Suffolk House Restored, Georgetown Penang

A Bridge too near - over a creek running beside the restored Suffolk House.

The Captain came from not the aristocrat, but from an adopted middle class family in mid 18th century England.His second son as a Surveyor General was responsible for  the beginnings of what was to become modern day Adelaide.  The life of Francis Light is not very well known, but his legacy impacted on at least three nations.  To me, Light's skills in political negotiation, dealing well with unknown cultures and sense of adventure were the most important things about the man.  My primary school attended was named after this founder of Georgetown, on a tropical isle whose value located along the trading routes was not realised until a Brit guy seized the opportunity, established a settlement out of the jungle and never looked back.  Captain Francis Light embraced the unknown, seized the future and worked on advancing an opportunity not just for himself but paved the way for immigrants from China, India, Thailand, Sumatra and Burma to carve out a new  and better life.  Light was the son of William Negus and his servant girl Mary Light.  The eventual  founder of the colony of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, had first arrived in the region working in Penang.

Tropical practicality - open air verandahs, louvred doors and hanging lamps.

Only ten years after the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 was the colony of Georgetown on Penang Island founded by Light. There are the stories of how the Captain ordered for sovereign coins to be dispersed by cannon on to thick bush to motivate people to clear the jungle fast.  Francis was born in Dallinghoo in Suffolk (East Anglia) in the mother country and before arriving in Penang, was based as a trader in Salang in Phuket Island in nearby Siam.  This must have been where he met his future wife, Martinha Rozells, a woman of both Portuguese and Siamese heritage and later, mother to Colonel William Light. Martinha was Catholic and posed a potential issue to the Church of England, to which Francis belonged to.  Apparently, the marriage was never declared to the English authorities.  Captain Light had three daughters (Ann, Sarah and Mary)  and two sons (William and Francis Lanoon) with Martinha.

A Francis Light II passed away in Taiping in 1906, whilst an Augusta Victoria Light survived in Penang itself until 1972.  Not much recognition is given in modern day Malaysia for the Captain's efforts, but he is buried at the Protestant Cemetery along Northam Road.  William Light was born in Kuala Kedah on the mainland of the Malayan peninsular across from Penang island but was sent to England at the age of six years old.  The Lights are also linked to the Bain family in the 20th century.

In the early 19th century, it was the fashion to retire to writing, reading and reflecting in the drawing room at the end of a the day.

The original residence, located on the inner outskirts of Georgetown, along the banks of the Black River (Air Itam), is said to be occupied by the first Light family in south-east Asia, and then sold to William Edward Phillips, who constructed the Georgian styled mansion we often visualise as Suffolk House. Francis Light and his family in fact occupied a construction made more of attap and timber, but did maintain pepper gardens in the vicinity.  Edwards later became a Governor of this Prince of Wales Island, the official name of the settlement until 1876 (the year the British Straits Settlements was established with Malacca and Singapore).  Suffolk House was occupied by a series of Governors.  The political base of the Settlements then shifted to a more prosperous and strategic Singapore.  Suffolk House then came under the ownership of Penang local Lim Cheng Teik, a millionaire trader, before being passed for a sum of 40,000 Straits Settlement dollars to the Reverend P.L. Peach of the Methodist Church of Malaya.

A cuppa of tea, cakes and a cigar box - the vibes of the early colony for the new aristocrats of the island settlement.

Captain Light had obtained possession of Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah without informing the British East India Company.  This oversight was uncovered when the military protection Light promised the Sultan from the British did not eventuate when Kedah was attacked by the Siamese. The history of Penang inevitably became intertwined with the Siamese kingdom, British colonial influence over the Malay States on the mainland and the focus of immigration, trade and stability for people fleeing unstable times in China and India.   Penang's ambitions as a vital port and middleman power was realised for many years, until it had to concede this position to Singapore at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca. Like Singapore, however, Penang attracted many immigrants of Chinese origin from southern China, especially  Fujian, Hainan and Guangdong.  There was also an overflow of Chinese  already in nearby Perak (Taiping and Ipoh) and who were there earlier due to the tin mining boom.  It is said that when the United States of America closed the doors on East Asians entering after the heady days of the California Gold Rush, the Chinese began to focus on south-east Asia to escape the dire economic conditions of the last dynasty (the Qing).

The table setting for a formal meal  - later replicated by the Straits Chinese, who adored the British as a community - as the Tok Panjang (or literally, long table) for festive gatherings.

A walk around the restored residence and grounds of the Suffolk House today would impress on visitors the detailed attention given in the renovations undertaken in the past few years.  History is always interpreted and preserved by those in current political power - and if not for the perseverance and funding from a select non-government group in Penang and the SACON Heritage Unit from Adelaide,  the modern version of Suffolk House would not have seen the light of day.  When the place began its period of decay, the building was still utilised to hold classes and operate as a day canteen for students of the nearby Methodist Boys School.

Today all has been transformed, although some locals observe why some specific rooms are never open to the public.  The upper floor actually collapsed many years ago due to the sheer weight of neglect and  lack of monies for repairs.  Henry and I visited Suffolk House on a rather moist refreshing morning during a week of periodic but rather torrential rain.   I reckoned this was the best time to explore its gardens, when flora was utmost green and must have echoed more of the climate more than 250 years ago.  Suffolk House was the winner of the UNESCO Asia-pacific Heritage Awards in 2008.

The lawns and grounds of Suffolk House.

At the ball room on the upper floor, with a bust of Captain Francis Light - it is said that the facial countenance represented here was more of his son Colonel William Light.

Polished floorboards bring us back to evenings when Suffolk House was a centre of social and political activity.

Model of the restored residence  and significant function house.

Mansions and bungalows tend to have this arched porch in an architectural design doted across Penang Island . especially Georgetown, inherited from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

High tea options surrounded by foliage not far from downtown Georgetown.

Apart from dropping by inside a small souvenir room, front reception landing and walk around rooms, visitors can also try meals, including high tea, at the restaurant on the ground floor and at the back of Suffolk House. The operators have been doing this for several years and the menu is influenced by both past and present concepts of fine dining.  The menu includes a variety of both Eastern and Western creations.  Interesting was the availability of Nespresso coffee varieties.  Afternoon tea commences at 230pm, with three-tiered trays of  freshly made single serve chicken pies, scones, cakes and cucumber and salmon sandwiches.  Accompanying preserves offered include tangy apple ginger compote, strawberry and pineapple marmalade.

Vista outside the restaurant window. 

I admired the timber floorings, the high ceilings and the lovingly finished detail.  The young Indian woman who opened the souvenir section for us was friendly and informative.  She hails from Kuala Lumpur and also mentioned about her personal blog site.   I found Suffolk House tranquil, eye-opening and a refuge from modern society.  It is a corner of England from the past, hopefully sufficiently embraced by the present and a gem to preserve for the future.  Those in charge can consider holding staged performances, strengthening personalised or group guided tours and having community based groups learn about this fascinating and rich past of Penang.  It is a settlement that was established before Sydney.

Fine dining possibilities - but is the jury still out on the food and value?

Suffolk House today as you approach it from the front.

Music is the refuge of the heart and soul, away from the ordinariness of life.

A perfect place to while away a moist and cloudy afternoon in Penang Island.

Memories of old England - with touches of the Far East.

Suffolk House is located at 250 Air Itam Road, 10460 Penang in Malaysia.