Penang or Pulau Pinang, an island that is shaped like a turtle, was founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light. It strategically stands at the entrance of the Straits of Malacca where the pirates still ply. It was named Prince of Wales Island and also was known as the Pearl of the Orient. Pinang actually refers to the betel nut palms found growing on the island. The British saw its usefulness as a port for the East India Company and transplanted many Tamil Indians to work as coolies in the jetties of Weld Quay.
I was born in Georgetown, a city named after King George III. At the harbor area is Fort Cornwalis built to defend the island. Close to that is King Edward’s Place where a wealthy Chinese merchant erected the clock tower to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The British also built schools and the oldest boys’ schools in South East Asia is Penang Free School (PFS) built in 1816; the locals humorously dub it PIGS FOR SALE. Many missionaries came and set up schools including the Jesuits, Methodists, Angilcans and the Catholics. The Chinese, not wanting to forget their roots built many schools of their own. So did the Tamil Indians. This island has more schools than I have seen in many areas that I have visited in Africa.
The secondary school that I later attended was St. George’s Girls’ School (SGGS) established by the Anglican missionaries in 1884. Sun Yat-Sen’s daughters went to this school during his exile in Penang in 1910-1911. SGGS’s motto is: Aut Viam Inveniam Aut Faciam (If There's a Will, There's Always a Way). The motto however was not the cause of my show of determination which I believe was already part of me. When my request for transfer to this school did not receive a reply, I went on to see the Headmistress, the Dragon Lady and to run a girls' school evidently one needed such a lady. I approached her with much trepidation, only to be told that I had to see the Chief of Education at the Bagunan Tuanku Syed Putri situated near the harbor, another mountain to scale. Indeed my application languished at his desk for a number of weeks. I stated my desire to take "Triple Credit Science Course" at SGGS. A week later I wore a different uniform and took a different bus to the school of my choice. My sister, the rebellious firstborn, a war baby, attended one of the many convent schools and became tired of the Mothers Superior and Sisters Immaculate of the world, transferred to a Buddhist school which I thought was worse since she had to see the rotund Buddha with its enormous round belly every day. But nothing is worse than being a student of the Penang Island Girls' School or PIGS for short.
As we drove around Georgetown which recently became a UNESCO cultural heritage site passing the attractive, gleaming white, stately but simple St. George’s Church, the old grand dame in the guise of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, a posh, palatial hotel facing the sea built by two Armenian brothers in the late nineteenth century (or the E & O Hotel and the locals dub it Eat and Owe Hotel), colonial buildings and streets some of which still bear the old English names but many have been changed to Malay names using Jalan, Lebuh (street) or lorong (lane); Hutton lane, Beach Street, Light Street (named after Captain Francis Light, the founder of Penang), Pitt Street, Chulia Street (where one could find old books and where my sister and I used to scour for old textbooks), Campbell Street, Carnarvon Street (where coffins are made), MaCalister Road, Peel Avenue with stately palm trees lining its sides, Love Lane (speculations abound about the origin of the name: thought to be named after a British with the surname Love, or a place filled with brothels where rich Chinese merchants kept their mistresses or according to another speculation, it was so named because of the practice of self-flagellation by the Shiite Muslims to commemorate Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad).
We passed Little India and China Town and the beautifully restored Cheog Fatt Tze’s Mansion or the Blue mansion built in the 1880s, painted in distinctive indigo. Occasionally the iconic trishaws carrying tourists or locals were mixed with the busy traffic. There is an Indian enclave, a Chinatown but there are no longer enclaves of Armenians in Armenian Street and Jews in Jewish Row, the name of this street has vanished altogether. During this visit I also learned that there was a German enclave doing trading.
Guerney Drive used to be lined with hawkers’ stalls but now that has been cleaned up. Land has been reclaimed and the sea no longer hugs the embankment during high tides, only muddy flats remain. More land will be claimed in the future to build more high rises. I was told that the 2004 tsunami hit this region but not severely. This morning it was shrouded in a haze because of the recent volcanic eruption in Sumatra.
We passed close to where the United States Information Service (USIS) used to be, the place that changed my life, the place where I spent many hours after school and weekends researching on getting a higher education in America. It was in secondary school when we were assigned to write an essay on how we could change our community; I became convinced that having a good education was the answer especially to get out of cycles of poverty. Here I discovered Abraham Lincoln and read all the books I could possibly find in the library about him. He remains my most admired President of the US. I learned about the Seven Sisters’ colleges and the Ivy League schools. I sat for my SAT one Saturday without the benefits of Kaplan’s or the Princeton Review and never once took a multiple choice exam until then. This is where I eventually found my way to Wellesley College.
At the USIS, I often stopped at the window gazing at Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon. He was then my hero. I could not fathom how anyone could reach and walk on the moon. In fact one of my many nicknames given by my brother was Lady Armstrong on the account of my strength despite my small size. Other nicknames were not as flattering, “Fatty” as I carried my baby fat well into my teenage years and “Bookworm”, I had my nose in a book most of the time that was how I could let my imagination fly. My science project one year was on the mission to the moon and I built a towering rocket. I fell in love with Physics and dreamed of becoming an astronaut despite the fact that I was not an American. But my love for Physics died when I came to Wellesley, the graduate student teacher did not inspire me as my secondary school Physics teacher did. He taught with passion and flair when he spoke about the trajectory the spaceship had to take to get out into space. In fact he ran out of chalk board space and became so excited that the piece of chalk flew out of his hand into the ceiling and his shirt-tail came out of his trousers. My college teacher sat behind a desk, looking uninspired and did not get down and dirty like my secondary school teacher.
There was a Penang Library right across from St. George's Church. It charged a membership fee whereas the USIS Library was free. The Penang Library was housed in a high-ceiling white colonial building and the few times I visited it, I did not feel totally at ease. When the USIS was established on the island in the early 1950s, it was housed in the Indian House, an art deco building on Beach Street. The Director of the British Council Colonies' Department, Charles Wilmot wrote to the representative of the British council of Singapore that there should be a British Council's response to the American Presence in Penang Island and suggested there should be a British Council cultural center to rival the American cultural presence but he was not sure from where he was going to derive the funding. There began a barrage of complaints to Wilmot from other council representatives including R.M. Fry in 1951,"It will be noticed the USIS is beating us on the equipment and information side as they are bound to do in view of the funds at their disposal. The result of the Council being insufficiently equipped in this way tends to make the Asiatic and the unthinking and narrow minded European look down on us." The USIS closed down in the late 1970s. By then I had been in the US for a number of years pursuing my studies. During my time, many secondary school girls went to England to pursue a nursing degree and they were paid to go to school. But I did not want to be a nurse as I observed that they were like handmaidens to the doctors when I was hospitalized in Penang General Hospital as a young girl. In my case the Americans beat the British in enticing me to pursue my education in the US all because of the presence of the USIS. Penang of my childhood days has changed. Many more tall apartment buildings are being built and there is a real estate boom on the island. This time around I was not taken to see the first home I lived in at River Road but I did remember how small everything was including the Indian school ground across the street from my house where my sister and I used to trespass, hazarding being caught by the caretaker. We did not hike up Penang Hill or take the funicular there. It is always a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Despite its changing landscape, Penang is still renowned for its hawkers’ food. Lonely Planet lists it as the top culinary spot for 2014 especially naming three must-tries: Char Koay Teow, Assam Laksa and Hokkien Mee. Besides having a reunion with my family I spent most of my time eating out, trying all sorts of delicious local food. My favorite dessert or cold drink is Chendol and I shall miss it when I leave. My daughter would call it my Penang withdrawal.