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Penang - or, more properly, Pulau Pinang - is the northern gateway to Malaysia and is the country's oldest British settlement. It has been sold to generations of tourists as 'the Pearl of the Orient', but in shape Penang looks more like a frog than a pearl. Although the island is best known as a beach resort, it is also a cultural gem with Chinese, Malay and Indian influences. Georgetown has the largest collection of pre-war houses in all Southeast Asia.
Penang State includes a strip of land on the mainland opposite, Province Wellesley – named after Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, who went on to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. Covering an area of 738 square kilometres, Province Wellesley is also known by its Malay name, Seberang Perai. Georgetown’s founder, Captain Francis Light, originally christened Penang ’Prince of Wales Island’. Light named Georgetown after George, the Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, as it was acquired on his birthday. Most Malaysians know the town by its nickname, Tanjung, as it is situated on a sandy headland called Tanjung Penaga.
Penang soon became a cultural and religious melting pot. By 1789, Georgetown had a population of 5000 and by the end of century the number had more than doubled.
Despite Georgetown’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, there remained a strong British influence: the British judicial system was introduced in 1801 with the appointment of the first magistrate and judge, an uncle of novelist Charles Dickens. In 1805 Penang’s colonial status was raised to that of a Residency. A young administrative secretary, Stamford Raffles, arrived to work for the governor. Georgetown became the capital of the newly established Straits Settlements, which included Melaka and Singapore.
But the glory was shortlived. Following Raffles’s founding of Singapore in 1819, Georgetown was quickly eclipsed by the upstart at the southern tip of the Peninsula and by the 1830s had been reduced to a colonial backwater. From an architectural perspective, this proved a saving grace; unlike Singapore, Penang retains many of its original colonial buildings and rich cultural heritage.