Back when the distinction between governments, armies and companies was less precise, the British-based East India Company sailed into Penang harbour and took over the 28-sq-km island as its first settlement on the Malay peninsula, a move intended to break Dutch Melaka’s monopoly of the spice trade.
What evolved on the formerly unpopulated ‘Betel Nut Island’ was a bustling port. Entrepreneurs of every imaginable ethnicity, most notably Chinese, flocked to this new land, creating wealth and cultural hybrids. Like many company settlements, Penang wilted after the collapse of the British Empire. Today it’s become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Malaysia although this high-tech world is scarcely noticeable to the casual traveller. Beyond the capital Georgetown’s heat and decay are beach resorts, such as Batu Ferringhi, and the sleepy Malay fishing village of Teluk Bahang.