag Hotel on Penang Hill. In fact, they are still in existence today and are considered top-notch hotels, except for the one on Penang Hill, which is not functioning anymore.

In 1884, the E & O began its operations and by the Roaring 20s had gained much international recognition for being an opulent establishment through the generosity of Arshak Sarkies, the most flamboyant of the brothers. He would waive off friends’ bills and allow some planters to stay for free, which led to people calling the E & O ‘Eat and Owe’. Sarkies ran the hotel out of pleasure more than for profit and it eventually showed, when the hotel came close to bankruptcy. However, today the business has been revitalized and the E&O continues to retain its charm.

The E & O has had many famous patrons, and they include Sir Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse, Sun Yat Sen and Charlie Chaplin. Despite having gone through periods of uncertainty and sometimes teetering on the brink of obscurity, the E & O still runs and functions as one of the best hotels in Penang. Weddings, dinners and special occasions are still celebrated here.

If you cannot afford to stay there, you can still go to the bar or restaurant and unwind like Charlie Chaplin and Rudyard Kipling did!

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Next is the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. Cheong Fatt Tze was a rag to riches story. Coming to Malaya in 1856 to work in the tin mines at 16, he worked his way and made a fortune trading tea, pepper, coffee and tobacco with the British Empire.

Cheong Fatt Tze had a reputation of a smart businessman and eventually became Consult General for China, and had the position of ‘Mandarin of the Highest Order’. He also became the director of China’s railway and first modern bank and was nicknamed the “Rockefeller of the East” by the New York Times, who also dubbed him as “China’s last Mandarin and first capitalist.”

Despite having houses all over Asia, and in particular Indonesia and China due to his business and personal interests, Cheong Fatt Tze still favoured this mansion in Penang the most, and consulted feng shui masters in building it. When Cheong Fatt Tze finally passed away in 1916, the Dutch and the British honoured this extraordinary man by flying flags at half-mast.

The mansion is open everyday from 11.00am and 3.00pm with tours conducted at these times. The tour is well worth your time and you can marvel at the art of feng shui that went into Cheong Fatt Tze’s mansion. Besides the architecture, the mansion is also dedicated to the memory of the man himself.

Apart from the architecture, the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion also has many antiques and old photographs that will give you a glimpse of the lives of genteel Chinese businessmen then. An interesting fact is that Cheong Fatt Tze’s seventh wife was awarded the privilege of living in the mansion with him. The mansion has also been used for filming as well, one of the more famous movies filmed here was ‘Indochine’ starring Catherine Deneuve.

The Cheong Fatt Tze mansion used to also consist of the row of terrace houses across the street, which you can see when you visit. This particular row was where the kitchen, storage rooms and servants’ quarters used to live. Maids wearing their usual white shirts and black pants would hurriedly prepare food for their mistress and master.

Christian Cemetery

Next is the Protestant Cemetery. Though it may seem a bit sombre and morbid, walking through the old Protestant Cemetery is a great idea while you are in Georgetown. It provides you with a sense of the hardships that were faced by those who had chosen to make their home here. Some of the tombstones have been restored by the heritage trust, though many inscriptions can no longer be read. Reading the epitaphs on the stones brings a melancholic, romantic feel especially when reading about the lives of the early settlers. Many died from tropical ailments such as malaria and one stone even mentions that the deceased died from jungle fever.

Most of these people were laid to rest here because it was too far to take their bodies back, and doing that would take many weeks, further deteriorating the bodies. So the Christian Cemetery is the final resting place of many pioneers including Sir Francis Light, Sir Stamford Raffles’ brother-in-law and a young officer named Thomas Leonowens. You might be familiar with the story of his wife, Anna Leonowens, who moved to Singapore after Thomas died of apoplexy. Here, she received an invitation to teach English to the children of the Siamese King. A romanticised account of her life in Siam inspired the film called ‘Anna and the King’ starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, and the musical ‘The King And I’. The remake of this film in 1999 starred Jodie Foster and Chow Yuen Fatt, and part of it was shot in right here in Georgetown.

Suffolk House

Next is the Suffolk House, or what was once Sir Francis Light’s Residency. Francis Light built his home, where he landscaped and constructed the interior to resemble that of a country home of his birthplace of Suffolk, England.

He lived in Suffolk House as it was named, with his life long companion, Martina Rozells and his 5 children. The Suffolk House served as the governor’s residency for the first 100 years and was later bought over by a planter, and the house and land became part of the Methodist Boys’ School, last used as a canteen for the students.

The Suffolk House won the 2008 UNESCO Award of Distinction. It is one of the two cultural heritage conservation projects in Malaysia to win the UNESCO award in 2008 and this Award of Distinction is the second highest award given by UNESCO Asia Pacific for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

Kuan Yin Teng

Next is Kuan Yin Teng, one of the oldest Chinese temples in Malaysia. It was built in 1801 by early Chinese immigrants. The building is decorated with intricately crafted dragons and two stone lions guard the door. This temple is dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. It is one of the most visited tourist sites in Penang.

The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi

The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi is a clan association, one of the many in Malaysia. Built in 1850 by the forefathers of the Khoo family who emigrated from South China, it functions as a clan-house for anyone who has the surname Khoo. A temple was built but a fire razed the entire wooden structure. The local Chinese believed that the gods had burned it down because the structure resembled the Heavenly Emperor’s palace. The version you see today was completed in 1906. All around, you can see richly ornamented carvings of the roofs, walls and pillars that reflect the art and architecture of ancient China. At the end of the tour, expect to have a stiff neck.

Queen Victoria Clock Tower

Next is the Queen Victoria Clock Tower. This 60-foot-high clock tower was presented to Penang by local millionaire, Cheah Chen Eok, in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Wat Chaiyamangalaram

Next is the Wat Chaiyamangalaram temple, founded in 1845. This Thai Buddhist Temple is famous for its 33 meter long reclining Buddha, one of the world’s longest. The temple was built on a piece of land given by Queen Victoria to four women trustees as a gesture of goodwill to boost trading relations with Thailand. Look out for the guardian dragons at the entrance.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

Next is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, was built in the early 19th century, by the Kapitan Keling Caudeer Mohudeen. It is the most prominent historic mosque in Penang and features a dome-shaped minaret reflecting Moorish Islamic influence. The Kapitan Keling Mosque is the place of worship of the Indian Muslim community who have lived and worked around the mosque for over two hundred years. Unlike modern mosques that are mainly frequented on Fridays, the Kapitan Keling Mosque is used by worshippers five times a day, seven days a week. If you’d like to visit, you have to be decently dressed and women would have to wear a robe that you can get from the mosque staff.


Every Malaysian claims his or her hometown is the food capital of Malaysia. The people of Penang would claim Penang food is the best in Malaysia, and it is not easy to disagree.

Some of the must trys in Penang is the Penang Kuay Teow, or fried noodle dish with eggs, cockles and vegetables. Ask for it to be cooked less spicy if you cannot take spicy food.

Other Chinese dishes you must try are: beef noodle and ‘chee cheong fun’ or steamed flat noodle topped with shrimp and chilli sauce. You can also try the fried oyster, a popular seafood dish. ‘Hokkien mee’ is a noodle dish in spicy prawn based soup. You must also try Penang laksa, which is also a noodle dish but this time with fish based soup.

For something sweet, some highly recommended street food are the ‘tau sah pneah’ which is biscuit with green paste inside, ‘muah chee’ which are peanut coated glutinous rice balls; and ‘bee koh moy’ which is a black glutinous rice porridge usually taken as an afternoon dessert.

For Indian Muslim food, the Penang nasi kandar is very famous in Malaysia. It is a rice meal with many types of dishes made using many types of spices. Also, try the rojak pasembur which is a vegetable salad with sweet and spicy sauce.

Other unique delicacies include ‘otak-otak’ or steamed fish cake wrapped in banana leaves and ‘Or Koay’ or steamed yam cakes topped with dried shrimp, fried shallots, spring onion and sliced red chilli.

I hope I didn’t make your stomach growl. Penang is really a food haven, and you must try at least a few local delicacies before leaving.


Getting around in Georgetown is easy. You can take the bus or taxi. One fascinating mode of transportation is the trishaw, a type of bicycle vehicle, but the trishaw is getting more and more rare. Trishaws were actual modes of transportation in the olden times but today- they cater to tourists and can go up to 30 Ringgit per hour.

Well, this is the end of the guide for Georgetown. I hope you will enjoy yourself visiting the oldest standing fort in Malaysia, marvelling at some 17th century churches, unwinding in a world famous hotel, touring some Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples, and old colonial buildings and not forgetting, savouring food in Malaysia’s food capital.

Until the next time, Selamat Tinggal and goodbye!

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