As the plane glides over emerald treetops on its approach to the island, I ponder how it could feel so natural to be landing ‘home’, on the other side of the world. A place where nothing feels foreign or unfamiliar. Not the forests of tropical palms or the lush jungle greens. Nor the heat and humidity that will soon be a balm to my soul. And certainly not the storied streets of Georgetown that I’ll wander endlessly along; known to me in intimate detail from my time here as I researched a book project. On this visit, I’ll relish a one-month sojourn between here and Thailand with various friends… the snowy, white landscape of British Columbia is suddenly so very distant as the plane touches down. It’s been a twenty-some hour journey – Vancouver, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Penang – and euphoria isn’t too strong a word to describe how I’m feeling.
Penang Island is 293 square kilometres of verdant forest, jungle and settlement, a Malta-sized island with an equally rich and fascinating history spanning the centuries. This is especially true of Georgetown, the historic enclave claimed and built by the British East India Company in 1786, a place richly steeped in layers of cultures, religions, architecture and food. I hear that its vibrancy was much subdued during the worst of the pandemic, yet I’m thankful that the Penang I adore is alive and well.
I check into my favourite boutique hotel, Campbell House where I’ve stayed often. The owners, now friends, have made each room unique, inspired by the country’s heritage, and I know that it will be the perfect start to my two-month sojourn. I spend four days in the familiar embrace of the hotel while exploring anew. I see old acquaintances and rejoice in vibrant street life. I marvel at shophouses and revel in the odd trishaw journey. I savour Penang’s enticing, iconic street food. I attend a Literature Festival, stroll through temples, seek out my favourite lanes and courtyards. But mostly I walk, walk and walk some more, finding myself coming to life as I’m immersed in the streetscapes of Georgetown.
My days come to a peaceful close on the Campbell House terrace with a glass of wine. As the sun sinks gently over the iconic shophouses and temples, the town is bathed in a palette of golden hues, the evening call to prayer drifting languidly over the rooftops. It recalls so vividly the Middle Eastern countries we’ve called home, fond memories of our time in Qatar and Oman infusing my reverie. As the humidity does its usual and frizzles my hair, the heat and ever-present tropical-green restores my travellers soul. It seems I’m home on so many levels… the delight in the familiar yet the anticipation of serendipity, wrapped in the comforting recollections of the past. And, oddly, I feel no jet-lag… perhaps it’s all a little too exhilarating for such folly!
Up On Penang Hill…
It’s early afternoon as we make our way up Penang Hill. It’s a coveted spot with spectacular vistas some 820 metres above sea level. I’ve been here a handful of times and always with anticipation as we snake our way up the narrow, twisty road. It’s lined with towering trees and dense jungle growth, playful monkeys welcoming you from the roadside. Invariably, committed walkers steadily trek their way up the hill, some even daily. I’m reminded of the not too distant past when the Colonials made their way either on horseback or were carried in their sedan chairs or palanquins. Evidently, it required four to eight coolies (depending on the weight of the passenger) for the three-hour trek along a path hacked through the dense jungle. Initially it was the government staff, then the convalescing, the curious travellers, then the bungalow owners, all seeking the cool, healthy air of the Hill.
It wasn’t long after Francis Light had claimed the island for the British East India Company (EIC) that he ordered an outpost built at the top of what would be called Flagstaff Hill. In 1803-05, Bel Retiro, likely the first bungalow, became a retreat for Governors and staff. As the Hill offers views beyond to the horizon, Flagstaff became an important post for defending the British’s newest settlement – then called Prince of Wales Island – along with Fort Cornwallis along the shore. Approaching ships spotted in the distance, triggered an alert communicated by semaphore – a system of relaying messages by flag – to personnel at the fort below. Perhaps the mail ship was nearing – at the end of its six-month journey from head office in London – prompting a crisp signal flagging that the Governor was making his way down the hill to greet the mail. Or perhaps it was an unidentified ship that portended trouble? Either way, a return down from the hill to the heat, the swampy land, and to the place of ‘jungle fever’ of the new settlement gave pause.
The root cause of malaria, a mosquito-born disease, wasn’t discovered until the end of the 1800’s, hence the attribution to ‘bad air’. Good health was a major preoccupation with early settlers in places like Penang and the other EIC settlements. Death was ever present in both young and old. Out of 35 Governors and Civil Servants appointed to Penang between 1805 – 1825, at least twenty died, along with countless wives and children. Many deaths were attributed to miasma – noxious or ‘night’ air – and prompted the EIC to build Hill Stations, both in India and Malaysia. Always located in higher, cooler altitudes than the sites of EIC bases presidencies – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Penang – Hill Stations were seen as an integral luxury for leisure and convalescing. When Penang became a Presidency in 1805, the convalescent bungalows became well frequented. As the fame of the Hill grew and the demand for convalescent accommodation increased, those not qualified to stay at the EIC bungalows would secure coveted plots and construct their own; with the permission of the EIC and, in those Colonial times, exclusively Anglo-Saxons.
After Prince of Wales Island was declared a Presidency, company and military staff were posted in ever greater numbers. The island even gained a reputation as the ‘Montpelier of India’ not only for its perceived healthy climate, but also for its distinctive topography. This romantic notion was cultivated by Government staff mostly from Scotland and England who held that the island evoked qualities of home but in a ‘tropical picturesque’ sense. Most of the residents and visitors to the island professed that ascending the Hill was equalled only in the Scottish Highlands, or in the Alps. Even the attap roofs of the bungalows were romantically associated with the thatched roofs of cottages in Britain.
The idea of ‘picturesque’ was proposed in an essay by Edmund Burke in the 1750’s as a novel way of perceiving and describing nature. In the 1790’s other essays by William Gilpin influenced the way travellers described landscapes… adopting words like picturesque, sublime and exotic. This language soon spread through the Grand Tours of Europe, a new lexicon that helped promote travel. These romantic literary expressions prompted writers and visitors to present Penang as a tropical island of abundance and promise. Soon, the many advertisements in the 1800’s spoke to the reverence with which Penang Hill was regarded.
‘The salubrious climate at considerable elevation.’ ‘The skies of Penang are always clear and serene, a purity of atmosphere.’ ‘Beautifully situated on the hill and exhilarating for invalids who come down from the other presidencies to obtain relief – a restoration of one’s constitution.’
Sir James Brooke, The White Rajah of Sarawak made two visits. ‘Repeated attacks of the infernal fever. I have resolved to retire for three months to the quiet and cool climate of the Hill of Penang. I feel pretty sure it would completely restore my health.’ And gushing enthusiasm from James Johnson, known as the oriental voyager from 1803-6, ‘So strikingly beautiful and grand… I could not help feasting my eyes, for hours together, within undiminished delight, on the romantic scenery with nature, assisted by art, had scattered around in bountiful profusion.’
Today the scene is still one of tranquillity, sweeping vistas and mostly a tangle of untamed jungle. But there’s no need for a palanquin or a 4×4; a narrow-gauge railway now shuttles most visitors to the top. A visit to The Habitat Penang Hill is essential, a stroll past the iconic bungalows perched on hillsides is charming, or visit The Crag where many a TV series has been filmed. Do have tea at Strawberry Hill, and if you’re as lucky as I was, treat yourself to a stay.
It’s late afternoon as my friend and I settle ourselves on the terrace of Eythrope her family’s grand home, now exquisitely reimagined as a boutique hotel. Built in 1929 and enjoying a prominent position near the top of the hill, it’s a simple, elegant Bauhaus influenced design with an exterior of pebbled earth inspired by the popular Arts and Craft Movement of the time. The original owner, E.H. Bulford, was issued the jewel-of-a-lot after a career in a Penang stockbroking firm. The view still, as it was then, is breathtaking. Beyond the canopy of sky-reaching trees and the labyrinth of jungle, Georgetown unfolds far below, backdropped by the soft-blue waters and distant mainland.
It’s just before sunset, a bottle of UMAMU wine is open and another is chilling in anticipation of long conversation. For hours, we’ll do nothing more than share stories, sip, dine and marvel endlessly at the changing vista before us. And sometime through the sublime evening, I pen this verse in my journal, indeed while ‘feasting my eyes’.
Ode to Penang Hill
With a dear friend, past designs made new, reimagining comfort and elegance… atop exquisite Penang Hill.
Simple lines meet lush green and tall palms, shadows against soft blue waters.
Birdsong and cricket cacophony, the twill of a horn-bill, the flit and swoop of swallows.
Now the rumble of thunder as the splash of hues – crimsons, pinks, lemon-drop yellows and dreamy whites – wash luxuriously across the sky.
Oh how I dream of these vistas. Ferns flowing over hillsides. Coconuts dropped to jungle floors. Terracotta roof tiles, russet squares on verdant green. And tropical flowers like make-believe… monkey cups, wild ginger and orchids.
The wonderment of time and a treasured space – silent yet bursting with whispers, with wisps of clouds shifting and floating across the bay.
City lights now shimmer against the growing dusk. The thrum of nocturnal jungle life now a deafening pitch. Golden orioles swoon to a bamboo perch. Trees sway and shudder as dusky leaf monkeys mingle and frolic.
A chill, as swirling mist obscures the vista. Then clearing to unfurl still more ethereal views. I feel such gratitude for this perfect evening.