Poelo-Penang, The Isle of the areca-nut, separated by a narrow strait from the Malay Peninsula, was ceded to England in 1785 by the Rajah of Kedah, from whom the present Sultan of Johore is lineally descended. The little territory, chiefly consisting of a mountain covered with palm-forests, was then almost uninhabited, but the strategetic importance of the position resulted in the establishment of an English Presidency, until the phenomenal growth of Singapore made it the eventual centre of local authority. "Sinhapura," "the City of Lions" (or, more accurately, of tigers), founded by the Hinduized Malays, and developed by Sir Stamford Raffles into the principal trading port of the Eastern seas, of necessity drew off from Penang a large contingent of the polyglot races which flocked thither from all parts, when the British flag first waved above the newly-built fort, but at least 100,000 inhabitants still occupy the verdant island, where the graceful areca palm attains unexampled perfection. Penang was merely regarded as an unimportant appendage of ancient Malacca, captured in 1311 by Albuquerque, and though the territory of the principal Sultan underwent innumerable vicissitudes through the changing fortunes of war, the royal line retained Johore at the foot of the Peninsula, up to the present day, the last scion of the old-world dynasty now accepting the suzerainty of England.
A tribe of Klings (the Malay corruption of the word Telinga), sailing from the Coromandel coast, were the first immigrants under British rule. The half-breed Indian Malays, or Jawi-Pekan, followed, and the Chinese, finding a new outlet for their commercial genius, soon secured a firm footing on the fairy isle, a cone of emerald set in a sapphire sea. As the rickshaw wheels away from the noisy wharves of busy Georgetown into green aisles of areca and cocoanut, the spice-laden breeze blowing from the heights, and mingled with the breath of a thousand flowers, suggests Penang as "the mountain of myrrh, and hill of frankincense," described in the Canticle of Canticles. Present surroundings atone for the lack of life's amenities in the Dutch dependencies. The ripple of the sea, and the rustle of swaying palms, just stir the silence of the wave-washed terrace above the glassy straits. The gloomy blue of the Kedah mountains on the peninsula of Malacca, with black thunderclouds gathering round their serrated crests, heightens the brilliant loveliness of immediate surroundings, steeped in the ruby glow of the magical evening. Every road is an over-arching avenue of gorgeous foliage—dark tunnels of interwoven cocoa-palms, huge Amherstias alight as with lamps of fiery orange, tremulous tamarinds, and, more wonderful than all, a wide highway roofed by a continuous aisle of ansena-trees, the golden canopy of blossom overhead rivalled by the thick carpet of yellow petals, which deadens every sound, for the prodigal bounty of tropical Nature quickly replaces the loss of falling flowers. Exquisite lanes, smothered in glorious vegetation, surround the picturesque Racecourse, that sine-qûa-non of English occupation. Stately emperor palms, kitools with crimped green tresses, fan and oil palms, with the slender areca in countless thousands, vary the shadowy vistas branching out in every direction, with huge-leaved creepers and glossy rattans garlanding the gnarled trunks of forest-trees. The sculptured outlines of the splendid traveller's palm adorn the green lawns of European bungalows, embowered in torrents of trailing creepers, the scale of colour descending from white and pink to royal purple and burning crimson. Snowy arums and golden lilies choke the brooks, overflowing from the constant showers combining with a vertical sun to foster the wealth of greenery, the incandescent scarlet and yellow of hybiscus and allemanda glowing with the transparent depth of hue, beside which the fragile fairness of European flowers, is but a spectral reflection of those colour-drenched blossoms fused into jewelled lustre by the solar fires. Night drops her black curtain suddenly, with no intervening veil of twilight to temper Earth's plunge into darkness. Great stars hang low in the sombre sky, and the open interiors of Malay huts, aglow with lamp or torchlight, produce Rembrandtesque effects, revealing brown inmates cooking or eating their "evening rice."
Georgetown, loyally named by British pioneers after a monarch eminently incongruous with any ideas belonging to a tropical fairyland, possesses neither architectural beauty nor salient character; wooden warehouses, Malay shanties, and white-washed streets being merely attractive from the ever-changing scheme of colour painted by varieties of race and costume. Tamils of ebon blackness drive picturesque teams of humped white oxen in red waggons laden with purple sugar-cane. Noble-looking Sikhs, in spotless linen, stride past with kingly gait. Brown Siamese, in many-coloured scarves and turbans gleaming with gold thread, chaffer and bargain at open stalls with blue-robed Chinamen, and the bronze figures of slim Malays, brightened by mere wisps of orange and scarlet added to Nature's durable suit, slip through the crowds, pausing before an emporium of polished brass-work, or a bamboo stall of teak wood carving. The sloping black mitre of a stout Parsee merchant, accompanied by a pretty daughter in white head-band and floating sari of cherry-coloured silk, varies the motley headgear of turban and fez, straw hat and sun-helmet, worn by this cosmopolitan population, the pink headkerchiefs, tinselled scarves, and jewelled buttons of the beautiful Burmese dress, drawing attention to the energetic bargaining of two astute customers for cooking utensils; these elegantly-attired but mahogany-coloured dames, rivalling the Sumatran women in business capacity, and equally determined on securing the quid pro quo. The long esplanade between town and sea borders a series of green lawns, where carriages draw up round a bandstand, and the youthful element of European Penang plays tennis with laudable zeal in the atmosphere of a stove-house. Chinese and Malay boyhood look on, and listen to the regimental music. The pallid English occupants of the carriages, in spite of diaphanous muslins and fluttering fans, appear too limp and wilted to bestow more than a languid attention to their surroundings, until the sea-breeze, springing up as the sun declines, revives their flagging spirits. The smartest turnout and the finest horses generally belong to John Chinaman, got up in irreproachable English costume, with his pigtail showing beneath a straw hat, though considerably attenuated, and lacking those adornments of silken braid and red tassels, generally plaited into the imposing queue of the orthodox Celestial. The indefatigable Chinese, frequently arriving on an alien shore without a dollar in their pockets, continually prove potential millionaires. Immune from climatic diseases, working early and late, tolerant and unaggressive, the iron hand in the velvet glove disentangles and grasps the threads of the most complicated commercial enterprise, for the idle Malay, "the gentleman of the East," here as elsewhere, cares for little beyond the sport of hunting and fish-spearing, which satisfies the personal necessities of his indolent existence. The wonderful solidarity of domestic life is an important factor in the Chinese career, for centuries of ancestor-worship, in spite of their arrestive tendency, have strengthened the bonds of family union and filial obedience by insisting on the supreme sanctity of blood-relationship.
The luxuriant Botanical Garden, situated in a green cleft of an angle formed by encircling hills, is a paradise of dreamland, though but a miniature when compared with Buitenzorg for extent and variety. In the restful charm of the Penang garden Art and Nature go hand in hand, giving it an unique character among the horticultural pleasaunces of the Eastern world. The rolling lawns of the exquisite valley, the song of the waterfall which bounds the view as it leaps down the lofty cliffs, the abundant shade of tamarind and palm, and the gorgeous flowering shrubs, suggest nothing artificial or conventionalised in the deep seclusion of the fairy glen. Tall bamboos mirror fluffy foliage and white or golden stems in stream and pool. Orchids of the Brazils festoon unknown trees with the rose and purple butterflies formed by their brilliant blossoms, and colossal traveller's palms, so-called from the draught of water obtained by incision of the stem, stud the glades with stiffly-fluted fans. Lilac thunbergia wreaths over-arching boughs, and passion-flower flings white and crimson garlands over turf flushed with the pink blossoms of the sensitive plant. Gold mohur and red poinsettia blaze with fiery splendour, and huge crotons, with velvety leaves of pink, violet, and chocolate, grow to the height of forest trees. The tangle of brilliant flowers, systematically arranged by the concealed art of the Eastern horticulturist, shows many weird botanical forms. Green spears, bristling on mossy banks, are starred with crimson and barred with orange. Wine-coloured cacti twist blue-green spikes and stems in grotesque contortions, and topaz or ruby-tinted calladiums flame in thickets of hot colour outside cool green dells, filled by a forest of tropical ferns, mosses, and creepers. Lack of botanical knowledge constitutes a sore disadvantage in this treasury of floral beauty, but happily we may "consider the lilies," without cataloguing them, in this garden, "beautiful for situation," and worthy to be a "joy of the whole earth." The sombre jungle on the mountain side supplies the atmosphere of mystery which enhances the ideal peace of the cloistered Paradise, wrapt in the embrace of the haunted hills, and numbered among those visions of an earlier Eden, only realised in the Asiatic birthplace of Humanity which contained the typical Garden of the World, Divinely planted, where the Voice from Heaven deepened the music of whispering leaves and sighing breeze.
A purple-red pat—for even the jasper-tinted tropical soil is beautiful, climbs through the glorious woods to the chief Sanatorium of the Malay Peninsula. A free fight among the coolies before starting demands a lengthy exercise of that stolidity with which the Western pilgrim must invest himself, as the invulnerable armour needed by the conflict of daily life. As a mere matter of personal convenience, this quality bears scant resemblance to the weapons enumerated by S. Paul in the Christian panoply. The oppressive heat, the futility of argument in an almost unknown tongue, and the general uncertainty of the subject in dispute, gradually producing this spurious virtue as the external decoration of sorely-exasperated souls. The exertion of the long ascent in the steaming heat requires six coolies for every chair. The red road mounts through enchanting vistas of palms and creepers, on the edge of the dark jungle, each turning point bringing a whiff of cooler air, as the evening gold flickers through the velvety fronds of tree-ferns, and the green feathers of spreading bamboos. From the white hotel near the summit, the blue Straits and the flats of Province Wellesley, the English portion of the Malay Peninsula, stand out against the frowning ridge of mountains, for black thunder-clouds continually brood over Malacca. Monkeys caper and chatter in the teak-trees bordering a circular terrace, and an ideal sylvan path leads to the Signal Station, Hospital, and Post Office, on an opposite height, dotted with the bungalows of summer visitors. A palm-shaded plateau beneath the hotel offers an ideal resting-place, but the impenetrable jungle covering the Penang Hills makes expeditions on foot or by chair, impracticable, and the wild deluges of rain, with terrific thunder peals bursting in uncontrolled fury on this exposed peak, minimise the delights of a mountain sojourn. The invasion of an army of jungle rats, behind the walls and above the ceiling of a room sodden and dripping with the afternoon's flood, completes the disillusion, and compels a hasty descent to the warmer damp of the lowlands, for the Equatorial climate, and the general absence of bed-coverings, causes a rheumatic stiffness on rising, which has to be steamed out by the atmospheric vapour-bath of the tropical island. A long rickshaw ride to Tanjong Bungah ("Flowery Point") completes the day's cure in a sweltering heat, which on the return journey at 8 a.m. causes even the Chinese coolies to stop perpetually at wayside stalls, for the coloured syrups and sticky sweetmeats on which they perform prodigies of endurance and speed. An English planter, in his solitary cacao-garden on the edge of the sea, hails his compatriots with delight, and leads the way through the rocky ravines bordering his solitary bungalow. The glories of the tropics seldom alleviate the sense of exile, and cloudy England, with her "green fields and pastures dim," remains dearer than all the pageantry of Nature elsewhere to most of her absent sons.
The Buddhist temple of Ayer-Etam, built in ascending tiers on a steep acclivity, varies the natural interests of Penang, with the marvels of Chinese architecture elaborated in the deep seclusion of mountain and forest. The dewy areca-palms throw a dark network of interlacing shadows across the red road, winding for miles through the sylvan scenery, the alchemy of the rising sun transmuting the myriad feathery fronds into fountains of green fire. Only the creaking of a bullock-waggon, or the thud of a falling cocoanut, breaks the hush of the tropical daybreak, when the leaves only whisper in their dreams, and the vernal earth, fresh as from her Creator's hand, renews her strength for the heat and burden of the coming day. The colossal pile, consisting of temple, monastery, and innumerable shrines, amid fountains and fish-ponds, bridges and balconies, courts and terraces, gleams whitely against the green gloom of the vast palm-forest on either side, sloping sharply to the shimmering sea. The usual appalling images of vermilion and gold guard every sculptured gateway, and surmount the painted shrines encircled by parterres of votive flowers, for the philosophic Buddhism of Ceylon and Siam gathers the moss and weeds of many an incongruous accretion in countless ages of pilgrimage through the Eastern world. The transcendental mysticism which spun the finest cobwebs of human thought, crystallises into concrete form when interpreted in the terms of China, where dim reminiscences of early Nature worship, and the terrors which upheld the authority of many obsolete creeds, have been incorporated into the vague ideals of Prince Gautama's prophetic soul. Altars, strewn with fragrant champak-flowers, stand beneath lace-carved alcoves of black teakwood, on the broad plateaux which form welcome resting-places beside each flight of steps on the marble stairway, the gilded pinnacles and aerial spires of the white temple sparkling against the sea of rich foliage. A knot of Burmese worshippers, with rose-coloured scarves and turbans, throw their infinitesimal coins on the palm-leaf mats of a red-roofed shrine, and tell the wooden beads of the Buddhist rosary, chanting the perpetual refrain of "Pain, Sorrow, Unreality," as a warning against the temptations of Maya, the world of illusion. The brown faces raised imploringly to the presiding deity, a leering demon with green face and yellow body, inspire the hope that the grotesque monster may prove his own unreality by vanishing from the hearts of his devotees into the limbo of nightmares from which he has emerged, for the philosophic quietism of Buddhist creed offers no disguise to the horrors of a hell far surpassing the terrific literalism of Dante's Inferno. Rippling conduits edge pillared courts and cloistered arcades, resplendent with frieze and cornice of blue and scarlet, a central fountain falling in prismatic showers over a sacred pond of golden carp. A white-robed monk smilingly conducts us across hump-backed bridges and colonnaded galleries to a bench beneath a grey frangipanni tree, starred with fragrant flowers, and brings welcome cups of tea, before another struggle up the interminable steps, which symbolise the mystic "path" leading to Nirvana's rest. Further hospitality meets us at a yellow kiosk, higher up the sacred hill, where a dainty breakfast of eggs, cakes, and honey stands on a white table-cloth, bearing a steaming coffee-pot. The temple paraphernalia of Buddhist worship strangely resembles Catholic imagery. Incense rises from open censers on the dais, the blue cloud enveloping a gorgeous altar, encrusted with gold. The central figure of Gautama Buddha, on the lotus leaf expresses supernal calm, and the symbolic flower, in bud, blossom, or foliage, forms the prevailing design of vase and amphora, within golden lattice-work. Hanging lamps glow on rapt faces of attendant saints, or on those supplementary local Buddhas which Chinese doctrine adds to the comparative simplicity of the original system. The foreshadowing of Christian truth culminates in the fact stated by a Buddhist priest, that bread and wine of mystic meaning are reserved on the altars of many among the forty subdivisions of Buddhism. The mountain Sanctuary, though marred by debased decoration and heathenised by the lurid figures of the guardian demons, inspires a reverent devotion, and exercises a solemnising influence on many souls whose faith differs from that of the white-clad monks, who seek to scale the dim heights of perfection from this lofty peak. "The Light which lighteth every man" must needs throw a faint and far-off ray even on an erroneous creed, groping through the darkness for the outstretched Hands which embrace all Humanity with boundless Love.
Penang, as a little field of missionary enterprise, possesses many privileges often denied to the further islands of Malaysia. The variety of immigrant races, the constant intercourse with the Indian mainland, and the needs of travellers belonging to every nation, keep the settlement in touch with a multitude of spiritual needs. Christianity, both in Anglican and Roman guise, sows diligently in fields gradually whitening to harvest. The English Church, with reverent services and kindly priest, remains a little centre of cherished associations. The S. Francis Xavier Institute, which brings many Chinese boys into the Christian fold, through the labours of another Communion, carries on the work of the great mediæval missionary, who reached the farthest East in his apostolate of love. The scarlet, yellow, and white veils of Eastern converts, the crowd of Eurasian Christians in both churches, and the presence of a devout Malay priest assisting at the English service, add unfamiliar notes of colour among the snowy muslins and flower-decked hats of English residents, but correctness of costume, both in men and women, contrasts refreshingly with the slovenly déshabille of the Netherlands India, the last and easily-snapped link between civilisation and barbarism.
An opportunity occurs for a visit to Taiping, the capital of the Native Federated States, and situated in Province Wellesley. The launch crosses to Prai, the rising port of Malacca, and the northern terminus of the railway, sure to upset the passenger lists of the great steamers by traversing the entire peninsula to Johore. Through a channel bordered with weird mangroves, the boat enters a long, slow river, flowing between boundless palm-forests. The "black but comely" captain of the snorting boat escorts his European passengers to the station, arranges tickets, and waits on the platform till the train starts; the portly sailor in spotless linen, surmounted by his genial ebony face, waving encouragement as long as we remain in sight. The perils and dangers of the way are nil, and none of the threatened contingencies arise, but to Eastern thought risks, however remote and improbable, add to the value of a journey. Real drawbacks seem seldom mentioned, but imaginary lions in the way offer unlimited scope to Oriental fancy, and help to create a thrilling drama of destruction. Green paddi-fields, tall sugar-canes, and a world of palms, rise from the alluvial flats of Province Wellesley. The great rubber plantations, which form the chief source of wealth in Malacca, follow in endless succession, but, as usual, the astute Chinaman has obtained almost a monopoly of the industry, from which the greatest fortunes of the tropics are now derived. The bushy trees, with their black stems and ragged foliage, are destitute of the beauty so lavishly bestowed even on the weeds of this fertile soil. The tangled splendour of the wild jungle, which presently borders the track, demonstrates the immense difficulty of pioneering in a tropical forest, where the interlacing boughs of the myriad trees, with their impenetrable screen of climbing parasites, make perpetual walls of living green, defying human progress. Malay villages, brown and palm-thatched in the immemorial style, stand on piles above the swampy ground, which seems the approved site of habitation. A barren district devastated by a forest fire, contains the disused pits of ancient tin-mines, but these unsightly hollows have been decorated by Nature's hand with a luxuriant growth of the frilled pink lotus. Malay children, themselves unadorned, stand on wayside platforms, every brown hand filled with the rosy chalices of the sacred Buddhist emblem. Tradition says that the blossom, drawn up from the mire by the rays of the morning sun, symbolised the earth-stained soul, made pure and stainless by the attraction of that Divine Glory which Buddhism, though in distorted form, strove to attain.
At the end of the sixty-mile journey, the English station-master at Taiping proved a veritable friend in need, arranging for a hot breakfast at the station, chartering rickshaw coolies, and—greatest blessing of all—directing the route, with a menacing pantomime concerning any shirking of duty, which saved all further trouble. Taiping is in an early stage of progress, and the open tokos in waringen-shaded streets, show nothing but the necessaries of life, with terrible mementos of Birmingham in petroleum lamps, hideous oleographs, and machine-made household goods. Pretty bungalows stand beyond the interlacing avenues of dusky trees, and a framework toy of a church in the green outskirts, contains numerous brass tablets recording English lives laid down in this weary land. These pathetic memorials seem the only permanent features of the frail edifice in the shadowy God's-acre already filled with graves. The newly-planted park, with a lake fringed by a vivid growth of allemanda and hybiscus, stands below the purple heights of a long mountain chain, but Taiping offers few inducements to a prolonged stay, and after a hurried glimpse of terrific beasts and snakes of the jungle, preserved in the local museum, we return to the station, the kindly chef-de-gare disturbing his wife from her siesta in the adjacent bungalow, to feast us on tea and bananas. Darkness falls before the train reaches Penang, but a Chinese gentleman acts as pilot across some rocking boats, with only a faint flare from expiring torches to light the way, and starts the cringing coolies, with true politeness to the "foreign devils," but manifest wonder at their eccentric customs. Chinese womanhood, painted, bedizened, and tottering on the pink and gold hoofs which cause a sickening shudder to the Western spectator, indicates the barrier of prejudice to be surmounted before China can mould national ideals into harmony with modern progress.
The vicinity of Penang to the Equatorial junction of the maritime world, widens local interests by the development of the Malay Peninsula, partly governed through the instrumentality of native Sultans under English guidance, but the abiding charm of the island lies beyond the radius of the thriving port. Nature still reigns supreme in this jewel of the Equator, where the amber swathes of Indian laburnum, the golden-hearted whiteness of luscious frangipanni blossom, and the red fire of the flamboyant tree, light up the endless aisles of swaying palms, where temple-flower and tuberose mingle their fragrance with the breath of clove and cinnamon, interpreting the imagery of the Eastern monarch's bridal song, and luring each lover of Earth's manifold beauty to "go down into her garden of spices and gather lilies."