In the present city limits, George Town is 305.8 square kilometers in size. According to the 2010 census, its population stood at 529,400. The World Heritage Site of George Town covers 259.42 hectares, surrounded by an additional buffer zone. This area is rich in historical and cultural heritage sites, including colonial-era buildings of various architectural styles, as well as mosques, Chinese temples and Hindu temples. Administration of George Town is through the Penang Island City Council, which administers the entire Penang Island. As the President of the Penang Island City Council, Datuk Patahiyah Ismail serves as an unelected de facto mayor of George Town.
George Town is so big, so it's hard to decide whether to place the start point for Street View. Eventually, I opt for King Edward Place, beside the Queen Victoria Clocktower.
View of George Town from Komtar (7 May 2010)
About George Town
It was established by Captain Francis Light on 11 August 1786, and named after the then king of Great Britain, King George III. During Francis Light's time, George Town occupied the area up to only Pitt Street in the west and Market Street in the south. Over the first decade of its existence, the town spread to Chulia Street and grew like crawling tentacles along the main arteries into the hinterlands. The Protestant Cemetery, which was the burial ground of the early British colonials, which is within inner George Town today, was regarded as being located outside town. (It was positioned there to be away from the place where the colonial officers lived.)
Even during its first decade of being established, there were already people living outside George Town, with pockets of settlements along the north coast, such as at Kelawei and at Pulau Tikus, but these were not regarded as part of George Town proper until later on. To the south, there were settlements along the Sungai Pinang River and Batu Uban, some pre-dating the establishment of George Town itself.
The George Town skyline, as seen from Tido Hostel Penang. (19 June, 2017)
Malaysians today often forget how old George Town is. It is older than all the major towns and cities of Malaysia including Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Ipoh, Taiping and Singapore. If you plant your feet on any of the oldest parts of George Town, you are standing on a piece of land that has undergone different usage over the past 200 years. George Town bears witness to an urban morphology that has seen that same piece of land being a wetland, farmland, countryside, workshop, warehouse, office, home and boutique hotel, depending on which part of history you slice. This ever changing use of land in George Town is part of the city's unfolding story, as it continues to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant in modern times. And yet there are places that have remained unchanged through the ages. Take Beach Street as an example. It is one of the oldest commercial street in Malaysia, second perhaps only to Jonker Street in Malacca. As a commercial street, Beach Street is older than many of the aforementioned towns and cities in Malaysia as well as Singapore.
The Prangin Canal, where old and new architecture stand side-by-side (19 March 2010)
Inner City of George Town (6 February, 2013)
By the 1870's, George Town has reached the Prangin Canal, where Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong is located. today. In the 1870s, beyond the Prangin Canal lay the countryside, filled with vegetable plots and cattle ranches. Yet the city continued to evolve and to expand, often sporadically, and depending on the economic might of that moment, in bursts and spurts. By the turn of the 20th century, most of the houses within the inner core of George Town, where the core zone of the World Heritage Site is located, have been rebuilt in bricks. This so as to prevent the city from being razed by infernoes that often engulf wooden structures. The city limits had ben then reached Perak Road.
Radiating out of the city, like the fingers of an outstretched hand, are the five main roads of George Town. From north to south they are Kelawei Road, Burmah Road, Macalister Road, Dato Kramat Road and Jelutong Road. These five provide the connection between George Town and the Penang Island hinterland, where most of George Town's food was grown or raised.
New condominiums in George Town (23 January, 2012)
"Countryside" at the start of the 20th century refers to places such as Green Lane and Jalan Air Itam beginning at the Green Lane junction. Until the mid 20th century, Green Lane meets Jalan Air Itam where Jalan Han Chiang is today. Its junction was shifted to be aligned to Scotland Road in the 1960s to form an intersection, then a roundabout, then in the 1980s as an interchange with a flyover.
A section of George Town was inscribed as a World Heritage Site on 7 July 2008. Although the core zone covers merely a mere 109.38 hectares, surrounded by a 150.04 hectare buffer zone, it has helped boost property prices not only within the inner city, but throughout George Town. Today, a newly completed bungalow in a George Town suburb may cost a few million ringgit, forcing most of the city's working class to living in high-rise apartments.
Multi-million ringgit homes emerging on newly reclaimed land in Tanjong Tokong, George Town (30 November, 2012)
The urban area continues to grow, spilling out beyond the boundary of George Town. As recently as the early 1970s, places south of Gelugor was still considered as hinterland. Today it is part of the metropolitan area of George Town, which includes the whole State of Penang, as well as southern Kedah and northern Perak, an area with a population of around 2.5 million inhabitants. On Penang Island itself, former paddy fields make way for development. Areas of paddy land such as Sungai Nibong Kecil were cleared, and new townships such as Bayan Baru and Farlim appear, often eclipsing the older geographical names. While these are not George Town, they are administered by the Penang Island City Council, which was created from the Penang Island Municipal Council, and which itself was formed through the merger of the City Council of George Town and the Penang Rural District Council.
Even as the urban area pushed south and west (there wasn't much land left in the north for the city to grow that way), the coast also expanded outward. Land reclamation is not something new to George Town. This has been going on since the 1870s, when the coast of George Town was reclaimed, extending the shore beyond Beach Street. Subsequent reclamation created Victoria Street, Bridge Street (nowadays called Jalan CY Choy), and beyond. As Penang enters the 21st century, land reclamation is still ongoing, with much of the coastal areas of Penang created out of sea or wetlands.
Street food of George Town (20 October, 2012)
For every visitor to Penang, you have not done the George Town World Heritage Site if you haven't had your photo taken with the Little Children On A Bicycle mural! (10 August, 2013)
As has been experienced in many cities, as it expands outwards, the inner core becomes a void. In the mid 1970's, the most vibrant part of Penang were along Penang Road. But by the late 1980's, the most happening places have moved out of the city centre. It takes much foresight from the city leaders to ensure that life is brought back into the city, without which it will certainly become very much a dead town at night. The inscription of the inner city as a World Heritage Site has injected much life back into the inner city, but is today viewed as a double-edge sword. The return of economic activities to the inner city has also caused the migration of its people out of the inner city, due to ever increasing rentals and the general feeling of being out-of-place against the more affluence lifestyle that has descended on the World Heritage Site.
George Town continues to be the nerve centre of Penang. It is almost synonymous with Penang. The city is the epicentre of everything Penang, with the highest concentration of street food, murals, temples, museums, festivals, and everything else that makes Penang so uniquely Penang.
Updates on George Town
28 December, 2015: The Star (Another feather in the cap for George Town) reports that Inner George Town has been picked as one of the "must see" destinations by Los Angeles Times.
The Second Penang Bridge, although located outside George Town, is an important infrastructure supporting the local economy. (2 March, 2014)
The routing of one-way streets in George Town has helped tremendously in improving traffic flow in George Town. Among the bottlenecks in the city includes Magazine Road, as traffic from the expressway enters the city; Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah upon entering Farquhar Street.
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