Penang Esplanade Walking Tour
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The Penang Esplanade Walking Tour is a tour of the northern part of George Town. It covers a distance of 2 miles (3.2 km) and can be done on foot. Depending on your speed, you can complete it in between 1 1/2 to 3 hours. This is quite a long walk for some, so I recommend doing it in the early part of the day which is cooler.
On this tour, you pass by some of the oldest buildings in Penang which form the civic centre of the British colonial administration. The tour ends at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, itself a heritage building.
You may print out this self-guided tour for your own personal use.
Sights Along the Way
Tour ItineraryThe walking tour starts at the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower (1). It was built by a local millionaire in 1897 to commemorate the diamond jubilee of the British queen. The tower is sixty feet tall, with each foot representing a year of Victoria's reign. Sadly, however, the queen passed away before the tower was completed in 1902.
Walk along the left side of Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah. To your right is Swettenham Pier. Cruise liners as well as ferry boats from Langkawi and Sumatra arrive here. On your left is Fort Cornwallis (2).
The fort that you see today dates to 1810. This is the second time it was rebuilt. The original fort was just a hurriedly erected stockade of nibong trunks, constructed as soon as Captain Francis Light landed in 1786. It was put up because Light got the island of Penang under less-than-transparent circumstances. He had the Sultan of Kedah believe that the British would offer the sultan military protection against his enemies, when in actual fact, Light's superiors never made such a promise. After the British had settled on the island, a more permanent fort was put up in the place of the nibong fort in 1793. In 1810, the fort was again renovated into the shape we see today.
The road you are standing on, Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah, comprised two roads during the British time. Fort Road runs along the east side of Fort Cornwallis until the tip of the cape, which was called Fort Point. In Hokkien, Fort Point translates as "Kuan-a Kark" and was used to refer to the entire Esplanade as a whole. Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barkbah makes a turn to the left into The Esplanade. The name "esplanade" means a flat, open space with room for a promenade, and preferably along the shore.
As you walk towards the bend, you can upon the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse (3). Compared to the fort, it is a rather late arrival, being built only in 1882, when Penang harbour was experiencing increasing traffic from tin mining and other economic activities. At the time it was built, it was called the Fort Point Lighthouse. It is one of the two lighthouses on Penang Island itself. The other one is the Muka Head Lighthouse, while the Pulau Rimau Lighthouse is located on Pulau Rimau, just off the southeast coast of Penang Island. The beam of the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse - now no longer in use - can be seen as far as 16 nautical miles.
Follow the road turning left and you're at The Esplanade. The sea is to your right. You can see Gunung Jerai, or Kedah Peak as the British called it, in the horizon. To the 18th century British, Kedah Peak and all the land on the other side of the sea, represented enemy territory, so they need to put up something to protect their newly acquired asset. They did that, with Fort Cornwallis.
Note the empty land between the road and the fort. There used to be a moat around Fort Cornwallis. It measured 27 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Over time, however, the moat became nothing more than a ditch, a filthy one too. Eventually the authorities filled it in, around the 1960's or 70's, and now only grass grows there.
The main entrance to Fort Cornwallis is on the west side, facing the Padang. You can go in to walk around. There are entrance fees. Inside the fort, you will find the statue of Captain Francis Light. It was built in 1978 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Penang. Nobody knows for sure how Light looked like. To create this George Washington-like statue, they modelled it after pictures done of Light's son, William Light.
Fort Cornwallis is much emptier today than it was, during British time. There were civic buildings for the colonial administration. These have all been pulled down. What's left are the chapel and the magazines. In the 1970's, some near-sighted powers-that-be built an amphitheatre within the fort. Today, as should be expected, the 70's addition look drab and out of place.
The Padang, or field, outside Fort Cornwallis was where parades, military practices and sporting events were held. Today it is called Padang Kota Lama, or Field of the Old Fort, but many locals simply call it The Padang. It is also emptier today than it was during the colonial era. The Penang Sports Club (Cricket Section) and the Penang Recreation Club used to have their clubhouse on the Padang (similar to the structures still standing on the Padang in Singapore). The clubhouses on Penang's Padang were destroyed during World War II, and were never reconstructed. Also gone is the Vermont Memorial, a cast-iron structure where bands used to play and ceremonial events were held. It is located close to where the Millennium memorial is located today.
Look across the Padang and the buildings along Lebuh Light (Light Street). Lebuh Light is the oldest road in Penang, and rightfully named after Francis Light himself. The road runs from a now-lost pier near the clock tower all the way to a well sunk by Light on the other end of the road. By the late 19th century, it is the most sought-after address in Penang. Foo Tye Sin, one of the wealthiest men in Penang during that time, built his mansion here. The Foo Tye Sin Mansion faces the Padang, and is next to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce building. The mansion still stands today, and is used as a bank building.
The Esplanade itself - that is to say, the promenade facing the sea - was as mentioned called the Kuan Nah Kark in Hokkien. During the pre-war era, this was the most popular meeting place during Chap Goh Meh (Chinese Valentine's Day, which falls on the last day of Chinese New Year). It is where single people come out looking for suitors. It was here that the tradition of throwing mandarin oranges into the sea was popularized.
Walk along Jalan Syed Sheh Barakbah (formerly The Esplanade) until you come to the T-junction with Jalan Padang Kota Lama (formerly Esplanade Road). On your right stands a grey memorial. It is the Cenotaph (4), a monument to commemorate those who perished in World War I.
Walk down Jalan Padang Kota Lama. On your right are two elegant buildings, the City Hall (5) followed by the Town Hall (6). The Town Hall, built in around 1880, is the older of the two. It housed government offices of the Municipal Council until these moved to the City Hall when it was completed in 1903. Freed from administrative responsibilities, the Town Hall became ballroom where social events were held and attended by the elites of the society. From the balcony, one can get a good view of the sporting events happening down at the Padang. The Hokkiens called it the Ang Moh Kong Kuan, meaning the "White Men's Club", for obvious reasons, though leading members of the non-whites in the community were also later allowed in.
Where Jalan Padang Kota Lama meets Lebuh Light, you will find a cast-iron fountain. It was the Municipal Fountain, as it stands next to Town Hall. I call it the Koh Seang Tat Fountain (7), after the man who built and presented it to the government in 1883. Koh Seang Tat was a very wealthy man in the late 19th century. He used to have a mansion which was called Edinburgh House because the Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria) was invited to stay there when he visited in 1869. Unfortunately, Edinburgh House has long since been demolished. It was located fronting Lebuh Light, in front of Dewan Sri Pinang, the municipal auditorium. The road around Dewan Sri Pinang still retains the name Jalan Duke, in reference to the visiting royalty.
Turn right into Lebuh Light. You will come across the junction of Lebuh Light and Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah. After crossing it, you arrive at Logan Memorial (8). It has only recently been moved here, when the Penang Supreme Court building underwent renovation and expansion. The memorial was a gift of the local people in memory of James Richardson Logan, a lawyer who championed the rights of the non-whites in Penang. Until the mid-19th century, Penang and other places in the Straits Settlement were still ruled by the British in India. Logan and his brother Abraham were successful in getting the government transferred from India. This transfer - which took place in 1867 - resulted in the wealth of the Straits Settlement, which was experiencing economic boom because of tin, could be channeled for local good. The transfer was also commemorated by the naming of Jalan Transfer.
The Penang Supreme Court Building (9) stand on the site where a courthouse has been in operation since 1809. It was completed in 1903 and was designed by government engineers. The court house recently underwent expansion and renovated that was completed in 2007.
Lebuh Light ends near the gates of Convent Light Street (10), the oldest convent school as well as the oldest girls' school in Malaysia. Like most convent schools in the country, it was started by Catholic nuns from the Holy Infant Jesus Mission of France. Within the grounds of Convent Light Street is Government House, the oldest British administrative building in Malaysia. Also located within a forlorn corner of the grounds is the well which Francis Light sunk.
Lebuh Light flows into Lebuh Farquhar, named after Robert Townsend Farquhar, the Lieutenant Governor of Penang who had big dreams for Penang, to the detriment of Malacca. It was Robert Townsend who ordered that the Malacca Fort be demolished. The job to demolish the Portuguese-built Malacca Fort was carried out by another Farquhar, William Farquhar, the Resident of Malacca. William had almost totally dismantled Malacca Fort when Stamford Raffles intervened, saving only the portal, called Porta de Santiago.
Take the pedestrian bridge to cross Lebuh Farquhar. Let's start by walking all the way to the end of the road, near Lebuh Pitt, and retracing our steps back. This way, we can visit the sights along this road.
The first is the St George's Anglican Church (11). Built in 1816, it is one of the oldest non-Catholic church in Malaysia. The style of construction, Palladian, is similar to the St Andrew's Cathedral of Singapore. The graceful columns are also similar to those of Suffolk House, built around that time. On the foreground of St George's Church is the Francis Light Memorial (12), built in 1886 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the British settlement of Penang.
Next to St George's Church is the former building of the Penang Free School, today housing the Penang State Museum (13). The Penang Free School was the first English school for the children of commoners in Southeast Asia. One wing of the building was bombed during World War II, and was never rebuilt. Hence, the museum occupies what is left of it. Within the museum, you can discover some more about Penang's early history and its local culture.
Next to the Penang State Museum is the Cathedral of the Assumption (14). This Catholic church is the oldest church in Penang. It was originally located at Bishop Street until the Catholic community moved to Farquhar Street in 1802. The church building itself, however, dates to only 1860. It was elevated to "cathedral" status in 1955.
Although Francis Light is a British, he mingled well with the Catholics who are mainly Eurasians - he even took on a wife, Martina Rozells, who is also believed to be Eurasian. Many historical records regarded Martina as Light's common-law wife, some even suggesting that they never married. Perhaps they never married, or perhaps they married in secrecy. The reason is, in the 18th century, the Catholics and Protestants did not get along well, so Light's act of mingling with the Catholics, even inviting them to settle on Penang Island, was merely "tolerated" but not "encouraged" by his British superiors. After he died, his wife had a difficult time claiming his properties, even those which were in his will.
The Catholic community that worshipped at the Cathedral of the Assumption lived in Argus Lane (15), a small lane behind the cathedral. Today the number of Eurasian Catholics has dwindled to practically non-existent. You can still see signs of Catholics living there by the pictures of Jesus Christ hung at front doors.
Argus Lane is reached through Love Lane, the lane next to the cathedral. Of the many stories of how this lane got its name, the most enduring is that it was where sailors come to seek intimacy after their long sojourn at sea. It is also where rich men living on adjacent Muntri Street house their lady companions away from their wives.
On the other side of Love Lane is the St Xavier's Institution (16). Like the boys' version of the Convent Light Street, the St Xavier's Institution is the oldest Roman Catholic boys' school in Malaysia. The present building dates to only 1954. The building before that was bombed during World War II.
Continue walking along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, passing high rise hotels and office buildings, and you reach the Protestant Cemetery (17). Buried here are the colonial officers who were involved in setting up the British settlement of Penang. Among them includes Captain Francis Light himself, as well as his trading partner James Scott, Reverend Hutchings, who founded Penang Free School, and James Richardson Logan, of Logan Memorial.
After visiting the Protestant Cemetery, cross the road and walk back to the junction of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and Jalan Penang. Turn left. This section of Jalan Penang is also called Upper Penang Road. It is a very happening place at night, especially during weekends, as there are a few restaurants where the crowds come to hang out, to watch and be seen.
Jalan Penang ends in front of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, also called the E & O. Long regarded as one of the most elegant hotels in the Orient, the E & O was built by the Sarkies Brothers, businessmen of Armenian descent who also built the Raffles Hotel and the Strand in Rangoon. It is still the grandest hotel in Penang today, having been totally renovated a few years back.
Our tour ends at the E&O. You can take a rest and enjoy the food in the restaurants here, or take a taxi from the hotel.