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Turn your visa run into a vacation – Penang – Colonial History

For some people the idea of going on a boarder bounce or a visa run fills them with dread, others see it as a great opportunity to get off the island and explore other parts of Asia.

Penang is a popular choice for those wishing to renew their visas.

Penang Island is just off the northwest coast of Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca and is one of the most developed and economically important states in the country; it is also a thriving tourist destination.

penangThe name Penang comes from the modern Malay name Pulau Pinang which means the island of the areca nut palm, the island is known as The Pearl of the Orient.

Penang has a very interesting history and colonial period. Sir James Lancaster was one of the very first Englishmen to visit Penang; he was a navigator and privateer. He arrived on the island on the 10th of April 1591 commanding the Edward Bonadventure which set sail from Plymouth for the East Indies, he remained on the island until September that year, returning to the UK in May 1594.

The history of modern Penang began when the island was leased by Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah to Francis Light, and English adventurer and trader who worked for the Madras based firm Jourdain Sullivan and de Souza and the East India Company. The lease was granted in return for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies. Francis light landed on Penang on 11th of August 1786 at Fort Corwallis and took formal possession of the island in the name of His Britannic Majesty King George III and named the island Prince of Wales Island to honor the heir to the British throne. Penang was Britain’s first settlement in Southeast Asia and in Malaysian history it marked the beginning of more than a century of British involvement in Malaysia.

penang 2Light decided to conceal the fact that the new EAC’s governor-general Charles Cornwallis had made it clear that he could not be party to the Sultan’s disputes with other Malay princes, or promises to protect him from the Siamese or Burmese. In 1790 when Light later reneged on his promise of protection the Sultan tried to recapture the island but he was unsuccessful and was forced to cede the island to the company for 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum.

Light established Penang as a free port to entice traders away from the nearby trading posts. He encouraged immigrants to come to the island by promising them as much land as they could clear. However many of those who came to the island, including Light himself lost their lives to Malaria something that earned the island the epithet “white man’s grave”.

Arthur Wellesley arrived in Penang after Lights death to co-ordinate the defenses of the island. The annual payment to the Sultan increased to 10,000 Spanish dollars and today the Penang state government still pays RM 18,000,00 to the Sultan of Kedah annually.

Colonial Penang thrived from trading pepper and spices, betel nut, tin, opium and rice. The development of export crops became the chief means of raising the administrative costs in Penang. The rapid population growth that came with the ecoPenang 3nomic development brought about problems such as sanitation, adequate infrastructure, transportation and public health. To aid labor shortages the government began employing Indian convict workers as low cost laborers, many of whom worked draining swamps, clearing forests and laying out the pipes required for clean water.

For ten days in August 1867 the island was home to the Penang Riot when rival secret societies Kean Teik Tong, and the Red Flag against the alliance of the Ghee Hin Kongsi and the white flag of the British clashed.  By the turn of the century Penang had a large population of Chinese immigrants whose descendants remain on the island today.

During world war II Penang, then a British island garrison suffered devastating aerial bombing from the Japanese who invaded and took over in December 1941, the British withdrew to Singapore after declaring George Town, named after the King of England, an open city. Under  Japanese occupation the residents lived in fear of hunger and massacres that targeted the Chinese population.

At the end of the war the British returned but their image of invincibility had been greatly damaged and their intent to consolidate their rule over its possessions in British Malaya into a single administrative entity called the Malayan Union was met by rejection by the people and the Federation of Malaya was formed in its place in 1948. Independence seemed inevitable and was finally gained in 1957 when Penang became a member state of Malaysia.

penang 4Penang has a population of around 710,000 people making it the most populated island in Malaysia. The Chinese make up 45.6%of the population, Malays 43. 6 and Indians 10.4%. 44.6% of the population are Muslim, 35.6% are Buddhist, 8.7% are Hindu, 5.1% are Christian, 4.6% are Taoist and the remainder are non religious.

There are two major Western orchestras in Penang, the Penang Philharmonic and the Penang Symphony Orchestra. Chinese operas are frequently performed in Penang, often on specially built platforms during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival. The Penang Museum and Art Gallery in George Town has many relics, maps, photographs and artifacts that document the culture of the island and its people. Other places of interest include the Penang Islamic Museum, the War Museum, the Penang Toy Museum and the Penang State Art Gallery.

Penang has long been known as the food capital of Malaysia and was recognized as having the Best Street Food in Asia by Time Magazine in 2004. The food in Malaysia is extremely cheap and its Tandori outlets are legendary.

As well as the vibrant town Penang has some popular beaches located at Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang home to Penang’s famed hotel and resort belt. Muka Head is a secluded  beach with a lighthouse and a marine research station, this beach along with Monkey Beach offer more pristine water than the others.

Penang has many green areas such as the Penang Municipal Park, Penang Botanic Gardens and Penang Hill.

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