Penang's History, My Story | By Wong Chun Wai

It’s worth talking about

TO MANY Penangites living on the island, Penang simply means the island. The sad truth is that many islanders lose their way when they are on the mainland.

This writer pleads guilty to such ignorance. But we must acknowledge that the mainland is very much part of Penang state.

I have been reminded by several readers of this column that I need to write about the names of streets on the mainland, too.

Butterworth, the main town of Seberang Prai or previously known as Province Wellesley, is named after William John Butterworth. He was the Governor of the Straits Settlements based in Singapore from 1843 to 1855.

Butterworth was set up in the mid-19th century as a landing point across the channel from George Town.

The scene back then would probably be of boats and sampan criss-crossing the sea.

In 1920, the ferry service was started. The Penang ferry is the oldest ferry service in the country and some Penangites who have moved on to stay in other states, especially in the Klang Valley, will still say that it is more meaningful and nostalgic to enter the island by ferry.

The ferry rides across the north channel back then were quite an experience. The waters were clearer and we could see fishes and jellyfish swimming by. On lucky days, we would be able to spot dolphins or even flying fish above the water, which created great excitement.

Long before the Penang Bridge was built, taking the ferry was the only option.

Come the festive periods, the long queues that built up were a real test of one’s patience.

After all, there was a limit on the number of cars that could be ferried across on each ferry.

Butterworth was a major transit point and transportation hub. Although express buses can now head into the island using the bridge, it was here at the very busy bus terminal that the Penangites would catch a bus to go to other states.

And of course, from the ferry terminal is a direct link to the iconic railway station, where we go to board the train.

When Penang was a free port, Butterworth was, by extension, an extremely busy place. The free port status was revoked in 1969 by the Federal Government after Penang was lost to then opposition Gerakan.

Cars leaving Penang for the mainland had to be inspected by the Customs at the checkpoint near the pier to ensure no one was carrying duty-free goods.

To the local Malays, Butterworth was always referred to as bagan or jetty. It is still called by that name and the parliamentary constituency held by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has rightfully retained the name.

Butterworth also gained regional prominence when it was home to the Royal Australian Air Force base.

While Seberang Prai or just Prai it is better known to Penangites, the older generation still remembers the mainland as Province Wellesley.

It was named after Richard Wellesley, the Governor of Madras and Governor General of Bengal in India.

A distinguished character, he was also an Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament, but some reports had it as he would not hesitate to use force and annexation to enlarge the British Empire.

In Penang, there is a primary school named after Wellesley at Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, formerly called Northam Road.

While the Wellesley Primary School does not enjoy the kind of prestige that other premier schools in Penang have, it is interesting to note that during the early days, the school was one of the main feeder schools for the well-known Penang Free School.

More interestingly, the school had a reputation then for its many Eurasian teachers, who were most certainly proficient in the English language.

According to Eustace A. Nonis, the Eurasian teachers included names such as Tony Foley, Barbara Robles, Glen Johnson and Alexander Nonis.

Nonis, a retired economist and a prominent member of the Eurasian community, wrote that his father later went on to become the headmaster of the Ayer Itam English School and then, Glugor English School.

The Wellesley school surely has one of the best colonial styles in the state.

The state registration department used to be located in the building next to the school.

It was there on Feb 14, 1990, that I officially registered my marriage. By a twist of faith, it was witnessed by the registrar, Michael Ng, who was my mate at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

It was a day of joy for me and my wife, but it also was a fiasco of sorts. I turned up with a camera but forgot the film! The special occasion was never recorded.

Those were the days before the digital cameras and smartphones with built-in cameras that could easily capture such precious moments as photographs and video clips.

Prai has today continued to be the gateway to the northern states of Kedah and Perlis, keeping its standing as a transportation hub.

But I wish more efforts are made to educate, rather than to simply remind Penangites, of who Butterworth is, at least.

Wellesley is not much used by Penangites and for the younger Penangites, Province Wellesley would not even ring a bell.

But the various Penang groups, which still continue to preserve our heritage, must find ways to keep the streets of Penang, on the island or on the mainland, alive by telling the stories behind the names of these roads.