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Penang is also the name of one of the states of Malaysia (state capital: George Town), which consists of the island (293 sq. km.) and a strip on the mainland known as Province Wellesley or Seberang Perai (760 sq. km.; principal town: Butterworth).
Penang state has a total population of 1.4 million, and the highest population density in Malaysia with 2,031.74 people per square kilometre on the island and 865.99 people per square kilometre on the mainland (1998). Penang is surrounded by several satellite towns in Kedah state, forming a large urban area in northern Peninsular Malaysia.
The name Penang comes from the pinang, or betel nut tree (Areca catechu).
Penang was part of the Malay state of Kedah before Captain Francis Light successfully negotiated with the Sultan of Kedah to cede the island to the British East India Company on August 12, 1786 in exchange for an annual honorarium of 6,000 dollars. Province Wellesley was ceded to the Company in 1790 for a further 4,000 dollars per annum. This honorarium continues to be paid annually by the Penang State Government to Kedah (RM10,000 per annum).
The East India Company was attracted to the natural harbour which could serve as an anchorage for their trading ships and as a naval base to counter growing French ambitions in the region. The town on the north-eastern tip of the island was named George Town after King George III of Great Britain. Penang island itself was originally named Prince of Wales Island by the Company.
In 1826, Penang, along with Malacca and Singapore, became part of the Straits Settlements under the British administration in India, moving to direct British colonial rule in 1867. In 1946 it became part of the Malayan Union, before becoming in 1948 a state of the Federation of Malaya, which gained independence in 1957. In 1963 it became one of the 13 states of Malaysia.
The island was a free port until 1969. Despite the loss of the island's free-port status, from the 1970s to the late 1990s the state built up one of the largest electronics manufacturing bases in Asia, in the Free Trade Zone around the airport in the south of the island.
The state has its own state legislature and executive, but these have very limited powers in comparison with those of the Malaysian federal authorities.
The head of the state executive is a Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) of Malaysia. The present Governor is Tun Dato' Seri Haji Abdul Rahman bin Haji Abbas. In practice the Governor is a figurehead, and he acts upon the advice of the state Executive Council, which is appointed from the majority party in the Legislative Assembly.
The current Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Khoon, is from the Gerakan party which its representatives have held the chief-ministership since 1969. It is the only state chief-ministership in Malaysia which is held by an ethnic Chinese, reflecting the state's ethnic majority.
There are two local authorities in Penang, the Municipal Council of Penang Island (M.P.P.P) and the Municipal Council of Seberang Perai (M.P.S.B). Local councillors have been appointed by the state government since local elections were abolished in Malaysia in the 1960s.
Culture and Economy
Penang island, also known as the "Pearl of the Orient", is a paradise for food lovers, who come from all over Malaysia and Singapore to sample the island's unique cuisine. Penang's cuisine reflects the Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnic mix of Malaysia, but is strongly influenced by the cuisine of Thailand to the north. Penang is especially famous for the "hawker food" sold and eaten by the street, in which noodles and fresh seafood feature strongly.
The north shore of Penang, known as Batu Feringghi, is a popular beach resort, characterised by high-rise hotels. Many tourists also spend time in the historic centre of George Town, which is largely made of nineteenth-century Straits Chinese shophouses, with Indian and Malay quarters. Anglo-Indian colonial buildings are also to be found amongst elaborate Chinese and Indian temples and Indian-Muslim mosques. One of its famous landmark is KOMTAR, the tallest building in Penang.
The entrepôt trade has greatly declined, due in part to the loss of Penang's free-port status, but also due to the active development of Port Klang near the federal capital Kuala Lumpur. However, there is a container terminal in Butterworth which continues to service the northern area.
Penang state is today the third-largest economy amongst the states of Malaysia, after Selangor and Johore. Manufacturing is the most important component of the Penang economy, contributing 45.9% of the State's GDP (2000). The southern part of the island is highly industrialised with high-tech electronics plants (such as Intel, AMD, Agilent, Hitachi and Seagate) located within the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone.
Other important sectors of Penang's Economy include tourism, finance and other services.
As in other parts of Malaysia, Malay, the national language, and English are widely spoken. Uniquely, however, the lingua franca in Penang is a variant of Minnan or southern Fujianese known as Penang Hokkien. It is based on the Minnan dialect of Zhangzhou prefecture in Fujian province, China, but incorporates a large number of Malay and English borrowed words.
Penang is famous for the food sold at road-side stalls, known as "hawker food". Among the most famous Penang dishes are:
- Penang laksa, a dish of thick rice noodles in a spicy fish soup. (The laksa stall found at the junction of the road leading to the Kek Lok Si temple in Ayer Itam is regarded as the most famous and best.)
- Satay, this famous meat-on-a-stick is made from marinated meat - chicken or beef, skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over hot charcoals. A fresh salad of cucumbers & onions are served together with a spicy-sweet peanut dipping sauce for dipping. Ketupat, a Malay rice cake, is sometimes served together with satay.
- Ikan Bakar, is a general term meaning grilled or barbecued fish. A popular local fish for grilling is Ikan Kembong (Mackerel Fish). The fish is usually marinated in spices, coconut milk, sometimes stuffed with sambal, then wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot charcoals.
- Otak-otak, fresh fish fillets are blended with light spices, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and other aromatic herbs, into a sort of fish mousse. The fish mousse is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed or grilled.
- Nasi Kandar, an Indian-Muslim dish of mixed rice with an assortment of meat and seafood curries, the secret of which is in the mix of curries. Among the most well-known is a place called Line Clear, off Penang Road.
- Mee Goreng, fresh yellow egg noodles are stir fried with mutton or lamb, vegetables, tomato ketchup and spices, giving this fried noodle dish a distinctly unique Indian flavor.
- Mee Rebus, a rich gravy made out of sweet potatoes, is ladled over fresh yellow egg noodles and bean sprouts. It is garnished with cooked squid, prawn fritters, boiled egg and fried shallots. A squeeze of a fresh local lime before serving.
- Char kway teow, fried flat rice noodles with seafood. (A stall at a corner along Chulia Street which uses a distinctive narrower noodles then others.)
- Hokkien hae mee, rice and egg noodles, served together with eggs, small prawns, meat slices, bean sprouts and kangkung (water spinach) in a spicy prawn stock.
- Koay Teow Th'ng, fresh flat rice noodles are served in a clear soup broth, topped with fish balls, slices of pork, chicken, golden brown garlic bits and chopped scallions. A condiment of sliced fresh red chilies in soy-vinegar usually accompanies the dish.
- Chee Cheong Fun, usually eaten as breakfast, flat sheets made from rice flour, sometimes with some dried shrimp embedded, is steamed soft then cut up and topped with soy sauce, hoisin sauce, chili hot sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
- Wan Thun Mee, also known as Tok-tok Mee from the sound of knocking bamboo sticks made by the vendors in former times to draw attention to their food, of a dish of egg noodles and wontons with sliced barbecued pork and vegetables. It is served either dry with a soy and sesame oil sauce, or in a clear pork stock.
- Ais Kacang, sweet red beans, seaweed jelly, barley pearls, sweet corn and fruits are covered with shaved ice, then laced with rose syrup, brown sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk. There's a famous stall along the busy street of Penang Road.
- Rojak, is a fruit and vegetable salad tossed in a special sauce. Simply labeled Rojak Sauce, the sauce is made from a thick black Prawn Paste. This is combined with palm sugar, tamarind paste and other ingredients. Pineapple, apple, guava, green mango, jicama and cucumber are tossed in this sauce with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.
Penang island is connected to the mainland by the 13.5 km Penang Bridge (completed in 1985), one of the longest bridges in Asia. Ferry services are available between George Town and Butterworth (where the nearest Malayan Railway station is located) on the mainland and to the resort island of Langkawi in the north. Bayan Lepas International Airport is located in the south of the island, and international flights are available to London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Medan. A quaint mode of transportation, the three-wheeled trishaw, still operates in certain parts of George Town. However, with the advent of modern transportation, the trishaw has increasingly become more of a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, modern transportation has also brought the problem of traffic congestion to Penang's roads.
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