Shortly after securing my lodgings Wednesday afternoon at NJ Books on Chulia Street, I headed off on a stroll of George Town’s older districts just to the northwest of the main backpacker enclave. As I’d walked in this area on my previous two visits I was quite familiar with the local sites and had a couple of definite goals in mind. The first was to tour the Penang State Museum on Farquhar Street, a neighborhood in which is found two of the community’s oldest institutions — the St. Xavier Institute (for boys) and Convent Light Street (for girls) as well as the magnificent courthouse. The museum itself is in a building that formerly housed the Penang Free School, Southeast Asia’s oldest English-language school, the east wing of which was destroyed by bombs during World War II. A statue of the province’s founder, Captain Francis Light, used to stand in front of the school but has been relocated to Fort Cornwallis, a short distance away.
Admission to the museum is only RM 1.00 (10 Thai baht, or 30 U.S. cents) and there are two floors of artifacts and images to explore. I spent about an hour-and-a-half inside. Visitors aren’t allowed to take photographs — many of the old maps, etc. are already quite faded because of the ravages of time in a tropical environments — but note-taking is encouraged. Every aspect of the settlement’s early history and culture is addressed with displays bringing the story all the way up to board games and food enjoyed by local residents in the present day. I found the rooms covering Baba Noyonya culture particularly interesting as this shares many similarities with the culture in Phuket Town. There’s plenty of furniture including an entire Baba bridal chamber and Peranakan drawing room full of Malay and Indian costumes and implements. There’s quite a few old photographs on the walls and a nice section upstairs with large paintings showing the earliest European views of Penang as well as later prints of the same scenes, the written commentary pointing out differences. I was enthralled with a display of kris daggers, making me wish I had enough money to seek one out in an antique shop to take home as a souvenir!
There is, of course, quite a bit inside dedicated to the colony’s founder — Francis Light — who was a trader based in Phuket for some time before coming to Penang. He was, in fact, acquainted with the ladies commemorated on Phuket’s famous Two Heroines Monument (and reproduced on numerous local government logos). The earliest of these artifacts is a piece of window glass upon which he and a schoolmate scratched their names while at boarding school in Suffolk. His last will and testament is also here, enlarged and reproduced on a wall for all to read. It was written shortly before he died of malaria here in 1804. Inside and outside there are numerous vehicles on display such as rickshaws and the cab of a truck used to haul tin ore. One of the cars from the old Penang Hill Railway (the funicular that travels at a very steep incline) is here as well as a Rolls Royce which used to belong to one of Penang’s prime ministers. It was attacked in 1937 and the PM was killed when exiting the car.
As there are very few Christian churches to see in Phuket, I was particularly interested in visiting St. George’s Church which is the oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia. Construction was begun in 1816 upon the initiative of Penang’s colonial chaplain Rev. Robert Sparke Hutchings using convict labor. Reverend Hutchings was a well-known educator who founded the Penang Free School and wrote what were considered the first books on Malay grammar, in addition to several elementary text-books and a dictionary mainly for school use. He founded the Auxiliary Bible Society and translated the New Testament into Malay. The church cost 60,000 Spanish dollars to build which was the same cost that the entire colony of Singapore was sold to the British in 1819.
The Georgian Palladium architecture of the church was designed by Captain Robert N. Smith of Madras Engineers, whose considerable talents also extended to etchings and oil paintings. His work consisting of an impressive series of oil-painted landscapes of Penang can be seen at the Penang State Museum. Large Grecian columns stand at the entrance to St. George’s Church and surround a pavilion in front of the main structure. The pavilion was added in 1886 to honor Captain Francis Light and contains a marble plaque dedicated to Penang’s founder. The mahogany trees on the church grounds were planted as seedlings brought from India in 1885 and survived destruction during the Second World War. The church itself escaped exterior damage during the war but the interior was heavily looted.
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