Alastair McCready is the Lead Editor at Southeast Asia Globe. He regularly posts about Southeast Asian affairs and history on his Twitter.

The port city of George Town was for more than a century a thriving entrepôt of the colonial Straits Settlements. 

A melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European culture centred around its bustling port, George Town was established on the island of Penang as Britain’s first Far East trading post in 1786 and thrived as the first port of call east of India for traders.  

But by the mid-20th century, its demise would be steady, and by the late 1960s, it was a community in severe decline. 

Despite assurances provided to concerned Penangites from the outgoing British colonial administration at Malaysia’s independence in 1957, the state would be stripped of its centuries-held free port status by the government in 1969. 

The decision to remove this preferential tax status cut deep. Poverty and unemployment grew, leaving just shy of one in five adults jobless, while the president of the International Chamber of Commerce was reported to have predicted that Penang would end up a ‘fishing village’.

In crisis, the year Penang’s free port status was revoked, state authorities would solicit the services of US consultancy firm Robert Nathan and Associates – the architects of libertarian economic development projects across the developing world – to produce a master plan for the island’s revival. 

As a result, by 1972, the year New York Times and National Geographic photojournalist Harrison Forman would visit George Town and take these photographs, radical change was afoot.

Still visible in Forman’s 1972 shots is a city in transition – reeling from the stripping of its identity as a hub of international trade, yet to redefine itself as a pioneer state in post-colonial Malaysia

Overseen by Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu, handed the moniker the Architect of Modern Penang for his efforts transforming the state, that year would see a cornerstone laid for the Penang we know today. With the words of the US free-marketeers ringing in his ears, 1972 would see Chief Minister Lim guide the opening of the sprawling Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone south of the city near the airport. 

Penang and Malaysia’s first free-trade zone, it attracted major multinational tech companies Intel, AMD, Hewlett-Packard, Clarion, National Semiconductor, Hitachi, Osram, and Bosch – known as the Samurai Eight. Evolving into one of Asia’s major electronics hubs, the FIZ would earn the title of the Silicon Valley of the East, inspiring similar initiatives across Malaysia. 

Bayan Lepas would also transform the island, resulting in a population boom and urbanisation. In 1974, the Komtar redevelopment project in the heart of George Town would see construction begin on the 250m-tall Komtar Tower – Asia’s second-tallest skyscraper at completion.

By the early 1970s, plans to build the Penang Bridge connecting the island to the Malaysian Peninsula, previously only possible by ferry, would also begin to take shape. Spanning 13.5km, when it opened in 1985 it would hold rank as the longest bridge in all of Southeast Asia. 

With hundreds of skyscrapers joining the Komtar Tower in the decades since – lining George Town’s coastline, looming over the shophouses and religious sites of its UNESCO World Heritage Site-recognised old quarter – Lim’s legacy is clear to see today. 

But before all this took shape, still visible in Forman’s 1972 shots is a city in transition – reeling from the stripping of its identity as a hub of international trade, yet to redefine itself as a pioneer state in post-colonial Malaysia. 

A select few white, modern apartment blocks jutt out of a largely-uninterrupted vista of brown-tiled roofs; a listless looking dockside; cyclo taxis and bicycles against a backdrop of analog street advertising.

Looking at these scenes, few would have predicted the scale of the transformation to come. 

Wat Chaiyamangkalaram
Wat Chaiyamangkalaram
Wat Chaiyamangkalaram

These photos, originally taken by photographer Harrison Forman, have been republished with the consent of the The American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

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