'The Amazing Race' Pit Stop Fiver: The Mixed Bag That Is Penang
Friday, April 02, 2010
This week on The Amazing Race, we are headed to Penang, one of the most important regions in Malaysia. Despite that, though, I'll admit it's pretty hard finding interesting bits for this week's fiver--especially considering that we're also headed to Singapore next week. The two places share the same history (I'll elaborate on it later) but Penang is still a diverse and unique place all its own.
My task, as always, is to look for five interesting facts about this week's host country. Armed with Wikipedia, the forums and the little bits I know about Singapore (since I've been there, the latest being last November--see, it'd come in handy!) I set out to make sense of what we should expect from Sunday night's episode, and then some.
Have you heard of elected kings? I remember when I went on a tour to the city of Johor Bahru. Our good tour guide mentioned that the King of Malaysia is a really revered figure. Unlike other figures of royalty, though, the Malaysian head of state--most for ceremonial purposes, like in the UK--is elected among the nine members of the Conference of Rulers. That group is composed of the Rulers of nine Malay states, those that had royal rulers before the country was formed in the 1960s. Penang, being a former British colony, is not part of the process.
It's named after a nut. No, really. Malays call Penang "Pulau Pinang", which roughly translates to "Isle of the Areca Nut", after the areca nut palms that dot the shoreline. The areca nut is often mixed with the betel leaf to form paan, often chewed by natives as a breath freshener. (That's why many of us call the areca nut a "betel nut". Wrong, because apparently there's no such thing as a betel nut."
Penang started the same way as Singapore. Both were former British colonies. Both were discovered by captains of the British East India Company, and were acquired from members of their respective sultanates to be transformed into trading posts. Penang, being a natural harbor for boats during storms--and a breeding ground for pirates--was the first to be taken over by the Brits, when Francis Light acquired it in 1786. It was here where Stamford Raffles, eventual founder of Singapore, first worked.
Penang's got lots of history in it. The diverse ethnicities in Penang--the native Malays, the immigrant Chinese and Indians, and the British traders--made the place a hot pot of architecture and culture. That, plus strict rent laws after independence, preserved the buildings. Soon Penang, along with the city of Malacca, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its past as trading hubs between the East and the West.
Yes, they are really huge flags. Surely you've spotted the promos with Jet and Cord balancing really huge flags in their heads? It's the known beginning of the Chingay Parade, an annual occasion celebrated in Singapore during the Chinese New Year. Despite it being a Singaporean celebration, its origins can be traced to Penang. In 1880, a parade celebrating the New Year was held in the capital George Town, where giant flags were used. It soon evolved into the Chingay, because of the use of costumes and small floats carried on the shoulders of several participants.
Indeed, Penang is a melting pot of cultures and tradition. After doing this piece, I felt like going there. I've been to Singapore twice--I was there last November--and I love that place. I think I'll enjoy Penang, too.
(Image courtesy of the Penang Tourism Action Council)