Recognising Penang’s Global Legacy Around Its Esplanade

By Eugene Quah

July 2024 FEATURE
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Today’s City Hall was once called the Municipal Building or the Municipal Offices. It was occupied on 1 April 1903. This postcard is likely from the 1920s, but before 1929. The yellow sports car looks like a 1920 Stutz Bearcat. Source: Public Domain. Author’s collection.

IN EARLY MAY, I was invited to the annual state-level Vaisakhi festival at Fort Cornwallis by the Sikh community. The choice of the fort as an annual venue for this holy day is symbolic. In 1881, one of the rooms of the fort was actually used as a gurdwara by a contingent of Sikh policemen newly stationed there.

Sunset was half an hour away, and mercifully, there was a slight breeze blowing seawards on that blisteringly hot day. As the dignitaries had not yet arrived, I decided to walk around the ramparts of this 238-year-old fort to soak in the view. From this elevated perspective, I came to appreciate how the rich tapestry of Penang’s history is intricately woven into the narratives of the heritage buildings that grace the Esplanade.

Location of the heritage buildings described in this article. The red lines show the hidden geometrical relationship between them, which seems to use the centre of Fort Cornwallis as reference point. The fort, started as a wooden stockade by Captain Light, is the earliest substantial building on the settlement. Source: Google Maps. Overlay by Eugene Quah Ter-Neng.

Fort Cornwallis

On 15 July 1786, Captain Francis Light and his small flotilla of three ships, the Eliza, Prince Henry and Speedwell, were anchored off the small islet of Pulau Tikus. They had just arrived from Kedah right after the sultan agreed conditionally to let the British East India Company occupy Pulau Pinang in exchange for military protection.

Two days later, Captain Light landed on a flat sandy cape called Tanjung Penaga— just across the large bay from where he had anchored—to start the new settlement. Light spent the rest of the month clearing the promontory and erected a flagstaff. On 11 August—the eve of the Prince of Wales’ birthday—he formally took possession of the island. The new settlement was called Prince of Wales Island. A wooden fort was also built using local Nibong wood.

10 years earlier, on 4 July 1776, a group of British colonies in the New World, calling themselves the “13 United States of America”, formally declared their independence from the rule of the British monarch, King George III. One of the things that instigated the rebellion was something quintessentially British—tea. The American colonists felt outraged when the East India Company was allowed to sell tea from China to them without paying taxes. The rebellion continued until 1781, when, at the Siege of Yorktown in Virginia, General Charles Cornwallis was forced to surrender to the leader of the French-supported rebels, General George Washington.

Despite this humiliating defeat, Cornwallis was later knighted and made Governor-General of Bengal in 1786. Captain Light named his new fort and town after the newly promoted Lord Cornwallis and the British monarch respectively; a move likely calculated to ingratiate him with them. The fort, like its namesake, is not known for its military accomplishments— it has never seen a day of actual battle. The settlement itself would soon become a pit stop for ships sailing to China to obtain tea.

By 1793, Captain Light had started to rebuild the fort in stone. In France that same year, a young and talented army commander from Corsica led the Republican forces to victory by capturing Toulon, forcing the combined British and Spanish fleet who were aiding the Royalists to flee. By 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor of France. The British, wary of Napoleon’s intentions in the Far East, further strengthened Fort Cornwallis and added a moat with drawbridges. The brickwork structure was completed to what we see today. There is now also a modern signal mast and lighthouse located on the northeast bastion of Fort Cornwallis.

In 1882, the first lighthouse—a fabricated metal tower on a masonry base—was erected here. Two years later, it was relocated to Pulau Rimau and has been there ever since. The present fort lighthouse is from 1914.

Left: A sketch based on an actual photo in the Penang Museum of Koh Seang Tat’s house when the Duke of Edinburgh was staying there. It was known as Edinburgh House thereafter. Right: In 1972, Queen Elizabeth II (fourth person from the left on the upper level), seen here at the then-newly completed Dewan Sri Pinang. Source: Courtesy of the Penang State Museum, Queen Elizabeth II photo (Jabatan Penerangan Malaysia, Resource ID: 722617).

Town Hall

The western side of the fort faces Padang Kota Lama (Old Fort Field), a large public recreation space, which was the original Esplanade. An esplanade, in military terms, refers to a piece of empty land between a fortification and the first buildings of the town. However, most Penangites call the nearby seaside promenade the Esplanade. During the early days, the sepoys (Indian soldiers) of the East India Company were encamped here. The field later served as a parade and cricket ground.

Today, at the southwest corner of Padang Kota Lama, stands the Town Hall. The cornerstone for this was laid by then-Governor Colonel (later Sir) Archibald Anson, on New Year’s Day 1879, and when General Ulysses S. Grant visited Penang just two months later, it was reported that construction had already commenced. It would be completed by August 1880. The retired US President had embarked on a round-the-world trip soon after leaving office. One of the first Chinese Justices of the Peace, the wealthy Penang merchant and planter, Koh Seang Tat, was chosen by the Chinese mercantile community to read an address to the visiting General.

Koh was the great-grandson of Che Wan (Koh Lay Huan) who had met Captain Light at the founding of George Town. He lived in a magnificent residence behind the Town Hall that was then being built. The English-educated Tat—as he was known to his European friends including Colonel Anson—delivered his speech without a translator, thus becoming the first Chinese person to directly address a former US President [See Penang Monthly December 2022 and January 2023 issues].

Tat was no stranger to meeting and hosting world-famous dignitaries. A decade earlier, in 1869, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, had visited Penang. The only place deemed grand enough to host the royal tourist—no less than the son of Queen Victoria—was Tat’s opulent home, ever since known as Edinburgh House.

The Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse was established in 1882 but the current design is from 1914. It is complemented by a massive ship-like signal mast, the successor of the original flagstaff erected by Captain Light in 1786. The lighthouse is the second oldest in the country. Source: Eugene Quah Ter-Neng.

Light Street

The appropriately named Light Street was the first thoroughfare to be lit by electric lighting in British Malaya. This street, running parallel to the fort’s southern wall and moat (which is now restored) and one of George Town’s earliest roads, was of course named after Captain Light. At No.1 Light Street, there stands an elegant bungalow, now a branch of Hong Leong Bank. Built in the later part of the 19th century, it was once the home of Foo Tye Sin, a wealthy Penang merchant and Tat’s business partner. Their joint firm was called Tye Sin Tat & Co. During Foo’s time, the western side of his house faced the Victoria and Albert Hotel. In 1928, the present Chinese Chamber of Commerce building was constructed over the hotel, by then called Central Hotel.

Fort Cornwallis and Light Street in 1869 as seen from the tower of Koh Seang Tat’s Edinburgh House, then one of the tallest structures in George Town. The visiting Duke of Edinburgh who stayed there almost certainly saw Fort Cornwallis and the Esplanade from this viewpoint. Source: Public Domain. Royal Collection Trust. Photo album gifted to the duke during his visit to Penang.

City Hall

To the right of the Town Hall stands its more ornate neighbour, the somewhat confusingly named City Hall. The former was originally meant to be a building for the enjoyment of the public. However, upon its completion, the ground floor was occupied by the municipal offices to the annoyance of the ratepayers, who complained about it bitterly. The municipality later commissioned a building beside the Town Hall to house its offices.

Completed on 1 April 1903, the building was quietly occupied without the usual fanfare and formalities. It was known as the Municipal Offices until 1957, when Queen Elizabeth II granted George Town its city status—a good 15 years before KL gained similar recognition. The building has since been known as City Hall.

Photo of the Town Hall near completion, probably sometime in 1880. The foundation stone was laid by Colonel (later Sir) Archibald Anson on New Year’s Day 1879. The tower of Koh Seang Tat’s residence can be seen here. Source: Public Domain photo via Ganesh Kolandaveloo.

Clock Tower

On 3 March 1972, Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht, the Britannia, made a stop at Penang. Queen Elizabeth II was greeted on her arrival by the Governor and Chief Minister. The British monarch visited Dewan Sri Pinang, behind the Town Hall, just across the street from the Supreme Court building, where a large crowd had gathered to see her. The Queen waved to them from the balcony of this just-completed Brutalist public hall, built over Tat’s Edinburgh House where her great-granduncle Prince Alfred had once stayed.

At the junction of Light Street and Beach Street, near the south-eastern corner of the fort, stands Penang’s iconic clock tower, just where Her Highness would have appeared on coming out from Swettenham Pier. The Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, as it is officially called, was gifted to the town by Cheah Chen Eok to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, who in 1897 was then the longest reigning British monarch. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign would later surpass her great-great grandmother’s in length before she died in 2022.

Cheah was an illustrious Penang businessman and philanthropist who was also a son-in-law to Foo Tye Sin. An idea for a memorial clock tower was first mooted by Tat a few years earlier, but it failed to take off. By the time Chen Eok’s clock was completed, Queen Victoria had already passed away. On the evening of Thursday, 24 July 1902, this clock tower was officially handed over to the town by Cheah in a ceremony presided over by the President of the municipality, James Wilson Halifax. He told the crowd that the town now had “three public gifts”—Tat’s fountain beside the Town Hall (which still stands today), Cheah Tek Soon’s Bandstand on the Esplanade and Chen Eok’s clock tower.

Left: No. 1 Light Street was Foo Tye Sin’s house— Koh Seang Tat’s business partner (the donor of the fountain) and the father-in-law of Cheah Chen Eok (the donor of the clock tower). Right: The old Chinese Chamber of Commerce Building was built over the site of the Central Hotel in 1928. Source: Ganesh Kolandaveloo (Foo Tye Sin’s house), Eric Yeoh Kok Ming (Chinese Chamber of Commerce Building).

The band played “Rule Britannia”, which was “sung lustily” by the crowd as “the British flag was floated over the Tower”. Cheah then told the attendees that the Queen’s reign was “to be kept in mind” by the symbolic height of the clock placed “60ft above the ground”, each foot representing a year of her rule. At 6pm, “the chimes”, ringing out the Westminster Quarters, “were rung and sounded very pretty”.

The octagonal clock tower was designed by Robert Pierce, who was Municipal Engineer in Penang and Singapore, while the construction was done by Lee Ah Kong under the supervision of C.W. Barnett. At the base was a circular basin, 28ft in diameter, and a drinking trough. Anwar Fazal, who once served as Assistant Secretary of the City Council, shared with me that the tower’s design harbours a secret that has been hidden in plain sight.

He had once come across the original design documents which showed that each floor represented a major civilisation within Queen Victoria’s dominion: the dome and belfry—Islam; the clock floor— Indian; the chamber floor—European; and the ground floor—Chinese. The clock tower stands today as an excellent emblem of George Town’s living cosmopolitan heritage, reflecting Penang’s rich tapestry of cultural influences and its enduring connection to its global past.

Left: Each section of the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower represents the major civilisations within the Queen’s dominion. Right: The opening ceremony on 24 July 1902, five minutes before the bells were rung for the first time at six o’clock. The press reported that the Union Jack was hoisted and a “photograph of the tower with the assembly was then taken as it stood”. Source: Infographic: Eugene Quah Ter-Neng, Info: Anwar Fazal, former Assistant Secretary of the City Council, based on unpublished design documents sighted by him.
View of the clock tower (c. 1910s) as seen along Fort Road (now Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah) and the eastern moat of Fort Cornwallis toward the junction of Light Street and Beach Street. The building behind the clock tower is King Edward Place. In 1921, the moat was filled due to public health concerns. Source: Public Domain.

  • [1] Anwar Fazal (2023), “Design elements of the memorial clock tower”, Personal communications in person, 13 May 2024.
  • [2] Arunajeet Kaur (2020), “Police Gurdwaras of the Straits Settlements and the Malay States (1874- 1957)”, Journal of Sikh & Punjāb Studies, Volume 27, Number 1 - Spring 2020
  • [3] City Council of George Town (1966), “Penang Past and Present 1786 - 1963”
  • [4] Eugene Quah Ter-Neng (2022), “General on the Great Hill: US Civil War Hero Visits Penang – Part 1”, Penang Monthly, December 2022
  • [5] Eugene Quah Ter-Neng (2023), “General on the Great Hill: US Civil War Hero Visits Penang – Part 2”, Penang Monthly, January 2023
  • [6] Eugene Quah Ter-Neng (2023), “Penang Hill: A Natural Resource That Shaped the Settlement”, Penang Monthly, October 2023
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  • [8] Loh Wei Leng, et al., eds. (2013), “Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities of Penang”
  • [9] Marcus Langdon (2013), Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India, 1805-1830.Volume 1 - Ships, Men and Mansions”
  • [10] Marcus Langdon (2015), “George Town’s Historic Commercial & Civic Precincts”
  • [11] Marcus Langdon (2015), “Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830, Volume 2, Fire, Spice and Edifice”
  • [12] Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle (1902), “Penang’s New Clock Tower”, 24 July 1902, Page 3
  • [13] Rollin Bonney (1971), “Kedah 1771-1821: The Search for Security”
  • [14] The Straits Budget (1948), “Time Needs Money”, 21 October 1948, Page 7
  • [15] William Dalrymple (2019), “The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company”
  • [16] George Town Conservation & Development Corporation (2019), “Dewan Sri Pinang - CMP”
  • [17] Wu Xiao An (2010), “Chinese Business in the Making of a Malay State, 1882-1941: Kedah and Penang”
Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.