A Short History of Penang: Background information when reading The Gift of Rain

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The Gift of Rain

A Novel

by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng X
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 448 pages

    May 2009, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

A Short History of Penang

This article relates to The Gift of Rain

Print Review

Most of the action in The Gift of Rain occurs on the island of Penang (part of the Malayan state of Penang) situated off the northwest corner of the Malay Peninsula, in the Strait of Malacca (maps of South-East Asia, Malaysia and Penang). The small, turtle-shaped island has a total area of approximately 293 square kilometers (183 square miles), with an estimated population of 678,000 (2007). Most people live in or near the capital city of George Town. The island itself is less developed than the rest of the state of Penang, as its interior is hilly and densely forested.

Although mainland Malaysia itself has a long and complex history, the island of Penang was largely unpopulated until the British "discovered" it in the 18th century. Captain Francis Light secured it for the British East India Company in 1786, believing it would be an ideal stopover point for British ships on the China trade route. He persuaded Sultan Abdullah of Kedah to cede what was then Pulau Pinang ("Island of the Betel Nut") to the East India Company in exchange for 6,000 Spanish dollars** per year, at which point Light renamed the island "Prince of Wales' Island" in honor of the future King George IV. The island became the first British trading post in the Far East.

Penang was completely choked by vegetation when Light and his crew first arrived. Legend has it that to encourage the sepoys* to thoroughly clear the land, he loaded a cannon with gold coins and had them shot into the jungle. He also attempted to stimulate growth by allowing immigrants to claim any land they were able to clear. As a result, settlers and traders of many nationalities and religions were attracted to the area. George Town became very cosmopolitan, eventually inhabited by Malays, Sumatrans, Indians, Chinese and British families. The multi-cultural nature of its major city led to religious tolerance among the island's residents.

Captain Light died of malaria less than a decade after securing Penang; his son, Colonel Light, went on to found the Australian city of Adelaide in 1837.

Trade boomed in the 19th century. Primary exports included sugar, nutmeg, coconut, and tin. In the early 20th century, rubber was added as a significant trade good. World War II saw the island's importance grow as it became a major supplier of tin and rubber to the war effort. Unfortunately, Penang's ability to provide a local source for these commodities brought it to the attention of the Japanese, who could no longer import these products from the West due to a war-time blockade. They invaded in December 1941.

The war took many in Penang by surprise. They had relied heavily on their faith in the invincibility of the British Royal Navy. The British, however, were deeply involved in the war in Europe and waited too long to commit forces to the Pacific theater, and were therefore unable to defend the area from the Japanese. They ordered a secret evacuation of British citizens from Penang to the relative safety of Singapore and withdrew all troops, leaving the non-British in Penang undefended and at the mercy of the Japanese. The following three and a half years under Japanese military rule were marked by brutality and shortages.

The British did eventually return to liberate Penang and Malaya in 1945, but had lost the population's good will by abandoning them in the first place. When the British attempted to regain political control of the island they met opposition for the first time. Penang experienced more than a decade of conflict between communist and democratic forces until  it became part of the newly independent Federation of Malaya in 1957. Today, Penang state is the third-largest state economy in Malaysia with manufacturing accounting for 46% of the state's GDP in 2000, driven by the highly industrialized southern part of Penang island which is home to many electronics plants including Dell, Intel, Motorola, Hitachi and Bosch.

*A sepoy (from the Persian Sipahi meaning "soldier") was the term used by the East India Company to describe an Indian infantry private working for the Company (cavalry troopers were known as sowar). The British Indian Army continued the use of the term, which is still used by the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi armies of today.

**Spanish dollars are better known today as "pieces of eight" from the Spanish Peso de a Ocho, so named because each silver coin was worth eight reales.

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Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Gift of Rain. It originally ran in June 2008 and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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