Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Street names of Georgetown - a heritage

Whenever a tourist come to Penang, the first essential thing to do is to have a map of Penang and Georgetown. It is the same whenever you visit any foreign country. The map will help you to locate the place you want to visit, the hotel you need to stay..., it is a guide and path finder for the first timer to the place/city.

Within the map, there are numerous roads and streets, with various names; it is not only for identification of the street, it also provide the historical background of the place. Especially the street names of Georgetown, it reflected the multicultural heritage of the city, the capital of a former British settlement of Penang, now part of Malaysia, which has a multiracial, largely Chinese population.

Original street names

Penang was "found" in 1786, the original Francis Light Grid or original town was within the border of Light Street, Chulia Street, Pitt Street, Beach Street. Except Light Street which was named after Capt Francis Light, the other street names are more simple. The Most streets in the city were built and named during the colonial era, and the historic English names generally remain and are still used by most Penangites. e.g. Light Strret, Borwn Road, Leith Street, Carnarvon Street, Kimberley Street, Farquhar Street, Macalister Road, Hutton Lane, which were named after colonial personality. Beach Street, Transfer Road, Penang Road, Magazine Road, Gaol Road etc are named after events and places, in English names. Khaw Sim Bee Road, Ah Kwee Street, Phuah Hin Leong Road, Cheong Fatt Tze Street, Keng Kwee Street, Che Em Lane etc, are named after Chinese personality during the strait settlement periods. Ariffin Court, Dato Kramat Road, Noordin Street, Tengku Kudin Road, Udini Road etc are after Muslim/Malay Personality. Some are named after the original inhabitants of the street e.g Chulia Street, China Street, Kampong Malabar Street, Jahudi Road, Malay Street, Burmah Road, Solok Serani etc. All these street names reflected the history of the street, the past of Georgetown's life, and today it is the heritage of Penang people.

The official street names after independence

Since the passage of the National Language Act 1967, government policy has been to use the Malay language for all official purposes, and the Malay translations of the street names are the primary official versions that are used on street signs, now supplemented with names in English (and, in some places, Chinese, Tamil and Arabic). But some overzealous officials have changed the original historical names and replaced with current Malay names, without retaining any trace of history for the said street, and the future generations.

The Unofficial street names

In addition to the official English and Malay names, many streets in central George Town have a mostly unrelated and original set of road names in Penang Hokkien, the dialects of the majority of Penang's majority Malaysian Chinese community. Many streets also have Cantonese names that are less well-known. As the Hokkien and Cantonese street names are not official, and are based on an oral tradition, some may be out of date. But the unofficial Chinese names are the one reflected the most historical value of the street, it revealed the happening of the past events/activities in the old days. The Chinese oral historical street names is an additional heritage asset to Peanng people.

Heritage Street Names & Conservation

Since independence, there have been some changes to the official names of some streets. On the whole, however, like Singapore and unlike many other cities in Malaysia, George Town has retained most of its colonial street names, although until recently they have been indicated on street signs only in their Malay translations.

Street Signs

Until 2007, street signs in George Town were only written in Malay, as a result of the national language policy. Unfortunately, this had the effect of confusing tourists, who found it difficult to match the English names commonly used by Penangites with the Malay names on street signs which were often very different. In the case of proper nouns, the English name is easily recognisable, e.g. Kimberley Street is Lebuh Kimberley. In other cases, however, the Malay translation may be unfamiliar to those who do not speak the language, e.g. Church St is literally translated as Lebuh Gereja (from the Portuguese igreja). A few streets have been given completely new names in Malay.

Even where official street names have changed, the local population have largely continued informally to use the old names when referring to streets. This is partly because the new names are often unwieldy (e.g. Green Lane vs Jalan Masjid Negeri, Pitt Street vs Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, or Northam Road vs Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah), but also reflects a strong conservatism in the local population, who see Penang's colonial history as part of their local identity. When Scott Road was renamed Jalan D S Ramanathan, after the first Mayor of the City of George Town, the new street signs were repeatedly defaced and had to be replaced several times, eventually forcing the city authorities to fix a replacement street sign fifteen feet up a lamppost (instead of at waist-height, as was then usual).

Standard Translation

In translating the English words for street, road, lane, etc., the city authorities follow a fairly regular system to avoid confusion between many streets of similar names. There are exceptions to this rule where the historic Malay usage is different and there is no chance of confusion, e.g. Hutton Lane has always been known as Jalan Hutton (see e.g. the Mesjid Jalan Hatin mosque) rather than *Lorong Hutton.

* Avenue - Lebuhraya (e.g. Peel Avenue/Lebuhraya Peel; context usually prevents confusion with the normal meaning of lebuhraya, viz. highway/expressway)
* Circus - Lilitan (e.g. Hargreaves Circus/Lilitan Hargreaves)
* Close - Solok (e.g. Scott Close/Solok Scott)
* Court - Halaman (e.g. Cantonment Court/Halaman Cantonment)
* Crescent - Lengkok (e.g. Jesselton Crescent/Lengkok Jesselton)
* Cross - Lintang (e.g. Burmah Cross/Lintang Burma)
* Drive - Persiaran (e.g. Gurney Drive/Pesiaran Gurney)
* Gardens - Taman (e.g. Western Gardens/Taman Western)
* Lane - Lorong (e.g. Prangin Lane/Lorong Perangin)
* Place - Pesara (e.g. Claimant Place/Pesara Claimant)
* Quay - Pengkalan (e.g. Weld Quay/Pengkalan Weld)
* Road - Jalan (e.g. Perak Road/Jalan Perak)
* Square - Medan (e.g. College Square/Medan Maktab; also used for some new square-shaped roads that are not open squares, e.g. Medan York)
* Street - Lebuh (e.g. Campbell Street/Lebuh Campbell)
* Street Ghaut - Gat Lebuh (e.g. China Street Ghaut/Gat Lebuh China)

The word "Ghaut" at the end of some street names reflects the fact that they are extensions of the original streets beyond the original waterfront at Beach St with the reclamation of the Ghauts and the construction of Weld Quay, ghat being a Hindi and Bengali word meaning a flight of steps leading down to a body of water.

(source: Adopted from wikipedia with some variation)

If the tourist visit Georgetown, today we are proud to tell them the history of Georgetown, from the street names. If the street names are changed without regard to history, what can we tell the visitors?. If you named or replaced a street name with Jalan Hang Tuah, what is the Malacca name related to Penang?, it is not relevant to the visitor, and it will lost the trace of history reflected in the original names, and the opportunity to tell the history related to the original street names. History is his-story, street names are the history of the street, the story of the street.......please don't kill the heritage street names of Georgetown......
and if you do that, you kill the tourist money....let the new names use for new streets.

Isn't it stupid to destroy our own heritage?......so don't simply change the street names...


  1. You have very well spelled out the thoughts of Penangites :D

  2. Thank you for explaining the meaning of ghaut. I keep seeing GAT in front of road signs and it was driving me crazy!