George Town, a name that might create an impression of an American or Caribbean town to an Indian citizen. But I found a namesake in an unusual location in the end of Strait of Malacca in Malaysia. I got amused, cultivated the web, smitten by its aura and finally visited and found another home, a true sister city of Calcutta in its past, present, culture and situation. This very post is dedicated to my homecoming in a foreign soil as I delved into George Towns sights,scenes and soul.
Both Calcutta and George Town has colonial past. Both were settled and developed by the British East India Company as trade settlements which drew diverse populace from different region, grew to be major cities of the Asian colonies of the British Empire.Captain Francis Light landed in the Penang Island under control of Kedah Sultanate in 1786. With looming threat of Burmese or Siamese attack, Light negotiated the control of Penang from the Sultan in cost of protection and founded George Town naming after King George III. A century earlier in 1690, Job Charnock landed in South Bengal villages of Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kalikata and negotiated a permit from Nawab of Bengal under Mughal suzerainty, which was later grew to be Calcutta, Imperial Capital of British India and de facto “Second London” for next 100 odd years.
Traveling from Kuala Lumpur by bus for along lush green Malayan countryside one has to cross the channel between the mainland at Butterworth over an iconic Penang Bridge(Jambatan Pulau Pinang) like we cross Howrah Bridge(Rabindra Setu) to enter Calcutta only difference being the former is a cable stayed bridge while the latter is a cantilever. Both of them got over burdened by growing volumes of traffic and getting another bridge in later years namely Penang Second Bridge(Jambatan Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah).
Image Credit: http://penangbridge.com.my
In parity with other cities developed around colonial period around the World, George Town started its journey from a military outpost called Fort Cornwallis which is Fort William in case of Calcutta. Both the forts are constructed over flat land with brick ramparts and there is not anything spectacular see inside. Fort Cornwallis though have a overpriced access just to see few old cannons, Fort William is out of bounds as it serves as Head Quarter of Eastern Command of Indian Army.
As the trade prospered both Calcutta and George Town started to expand. Administrative buildings, residential homes, port, civic infrastructure started to develop. The Colonial Districts became the de facto White Town where all the buzz were in the colonial era.There is a little open field near the fort named Padang like our very own Maidan near The Esplanade Area(both has an Esplanade next to the Maidan).
The administrative buildings like City Municipal Corporation, Town Hall, Clock Tower etc located around the Esplanade. Strikingly a mosque(Kapitan Keling Mosque) lies near the Esplanade similar to Calcutta’s Tipu Sultan Mosque. Further ahead lies St George’s Church which sports uncanny similarity with St Andrew’s Church, Calcutta in architecture.
As George Town grew rapidly, immigrant from different regions started to settle here and the native town began to take shape. The Native population were consisted of Malays and Chinese. Over the years, Chinese traders got huge success and it became a Chinese stronghold. Still today, like Calcutta, Muslims are minority in George Town though the dissimilarity lies in the fact that in case of Malaysia, the Malayas got outnumbered. Inter marriages between Chinese and Malays gave rise to the unique Perankan culture. The Perankan elites soon established a unique style of opulent lifestyle in lines of The Bengali Babu Culture of Nineteenth Century in Calcutta.
Perankans, The Babus of Penang went on a building spree to show off their new found opulence from luxurious mansions or clan houses and Chinese Temples. The alleys of George Town still holds the old world charm as you can see in North Calcutta neighborhoods. Few of The Clan houses like Cheong Fatt Tze(The Blue mansion), Khoo Kongsi are preserved as museum which depicts the lifestyle of the bygone era. So does our Jorasanko Thakurbari or Sovabajar Rajbari in North Calcutta.
The Chinese of Penang are religious unlike their counterparts in their homeland. There are several temples of different Chinese Sect and Clans around the town.Kuan Yin Temple(Goddess of Mercy), Snake Temple are two prominent ones alike Kalighat and Dakshineswar in Calcutta. Another temple though a little out in the suburbs of Air Itam is the Kek Lok Si or Temple of Supreme Bliss. This has a unique, unusual style of architecture and scenes just like Calcutta’s very own Jain Temples.
There are several Hindu and Buddhist Temples also like Mahamariamman Temple,Nattukottai Chettiar Temple, Kunj Bihari Temple, Dharmikarma Burmese Temple, Thai Wat Chaiya Mangakalaram. Hindu temples are built in Dravidian style with ornate gopurams. The colorful rituals held in these temples gives a glimpse of home away from the home. The Catholic Cemetery around the neighborhood is another reminiscences of its colonial past as it speaks about the people who shaped the past of the town lying for eternal rest as South Park Street Cemetery does the same here in Calcutta.
George Town has its share of “Little India” and spawned an Indian cuisine customized locally. I remember our Calcutta China Town and the “Chinese” food optimized to suite Indian taste buds. George Town is a city where people come for eating. Its gastronomic delights are unique and draws people from all over Malaysia just for eating. There are numerous restaurants as well as countless street food option all around the city. Even the residents seemed to dine out frequently as the restaurants come alive after evening with people.
Due to its cultural uniqueness like Bengal, Penang’s days of glory soon went for a toss when Malaysia got freedom. As capital as well as focus shifted to Kua Lumpur (to Delhi in case of India) , George Town started to loose its sheen. Ideological and cultural difference with Malaya majority, Islamic intolerance soon made George Town a stepchild. Staunch Malayan Muslim identity and Malaysian Governments officially declared “Bumiputra First”(practically meaning Chinese as Second Class Citizens as immigrants status) continues till today and people of Penang are not happy being discriminated as Immigrants despite loosing all connection with their motherland a century ago or even more.
Seventies, Eighties marked the economic decay of George Town. Corporate Houses started to flee after loosing the “Free Port” status as well few hostile Government policy to industries over political reasons. Sounds similar as by the same time Calcutta also lost all its glory due to political difference between state and federal governments. As a result, purchasing power did not prosper like KL, the brains were drained to KL , employments were inadequate and infrastructure did not prosper. Since late nineties, fortunes of both Calcutta and George Town started to turn around after Governments realized their mistakes.Investments, Tourism, infrastructure got a new lease of life after developing new industrial special economic zones like Bayan Lepas and SaltLake/Newtown(for Calcutta).
Both cities tell the same tale as both are yet to recover from decades of neglect, policy paralysis but hopefully in track. Infrastructure is improving as new flyovers are being built and new skyscrapers rising apart from Komtar(The only scyscraper built in 60’s). I remember the Tata Centre and Chatterjee International being Calcutta’s only skyscrapers till nineties.The Gurney Drive, The hip and happening promenade again glittering with newer malls, restorans like our very own Park Street getting new lease of attention from tourism dept.
Despite having its share of problems, both George Town and Calcutta has a charm and vibe unique to it. The Straits and the Hooghly never ceased to provide the eclectic cultural experience to the visitors as life flows on by the water, with the water. The War Cenotaphs, Colonial Relics, the ethnic communities, the mansions and the famous Street Arts gave it a World Heritage Status.
As I was waiting for a taxi for the Airport, the familiar sound of a bell led me to discover the good old cycle Rickshaw(called Trishaw in Penang) asking for a ride. I could not find an auto and Metro system, hopefully, the remaining slice of Calcutta would be in place till I come again.