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  • Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt
  • Badriyah Haji Salleh
Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepôt. Yeoh Seng Guan, Loh Wei Leng, Khoo Salma Nasution and Neil Khor (editors) Singapore: NUS Press, 2009. 284 pp., index. ISBN 978-9971-69-423-4

The book consists of 12 chapters written by 12 authors who first presented them in the Penang Story Series entitled ‘The Penang Story: A Celebration of Cultural Diversity International Conference’ held in 2002. Although it was seven years before they were published in 2009, the contents are still very relevant.

Summarily the story on Penang is the story of a place that was originally in Kedah’s backwaters which developed throughout the years as the result of local, regional and global dynamics. Although Penang was not an uninhabited island before the British occupation in 1786, the character of Penang and its territories today was shaped largely by colonial policies and its population that led to glaring contrasts from its origins, economically, socially and politically. As a place that was subjected to Western colonialism from the 18th to 20th centuries, there were constant processes of continuity and change that took place not only within Penang but also with its links locally, i.e., the Malay states, with the Southeast Asian region and hence globally (Loh, pp. 83–102). Such continuity is clearly seen in the trading connections between the island and the rest of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it did not stop there because economic, social and political relationships are again being transformed in the 21st century with the formation of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) with Penang at the centre of these new routes (Philip King, pp. 131–49).

Penang became a British colony through the East India Company (EIC), which at first was quite reluctant to recognize it but eventually believed that the [End Page 119] island could be used strategically to challenge the Dutch in the East. Hence, Penang was later created as the Fourth Presidency along with other territories in British India. However, Penang’s importance was overshadowed by Singapore after the British occupation of the latter, especially after the formation of the Straits Settlements in 1826 (Turnbull, pp. 30–53). The secondary position of Penang in the eyes of the EIC vis-à-vis Singapore, however, was merely a matter of scale (Chuleeporn Virunha, p. 105). Penang trade grew for the individuals and companies. It became the port for peninsular Malaya whose economy catapulted after the discovery of tin, especially in Perak, and the huge involvement of Penang Chinese and Western capitalists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gradually but surely Penang became a cosmopolitan island and its administrative capital Georgetown—more popularly known as Tanjong by the local Malays—was the mixing bowl where West met East. People from the surrounding areas, such as Kedah, Perak and elsewhere in the Malay states as well as from across the Straits of Melaka, especially from east Sumatra, not forgetting the thousands of people from mainland China, India and the Middle East, flocked in Penang to try their luck or to serve the British. To the east Sumatrans Penang was the gateway to the world (Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, p. 158). Many were successful; among them were the Acehnese and Mandailings who became merchants, traders, intellectuals, artists, writers, politicians and educationists (Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, pp. 150–179). They opened their own settlements and enclaves side by side with other settlements and cultures from China and India which became the distinguishing features of the island. Streets were named after the community leaders and buildings and architecture denoted their importance and life styles. Tan Liok Ee aptly concluded that ‘the vitality in the history of Penang drew its strength from the diversity of peoples, culture and social and political institutions that have converged on the island’ (Tan Liok Ee, p. 7).

Contrary to the common view that the immigrant population such as the Chinese and Indians remained loyal to their countries of origin, many of the newer generations became localized socially, economically as well as politically. They became the Peranakan Chinese...


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