In July 2008, George Town, the capital of the Malaysian State of Penang, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is almost 150 years younger than our own Fort St. George and the Indian town that developed around it. It’s an honour that the city, not unlike the Madras of the 1940s and 50s, takes seriously. Its heritage listings are already done and much restoration of built heritage is complete or under completion with government support.
Some of the best examples of the renovation are to be seen in a street that exemplifies the spirit of multicultural, multi-religious Penang.
Penang comprises what was once called Prince of Wales Island and its mainland port, Butterworth, with its hinterland, an enclave in Kedah State. In the northeast corner of the island is George Town in which, spreading behind the first British construction Fort Cornwallis, are the Core and Buffer Zones, the most protected areas of the World Heritage Site and a pleasure for anyone to wander through.
On the street
The Core Zone is broadly divided, one behind the other going south from the Fort, into the British and Chinese settlements with a small enclave where the Eurasian settlement is sandwiched between them near the coast. Behind the Chinese settlement are the Indian and Malay settlements. Cutting across on a north-south axis is Pitt Street, now called Masjid Kapitan Keling Road, but The Street of Perfect Harmony is what it is to all who value heritage.
The street begins with St. George’s Church, consecrated in 1819 by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Middleton, Bishop of Calcutta, who had three years before consecrated what is now Madras’s St. George’s Cathedral. St. George’s Church in Penang is the oldest Anglican church in South-east Asia and the construction of the building was supervised by an officer of the Madras Engineers.
Just south of it is the Kuan Yim (Goddess of Mercy) Temple of the Straits Chinese who are also known as the Chinese Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya. These were Chinese settlers who arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries in what became the Straits Settlements and the Dutch East Indies and are, in Penang, the majority ethnic group. The temple was built in stages from 1728 to 1800.
Almost across from it is the Mahamariamman Temple on land granted to the South Indian settlers who began arriving in the island in the late 18th century. The temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, was consecrated in 1833.
At the southern end of the street is Masjid Kapitan Keling, the main mosque of the Indian Muslims and the Jawi Peranakan (the Indo-Malays). The mosque was built in 1801 by Kader Mydin Marican, appointed by the government as Kapitan Kling, the head of the Indian community (Kling was a term used for Indian settlers).
And on an extension of the Street of Perfect Harmony is Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh, a mosque built in 1808 for the Hadhrami Arab settlers from Acheh. Apart from the Achehnese, the Malays too pray here and it is sometimes called the Malay mosque. A short distance to its east is the Khoo Kongsi, one of Penang’s 30 Chinese clan temples, established here in 1835 with the present temple raised in 1906. Just north of it is the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple aka the Teochew Temple, founded in 1855 and with the present temple built in 1870. With these two, there are three different types of Chinese temples with different forms of worship – Confucian, Clan and Ancestral – on or just off the Street of Perfect Harmony.
Just a short distance to the west of St. George’s Church is the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption, established in 1787 and with the present building dating to 1860. Starting with the Church of the Assumption and ending with the Khoo Kongsi, it’s a unique trail to walk and a fascinating street to spend time on. I wish our places of worship could be restored like these and looked after in the same dedicated fashion.