More than 42% of the Penang population is Chinese; that is, people who have partial or full Chinese ancestry. Most of these Malaysian Chinese are the descendants of traders, colonists, merchants, accountants, laborers, and immigrants who moved to Malaysia from South China starting in the 18th century. They are well represented within the country, and Penang is the only state in Malaysia that always had a chief minister who is an ethnic Chinese since independence. Nicol David and Jimmy Choo hail from Penang and have raised the country’s profile in the international market.
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A Brief History
Sailors from China found the Island as early as the 15th century. However, it was only in the 18th century that the Chinese started to move to Penang Island. This number increased once the British East India Company founded Georgetown. The Peranakans had already established themselves along Malay Peninsula’s west coast, and they shifted to Penang. Newer immigrants moved to Penang throughout the 19th century. They slowly made the largest Chinese ethnic group by the end of the 1850s.
Schools were set up by the new immigrants from China as the Peranakans were more loyal to the crown and believed in the English education system. With the Peranakans and the new immigrants from China, Georgetown Penang soon became a melting pot of cultures and religions.
Thousands of Chinese people were massacred and buried in unknown graves throughout Penang by the Japanese during WWII.
At present, there are more than 700,000 people of Chinese origin in the island, and you will find most of them on Penang Island, in and around Georgetown, Penang.
Its Chinese population has greatly influenced the culture of Penang.
From the delicious street food of Georgetown Penang to its age-old architecture and cycle rickshaws with umbrellas, the Chinese influence is evident. Wander through the old town to get a glimpse of the city’s rustic charm and witness the colorful street art.
The restored heritage buildings of Georgetown, like Khoo Kongsi and Peranakan Mansion, are very famous. Penang Peranakan Mansion is a museum, and you will get to know a lot about Penang’s history here. Kongsi means clan house, something you will find in China. Chinese families with the same surname meet in a kongsi to worship their ancestors together. Khoo Kongsi is the grandest clan house in the city.
Penang’s street food is famous in entire South-east Asia and is a must-try for tourists visiting this state. You will find variants of many Chinese dishes here, and some of them are Hokkien mee, char kuey teow, and chee cheong fun. All these dishes are available in hawker stores spread all across the state.
You can try out Indian canai roti in the city, or the authentic Malay dish nasi lemak, coconut-infused rice served with your choice of meat. Fried noodle dishes are also quite famous here. And the best part? None of these dishes are expensive.
The Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Lantern Festival are among the most famous Chinese festivals. All these festivals are celebrated in Penang. However, the celebration style may differ.
Biggest of all, the Chinese New Year is celebrated all across Penang. It includes many observances and festivities that are unique to the state.
Jade Emperor’s birthday is widely observed in Penang and marked on the 8th day of the New Year. It is known as ‘Hokkien New Year’ colloquially. The Kek Lok Si Temple is decorated with lights during this time, and the ‘fire watching’ ceremony takes place in the Snake Temple. This is also one of the best times to visit many of the ornate Chinese clan houses within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town, where open houses are arranged.
Wesak Day is also celebrated in Penang by the Buddhists. The Buddhist temples and associations in Penang take out a massive procession. The Taoists celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival and Qing Ming. Christian festivals like Easter and Christmas are also celebrated.
Chingay Parades deserve a special mention. These annual street parades originated in Penang. They are a part of the New Year festivities that celebrate the birthdays of Chinese deities. You can experience the parade if you visit Georgetown Penang in December.
A lot of people are migrating to Malaysia, and the MM2H program is making it easier for immigration. The MM2H visa has a validity of 10 years, and it can be renewed after expiry.
Penang offers a beautiful blend of the old and new. It is a great place to witness how immigration in large numbers can influence the culture of a state. Travel throughout Penang to get a taste of Malay Chinese, and book online bus tickets on redBus to make your journey comfortable.