When Einstein Cruised into Penang

By Eugene Quah

November 2022 FEATURE
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Einstein and his wife Elsa aboard the S.S. Kitano Maru’s sister ship, the S.S. Haruna Maru, during the earlier part of the Far East journey. Photo by: The NYK Maritime Museum (Nippon Yūsen Rekishi Hakubutsukan).

THE CRUISE SHIP, Spectrum of the Seas, a behemoth 18-storeys high and a third of a kilometre long, sailed into Penang’s Swettenham Pier on 2 July 2022, guided by its satellite-based GPS navigation system. It arrived on a sunny Saturday morning after a two-year hiatus.

The 3,329 eager holidaymakers aboard soon thronged the streets of George Town as countless of them have done over the last 200 years.[1] These tourists have little chance of getting lost while walking around the labyrinthine and charming streets of this world heritage site, thanks to their GPS-capable smartphones and watches.

Unknown to these modern-day visitors, almost a hundred years ago, the man that made this marvellous technology possible was himself a fresh-off-the-boat tourist wandering the streets of George Town – Albert Einstein.

Escape from Berlin

On 24 June 1922, the German Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau, a fellow Jew whom Einstein knew personally, was murdered by far-right extremists. Writing to his friend, the physicist Max Planck less than a fortnight later, he confided, “I am supposedly among the group of persons being targeted by nationalist assassins.” [2] Thus, when he was invited to present some lectures in Japan, he jumped at the opportunity – a welcome respite from the increasingly heated political atmosphere in Berlin. Antisemitism was engulfing Germany, fanned by the fiery speeches of one Adolf Hitler.[3]

In The Land of the Rising Sun

Einstein and his wife Elsa left Berlin in early October 1922 for the southern coast of France. On 8 October 1922, the couple boarded the Kitano Maru, one of the many Japanese passenger ships plying the popular Japan-Europe route. Soon after, the ship left behind the sunny Mediterranean port of Marseilles as it steamed eastward towards the Suez Canal.

The Kitano Maru stopped briefly in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Near the last leg of the journey, while crossing the Sea of Japan, Einstein received news that he had just won the Nobel Prize. On Thursday, 17 November 1922, 40 days after leaving Europe, the couple arrived at Kobe to a rapturous welcome from the Japanese public.

Einstein spent a very productive and happy month in Japan. He sightsaw, gave lectures on relativity “in every major city and on every major campus” and met the Prime Minister. His whirlwind tour in Japan finally ended on 29 December 1922, when they boarded the Haruna Maru and headed for Shanghai, then Hong Kong, Singapore and Melaka.

The Penang Bay

Einstein's first entry on 14 January 1923 began with “Mittags Ankunft in Penang” [4]arrived in Penang at midday.

By late morning, the Haruna Maru had steamed into the large bay of Teluk Ayer Rajah, which stretches from Tanjung Tokong to Fort Cornwallis at the easternmost point of the island, Tanjung Penaga. The vessel's steel hull started to heat up quickly with the sun now high in the sky. The cosy wooden panels and draught-proof windows that once kept the cold out now conspired with the tropical mid-day sun to roast the passengers from within. In his journal, Einstein complained about the “sweltering heat on the ship, which remained quite a distance from the city, in a large bay”.

Soon, a flotilla of small wooden row boats with painted “eyes” on both sides of their bows approached the many ships anchored in the bay. Boatmen in Penang of all ethnicities, subscribing to an ancient Chinese maritime superstition, gave their boats these “eyes” to see the way and avoid obstacles.[5] These sampans were each crewed by a single boatman, typically an Indian. Some boats brought in supplies while others brought in passengers to the ships. New passengers started to come on board for the upcoming leg of the journey to Ceylon. Einstein noted his new shipmates were mostly Indians, who were “handsome tall men and women”.

The couple, together with a few Japanese fellow passengers, decided to escape the scorching confines of the ship and explore George Town. After flagging down a nearby sampan, they clambered down a rope ladder thrown over the side of the hull to get into the sampan. Their rowboat then slowly made its way across the bay towards the entrance of the Penang Strait.

Exploring Penang

When Einstein and Elsa finally stepped ashore on Victoria Pier at 3pm, he found that the “heat in the town was bearable”. Completed in 1888, the ornate Victoria Pier, which only handled passengers, no longer exists. It stood at the end of Downing Street, near the present main post office.

Did this view of the Penang waterfront near Victoria Pier, where Einstein first stepped ashore, inspire him to note in his diary, “Boats, houses, people, all have style”? The elegant Federated Malay States (FMS) Railway Building and Clock Tower, once Penang’s tallest building, can be seen in the background. Photo by: Author’s own collection.

Another visitor to Penang in the same pre-war period, the journalist, George Bilainkin, wrote that once he stepped off the pier, he was quickly surrounded by a group of straw-hatted Chinese men, each pulling a two-wheeled rickshaw. Half-naked from the waist up, wearing just slippers and dark shorts, they jostled with each other to offer their services to the new arrivals, with Hokkien-accented shouts of “E and O!”, the name of the most popular hotel in town.[6] Called lang chia pek, Hokkien for “human carriage uncles”, these gentlemen still tout their transport services, albeit a bit further up the road at Swettenham Pier, where the cruise ship passengers now disembark. The Einsteins probably had the same experience as Bilainkin, as Einstein jotted in his diary, “pursued by rickshaws”. They decided to walk instead.

Einstein wrote that they were constantly pursued by rickshaws, even after leaving Victoria Pier, as they walked around town. “Rickshaw” is a corruption of the Japanese word, jinrikisha (人力車), literally, “human power carriage”. In Penang Hokkien, it is known as lang-chia (human carriage). The trishaws found in George Town today were only introduced after the war by Lim Eow Thoon, the son of a well-known Penang tycoon.4 Photo by: Author’s own collection

The Einsteins, strolling along Downing Street away from the pier, would have been greeted by the impressive and [an] elegant U-shaped government building complex known then as King Edward’s Place. At the junction of the Standard Chartered Bank Building, they would likely have turned left onto Beach Street with its swanky department stores like Pritchard’s & Co., which offered the finest goods from all over the world. In any case, he wrote, impressed by what he saw, “Schiffchen, Häuser, Menschen, hat alles Stil” (Boats, houses, people, all have style). He also found the town to be “sehr interessant” (very interesting).[7]

Strolling down the streets of George Town, they would have seen many temples along the way, such as the Tai Pak Koong (Ng Suk) Temple and the Kuan Yin Teng (Koan-im-têng – Goddess of Mercy Temple) on Pitt Street. It was recommended as a must-see in tourist guidebooks of the time, including those distributed by the NYK Line for sale onboard.[8]    “We saw Buddhist temples with mysterious, terrifying, colourful decorations,” he said.

This Chinese-style representation of Vaiśravaṇa, the Guardian of the North, one of the Four Great Heavenly Kings, is found in the main prayer hall of the two-centuries-old Goddess of Mercy Temple at Pitt Street. The four Chaturmahārāja are the guardians of the cardinal (compass) points. This painting is presumably a copy made during renovations in the 1960s.7 Photo by: Eugene Quah Ter-Neng.

“Also, a mosque with a bath, where men lay around, elegant Arabic construction with slender minarets of whitish colour,” wrote Einstein of the Kapitan Keling Mosque. The mosque, at that time with its Mughal-inspired architecture, highly stuccoed walls, ornate turrets and bulbous domes, was the creation of the renowned Penang architect, Henry Alfred Neubronner.[9]

Today, as it was back then, you can spot people lingering at the walls of the mosque asking for alms. Einstein described one he encountered as a “beautiful, pushy beggar woman”.

The Kapitan Keling Mosque before 1925, as Einstein would have seen it. The building’s name alludes to its founder, the captain of the Indian Muslim community, Cauder Mohideen Merican. The word keling, now considered derogatory, is derived from the name of the historical Kaliṅga region in India. Back then, it was used as a general reference to people of Indian origin. The current design results from renovations done after his visit. Photo by: Marcus Langdon (ref. ML-2467).

After visiting the mosque, the couple and their Japanese companions hurried back to Victoria Pier to find a boat to take them back to the Haruna Maru before nightfall. As they made their way to the ship, the winds had picked up, and there were “considerable waves”. Einstein wrote in his diary that “Else”, his pet name for his wife, “was stricken with fear” by the rough seas but “still had the strength to scold”.

Their Indian boatman, strongly built with “flaming dark eyes”, stood at the stern, rhythmically using long oars to push the craft forward. Once safely onboard, they were greeted by the ship’s familiar but unwelcome oppressive heat, which continued to torment them until midnight.

The following day, they set sail for Ceylon, arriving at Colombo five days later.

Victoria Pier, named after Queen Victoria, was completed in 1888. It handled only passengers and not cargo, unlike the other piers nearby. Einstein would have engaged a rowboat like the one to the left of the photo that shows an Indian boatman on a Malay sampan with painted “eyes” that were popularised by Chinese mariners. Photo by: Marcus Langdon (ref. ML-0005).


[1] Safina Ramli (2022), “Kapal Spectrum of The Seas berlabuh di Pulau Pinang hari ini” (Spectrum of The Seas docked in Penang today), Kosmo!, Accessed https://www.kosmo.com.my/2022/07/02/kapal-spectrum-of-the-seas-berlabuh-di-pulau-pinang-hari-ini on 4th July 2022.

[2] Einstein (1922), Letter to Max Planck, Kiel, 6th July 1922, Einstein, Albert Einstein Archives

[3] Brigit Katz (2018), “Letter Shows Einstein’s Prescient Concerns About ‘Dark Times’ in Germany”,  Smithsonian Magazine, Accessed https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/letter-shows-einsteins-prescient-concerns-about-dark-times-germany-180970783 on 30th July 2022.

[4] Albert Einstein (1923), Travel Diary January 1923, pg. 28-31, as reproduced in “Volume 13: The Berlin Years: Writings & Correspondence January 1922-March 1923”, All subsequent diary entries are from the diary, written in German. Translations my own.

[5]“Why all Chinese boats have eyes?” (25th September 1904), San Diego Union and Daily Bee, pg. 10

[6] George Bilainkin (1932), “Hail Penang!”, pg. 11-13

[7] Marcus Langdon (2015), “George Town’s Historic Commercial & Civic Precincts”

[8] Khoo Salma Nasution & Malcolm Wade (2003), “Penang Postcard Collection: 1899-1930s”

[9] Khoo Salma Nasution (2014), The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957

Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher who is working on a book about Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad while on a hiatus from designing software.