A Tale of Two Islands


Although lying 3,000 kilometres apart, Penang and Taiwan share much in common.

The Restoration of Traditional Architecture in Taiwan exhibition in 2018.

What comes to mind when one thinks about Penang and Taiwan? Perhaps it’s the Hokkien dialect they both share, or the ubiquitous scenic hills and sea views. It could be the street food culture so prominent in both places, or the fact that they are both (mainly) islands.

In fact, the connections run deeper – and are far older – than perceived. To be sure, the origins and connections of the two places deserve some elaboration.

The emergence of the two islands as global players came through Western maritime expansion into the East – Taiwan was first known as “Formosa” to the Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century, while Penang was settled two centuries later by the British East India Company trader, Captain Francis Light.

Interestingly, this period was one of prosperity for the two. They both received Fujian migrants from southern China, and Hokkien became their main dialect, the differing accents and terminologies notwithstanding.

Over the years, the two islands grew apart in culture, given the different colonisation over the centuries. While Taiwan’s culture became a product of a mixed Chinese-Aboriginal Austronesian culture, Penang’s is a mixture of Chinese culture with a sophisticated South-East Asian flavour.

An Enduring Connection

The post-Second World War era witnessed far-reaching interactions between Malaysia and Taiwan, driven by education and propelled by Taiwan’s overseas Chinese policy.

Taiwan at the time was eager to gain official recognition of the authenticity of its Chinese culture under the Nationalist government. It launched a series of education policies, such as offering scholarships, to attract overseas Chinese to study there. This matched the needs of many Malaysian Chinese – the use of Chinese as a medium of instruction was being intensely debated during the early stages of the nation.

George Town Festival's Spotlight Taiwan programme.

Thus, since the 1950s many Malaysians began studying in Taiwan. Among them were students from Penang who were not necessarily confined to Chinese backgrounds – Malay students interested in the Chinese language and political sciences were among the scholarship recipients.1

As Taiwan offered not only Chinese education but also subjects not available in Malaysia then, such as fine arts, it was an attractive place for many students – some of whom would later become prominent artists in Penang and Malaysia.

Among them was Datuk Tay Mo Leong, an influential Malaysian artist who specialised in batik paintings. At the age of 19, he studied at the Provincial Taipei Normal College (now National Taiwan Normal University), where he received his foundation in fine arts and later gradually expanded his reputation to Europe.2

Another important artist and art educator, Tan Chiang Kiong, studied at the same school during that period and became deeply influenced by Taiwan’s Chinese painting masters who migrated to the island from China.3 After returning to Penang in 1961, Tan contributed to Penang’s art education for more than 50 years at Chung Ling Private High School, which has nurtured generations of Penang artists.4

Second Body. An exciting line-up of performances is scheduled for George Town Festival.

Later, many Malaysian youngsters studying in Taiwan became immersed not only in academia, but also in Taiwan’s vigorous social environment. The 1980s saw a momentous transition from long, authoritarian rule to a democratic government, and along with it came unprecedented freedom. The concept of heritage preservation with special focus on vernacular architecture gradually gained importance.

These experiences left a deep impression on the batch of Penangites who were present in that social atmosphere, prompting them to sow ideas back home. The Nanyang Folk Culture Society is one such example: it was founded in 1996 by three Penangites who were formerly trained in architecture and design in Taiwan. The society held activities related to the arts, and its accomplishments include hosting Chinese New Year celebrations in George Town from 1998 to 2002, aimed at bringing neighbouring communities together.5

There was also a significant wave of Taiwanese migration to Penang, which impacted, and still impacts, the local scene. While Taiwanese investments in Malaysia can be traced back to as early as the 1950s, it was not until the end of the 1980s that more substantial Taiwanese investments came along – into local industries such as textiles, wood production and electrical products.6

The trend followed on the heels of Malaysia’s age of industrialism in the 1970s. Penang’s solid manufacturing base attracted a range of Taiwanese-based electronic firms such as Lite-On, Hotayi Electronic and Inventec Corporation, opening the doors for more economic opportunities between Taiwan and Penang in the areas of mutual employment and the sharing of technology.

Isle of Dreams.

While the 2000s witnessed the relocation of many of these firms, the remaining ones continue to contribute to Penang’s economy. Hotayi, one of the pioneers in Penang, was established in 1992 with only one employee. Today, its headcount has grown to more than 400, and this number is expected to increase with the opening of its new factory at Batu Kawan.7 In the course of 28 years, the company developed from an unknown production line for surface-mount technology to a leading example of smart manufacturing in Malaysia.8 Hotayi also supports local education in science, mathematics and engineering, shown through its donation to Tech Dome Penang.9 Taiwanese non-profit organisation, Buddhist Tzu Chi Merits Society, renowned for contributing to better social and community services, medical care, education, and humanism, extended its work to Malaysia at the end of the 1980s. Its first branch was established in Penang in 199310 , and since then the society has grown to over 30 branches throughout the country.

Growing Ties

Hsinchu City Youth Chinese Orchestra.

Education and economy aside, Penang and Taiwan share many other things in common – art being one of them, with both places stressing on culture and the arts as important driving forces for social development.

While Penang has shown laudable effort in growing its cultural heritage and arts – especially after George Town was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2008 – Taiwan on the other hand has been dedicated to these areas relatively systematically through a series of efforts, including law-making, industries and education, since the 1980s.

More recently, several exhibitions featured the two islands’ knowledge and development in these areas. In July, an exhibition hosted by Taiwan’s Bureau of Cultural Heritage featuring the “Restoration of Traditional Architecture in Taiwan”, along with a series of workshops, were conducted in Penang to share ideas on the restoration of Han Chinese architecture in Taiwan. These exchanges proved useful to Penang’s conservationists as traditional Chinese architecture make up part of its built heritage.

In August, the “Isle to Isle” programme, a collaboration between George Town Festival and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Malaysia (TECO), aims to create closer ties between the art and design communities of the two islands. Isle to Isle will showcase some of Taiwan’s best performing arts groups and cultural industries with the intention of generating interest, awareness and exchange in these spheres.

TECO’s Director of Culture Division, Peggy Chou, says that they feel deeply honoured to be part of George Town Festival 2018 and hope for mutual exchange aimed at diversifying the arts industries of both islands.

The seamless connectivity between Taiwan and Penang is an added boon, especially for tourism. The flight route is so popular that China Airlines, Taiwan’s largest airline, recently introduced direct daily flights between Taipei and Penang, increasing its frequency from six times a week – and with better traveling time.

According to Christene Leong, the Passenger Sales Manager of China Airlines’ Penang branch, apart from the tourism factor, this increase shows the constant interchange between Taiwan and Penang in other aspects such as education, business and government.

The two islands share a strong bond and many similarities, and exchanges and dialogues of knowledge and experiences between the two cannot but continue into the future.

Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst in Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.

1“Formosa says “yes” to Malay Student”, The Straits Times, 17 September 1958, P.5; “Malay Students Gets Taiwan Award”, Singapore Standard, 23 July 1958, P.5.
2Dr. Tan Chong Guan, “Tay Moh Leong- His Life and Art,” in Tay Mo-Leong Retrospective (Penang State Museum & Art Gallery, 2009), 18-31.
3Dr. Tan Chong Guan, “Tay Moh Leong- His Life and Art,” in Tay Mo-Leong Retrospective (Penang State Museum & Art Gallery, 2009), 18-31.
4Ibid: 18-22.
5“槟城多个新春庙会,从”南洋民间文化”获启发”, Sin Chew Daily, 20 February 2018, http://www.sinchew.com.my/node/1729290
6陈伟之, “ 台商在马国的投资及发展,” 台商在东南亚投资的种族暨经贸关系-以马来西亚调查为例, (文 笙书局出版, 1999), 214-216.
7“和泰电子槟投资10亿,超越台商去年总投资额”, Sin Chew Daily, 16 June 2017, http://www. sinchew.com.my/node/1653551
8Interview with Dato’ Lee Hung Lung, CEO of Hotayi Electronic (M) SDN. BHD. 19 June 2018.
9“和泰电子槟投资10亿,超越台商去年总投资额”, Sin Chew Daily, 16 June 2017, http://www. sinchew.com.my/node/1653551
10Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Malaysia, http://chn.tzuchi.my/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=391&Itemid=459

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