Before Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, was known to the world as a beautiful, exotic holiday destination, she was Pulau Pinang – a virgin paradise that got her name from the abundance of betel nut palms scattered across her soft, sandy beaches.
Literally translated, Pulau Pinang means the “Isle of the Betel Nut” in Malay – Malaysia’s national language. Steeped in history, “Penang” was born when charismatic English captain Francis Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Pulau Pinang to the British East India Company.
In 1786, Light landed on what is known as the scenic Esplanade today. Local folklore tells of how he fired gold coins into the surrounding jungle to induce his men to clear the area. Fourteen years later, the Sultan of Kedah further ceded a strip of land on the mainland across the channel to a very persuasive Light.
The state of Penang then comprised of an island originally named Prince of Wales Island, after George V, and the strip on the mainland which was christened Province Wellesley, after the Governor of India. The former was later named George Town, after King George III.
In 1832, Penang formed part of the Straits Settlement with Malacca and Singapore. The Penang maritime port was among the busiest in the region, attracting rich merchants involved in the lucrative trade of tea, spices, porcelain and cloth.
Settlers and fortune-seekers from the all over called Penang home and it was from this interesting mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese (to name a few) cultures that Penang became a melting pot for hybrid communities – the most famous being the Baba Nyonya, Jawi Peranakan and Eurasians.
For more than a century, the major trading post remained under British colonial rule until 1957, when Malaysia gained independence. George Town was accorded city status by Queen Elizabeth II on January 1, 1957, thereby becoming the first town in the Federation of Malay – after Singapore – to become a city.
Although she is Malaysia’s electric and electronic manufacturing hub, Penang has successfully retained her old world charm. As recognition of her rich heritage, George Town, together with Malacca, was listed as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008.