It seems very little is written about the history of a key location like Ayer Itam (I take the liberty of using the old spelling here). And since Penang Monthly is running some articles about the village in this issue, I decided to seek out some writing on it to satisfy my nostalgia, and for your reading pleasure.
“AYER ITAM, an important place, is situated at the junction of the hill roads leading to BALEK PULAU and RELAU. It is the terminus of the Penang Tramway and is noted for its large cocoanut and fruit plantations. There are extensive nutmeg and clove plantations on the Hills, also a Reservoir. The Chinese Temple here is one of Penang’s chief attractions for sightseers.”
This account is found in the fourth edition of A School Geography and History of Penang, written by the Headmaster of St Anthony’s Boys’ School, the first edition of which came out in 1910. It was for use in Penang schools, so some Penang elders may remember it.
Ayer Itam is the place you aim for when you wish to get to Penang Hill by tram, when you feel like visiting the Kek Lok Si Temple, or the Air Itam dam, the wet market or the reservoir, and when you have a craving for some authentic Penang laksa.
In the wonderfully detailed description of Penang’s early days, written by F.G. Stevens and titled “A Contribution to the early history of Prince of Wales’ Island”, published in October 1929 as Volume VII Part II of the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, we find some mention of the place.
It had been proposed in 1807 by the Roads Committee, formed seven years earlier to handle transportation matters in George Town and beyond, that brick bridges be built “which led from the Dato Kramat Kampong into the Ayer Itam Valley”. Stevens recaps the Committee’s minutes thus:
“Passing Kelso Bridge the road into the Ayer Itam and Relau valleys, then lined with pepper and incipient spice [probably newly imported crops of nutmeg and cloves] plantations, crossed the river at various points. It would seem that in 1807 the work was first taken in hand of equipping this road with bridges; and the construction of Suffolk bridge, among others, may be assigned to this period.
“Near the point where the road turned to the left up to the Relau valley, and not many hundred yards short of the present terminus of the Hill Railway, lay the famous Amee’s mill, famous not only from the frequent references that appear to it in early accounts of the island, but also from Captain Smith’s picture. Extensive traces of this old mill may still be found in the bed of the stream, to the right of the road at the point where it begins to ascend to the Railway station; and an amazing number of old granite grind-stones still litter the banks and bed of the stream. The old mill in its beautiful surroundings, and the great tree which grew apparently a mile or two up the Relau valley, were the favourite evening resorts of the residents in the early days of the Presidency.
“Other roads which appear from the Municipal records to have been put into a state of repair at this time were “the great road to the south,” or “the road to Sungei Kluang,” now known as Green Lane, and a semi-circular road joining this road to the Ayer Itam road, now known as Batu Lanchang Lane.”
If we really look, perhaps there is far more to be discovered about Penang’s historical locales than we imagine.