Located between city and sea, and hill and beach, Penang’s famed outskirt undergoes changes good and bad.
“If it hadn’t been for our families back home, I think most of us would have stayed forever.” The simple but poignant words of Tony Birkett, a Royal Air Force (RAF) serviceman who was stationed in Penang during the early 1960s, sum up how a lot of visitors feel about the state. The airman was then attached to the RAF Cottesmore’s Victor Bombers of No. 10 Squadron. He published his memories of his time in Penang in England’s Derby Telegraph in 20151, with a specific mention of escapades in Tanjung Bungah – an area that housed many armed forces personnel who were sent here during the Emergency and the Confrontation periods. Formerly a sleepy fishing village on Penang Island’s north coast, Tanjung Bungah’s pristine beaches and picturesque shores soon turned the place into an attractive swimming destination. This was before neighbouring Batu Ferringhi gained world fame.
Now dotted with high-rise developments and exclusive landed properties, Tanjung Bungah has become a magnet for expatriates and upper middle class locals. It is squeezed between the old and the new: between a colourful past and conflicting versions of what the future will be.
Living in Paradise
It was 1968 when Datuk Welf Atzberger and his wife, Susan, first stepped onto Penang. Newly married and in their early twenties, it was the couple’s first time to Asia and the duo were not even sure where Malaysia was on the map. “It was hard to get information on different places back then but no, it was not scary. Why would it have been scary? We are not easily terrified people, we are adventurers! We don’t see the risk, we see the beauty,” Welf says, sharing a fond look with Susan.
“It was hard to get information on different places back then but no, it was not scary. Why would it have been scary? We are not easily terrified people, we are adventurers! We don’t see the risk, we see the beauty,” Welf says, sharing a fond look with Susan.
Welf, then an engineering department manager at Behn Meyer, a well-established German trading company, left first for Penang by air while Susan followed by sea, making a solo six-week journey by cargo ship from Hamburg. Although there were other German expatriates living here at the time, the Atzbergers stood out slightly from their peers for several reasons: Welf was the first married German man to be sent by his company, and at the birth of the couple’s first son in 1970, Susan was the only German woman living in the state. “Trading companies liked to send out unmarried German men because they would be able to stay focused while on the road. I was the first married German man to be sent here and my manager at the time did not like it very much because it cost more money for him than if they had sent a bachelor!” Welf laughs.
During their three-year posting in Penang, the Atzbergers stayed at Jalan Hamilton but spent a lot of their time in Tanjung Bungah, where many of the Western emigrants lived. “In the 1970s Tanjung Bungah was a prime residential area for Western people and Australian military personnel. Over the weekend, we used to meet at the beaches in Batu Ferringhi, and Lone Pine Hotel was a watering hole for Western people,” Welf recalls.
Tanjung Bungah Market food court.
Leaving the state in 1971, the couple moved to Hong Kong for several years and then to Switzerland for over two decades where banking facilities were favourable to Welf’s business pursuits. Penang, however, stayed in their hearts and the couple returned every year, often staying one to three months in comfortable hotels. Seven years ago, the couple applied for a Malaysia My Second Home status and purchased a place of their own. “When we were looking for an apartment, we thought: Tanjung Bungah is halfway to Batu Ferringhi and halfway to the city. The location is quite nice. Now, we have the option of all kinds of great food nearby, along with Tesco and Cold Storage which give us the convenience that we didn’t have years ago,” Welf says, adding that the couple are in the country a good eight months of the year.
On Tanjung Bungah, the couple says that although there have been changes to the area, the character of the place remains the same. “There are more high-rise buildings, but we also live in a high-rise, so I can’t say too much about it. Years ago, it was difficult to buy certain things but with more shops coming up, you can pretty much find what you can get in Europe, only it is a bit more expensive,” Susan says.
Traffic and the occasional haze have also worsened, they say, but not to a point where they would ever consider living anywhere else. “For us, Penang is paradise. We have good healthcare here, good restaurants, good food, good internet connection and television. We have very good friends from all over the world here. Penang provides everything,” Welf says.
As for the climate and the humidity, he sums it all up by exclaiming: “A cold beer tastes better when it’s hot!”
Between Two Worlds
For decades, Tanjung Bungah enjoyed a reputation as home to a select, affluent society. With large landed properties – many of which were living quarters for Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel stationed here in the 1960s and 1970s – and high-end luxury condominiums, influence and wealth cannot help but be associated with the area.
Long-term resident Ivan Teoh, 32, says, one other thing is prevalent in Tanjung Bungah: the sense of community. “It’s true that for the longest time, there seemed to be two types of communities who live in Tanjung Bungah: the wealthier group who live near the main road ( Jalan Tanjung Bungah), on Pearl Hill and Hillside, and the rest of us! I would say the clear majority of people here are ‘uptown’ people but I’m definitely a ‘downtown boy’,” he jokes.
The road to Tanjung Bungah.
Living in the Concord residential estate, Teoh says most of the residents in his small, peaceful community have been there for decades. “Tanjung Bungah is one of those places where you really know your neighbours. In fact, I know everyone on my street and have grown up with all the younger people in my area, even though we went to different schools,” says Teoh, a banking professional.
He says that currently, few people around his age remain in Concord as job opportunities have drawn most of the young away. “In general, Tanjung Bungah is more of a neighbourhood, not a commercial area. If you’re looking for business districts, we have Batu Ferringhi further up or Fettes Park on the other side, but Tanjung Bungah is mainly a suburb. In Penang as a whole, job opportunities for younger adults are concentrated in places like the city and the industrial zone. Young working individuals like to stay closer to work because work plays such an important role in their lives, taking up most of their time. So, to cut travel time and avoid traffic jams, most prefer to stay close to the office,” he adds.
Teoh says nothing much has really changed in Tanjung Bungah over the years, save the development of new housing estates. “Back when I was small, there weren’t very many high-rise buildings, but now, it seems every development here involves some sort of high-rise. There are only three roads in and out of Tanjung Bungah: through Tanjung Tokong, Vale of Tempe or Balik Pulau, on the other side of the island. Everyone in Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi share these roads and they are not very big roads.
“With more and more developments, it’s getting more and more congested. Personally, I don’t mind them building new homes, just build us a new road as well,” says Teoh, who spends an hour in traffic every morning and afternoon getting to and from his office in Raja Uda on the mainland.
Datuk Renji Sathiah.
Hill cutting and environmental concerns have been major points of discussion and debate, along with the Teluk Bahang- Tanjung Bungah paired road proposed under the Penang Transport Master Plan. But Teoh is more concerned about the pressing needs of the people in the area. “A lot of us here are practical and are just trying to make a living, so I’m in support of alternatives and new roads. I do understand that it’s difficult to stop development in the area because most of the land here is privately owned. It’s just important that whatever road that is going to be built does not lead back into the few small roads we currently have,” he says, adding that state and local authorities should also work to ensure that developers who embark on new housing projects equally prioritise the mandatory upgrading of surrounding roads to limit traffic congestion during construction periods.
But even with the worsening traffic, Teoh says life in the cape is a good one, with simple people for company and an environment that is a balm to frazzled nerves. “If you’re the kind of person who loves being in the heart of the action, Tanjung Bungah is not for you. We are a much more relaxed community that likes balance. I, for one, don’t really demand much from where I stay. I can find food and if I want something more upscale, I am not too far from Fettes Park or Gurney Drive. Sundry shops and groceries are also available nearby. Basic requirements can all be found close by,” he says.
Chic houses abound in Tanjung Bungah.
And, for Teoh, almost any inconvenience is offset by the luxury of being near the coast. “Penang people and the beach… We have an indescribable chemistry. You always feel good staying near the sea. Here, I have the hills on one side and the sea on the other. So, when I’m stressed, I go to the beach. It’s so nearby,” he says.
Thumbing Through Alternatives
Penangites do feel the same affection Teoh has for their natural surroundings. With central districts like Gelugor, Jelutong and Air Itam reaching their capacity for development, areas on Penang Island’s outskirts – both to the north and south – are becoming more attractive. The pressure is increasing on these areas.
Young professionals with money to spend are flowing steadily into the area looking for homes, and this in turn is spurring more housing developments and small businesses in the area. This has also raised questions and concerns about the direction in which Tanjung Bungah is headed. The mushrooming of high-rise structures along the state’s northern coastline has been worrying many.
With more residents comes a need for more residential areas – not without a cost.
Tanjung Bungah Residents’ Association (TBRA) chairman Datuk Renji Sathiah says the rapid changes appear to have been happening without a proper vision or plan. “Since I moved to Penang in 2005, the changes that I’ve witnessed in Tanjung Bungah are quite dramatic in the sense that there was previously an atmosphere of this area being a village. It was quite quiet and laid back. Now, that’s gone and it’s very busy as you can see from the traffic. There is intensive construction going on.” He stresses that that no one in TBRA is against development, provided it is well thoughtout. “We just hope that people’s concerns about things like the environment, accessibility and the need for public transport and public open spaces are taken into account,” the former diplomat says.
His views are echoed by Datuk Dr Leong Yueh Kwong, TBRA’s immediate past chairman and like Renji, a board member of the Penang Green Council. In essence, Leong chalks up many of Tanjung Bungah’s problems to ambiguities in the Penang Structure Plan (PSP) 2020 that was mooted in 2007. The Structure Plan is a crucial document for state authorities that lays down development planning policies as well as policies connected to land use in both the city and its outskirts. Aside from encompassing a physical plan for the state, one of its main objectives is to set a direction for both planners and executors of development.2
In 2012 and again in April last year, it was announced that the current PSP would be revised under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172), which requires the plan to come under review every five years. The revised data – compiled in the PSP 2020 Survey Report – was released on December 1 and was put on display until January 31 for public viewing, with feedback considered for both PSP 2020 and PSP 2030.
For now, however, Dr Leong says the foremost concern in the area are the roads. “The most serious and immediate consideration is the transport system. The roads to Tanjung Bungah from both Mount Erskine and Tanjung Tokong lead to bottlenecks, and therefore traffic piles up,” he says. The narrow Mount Erskine Road, he elaborates, has been converted into a type of “highway” by northbound road users – something it was not designed for.
The Tanjung Bungah night market.
In mid-October, a section of the road leading to Vale of Tempe collapsed, forcing authorities to evacuate a number of residents from Pepper Estate and to close a 3km-stretch of the route for three months. Rain and the frequent use of the road by heavy vehicles were blamed for the collapse, and repairs done by the Public Works Department were completed by mid-January.
Sharing the Suburb
Signs warning heavy vehicles not to ply the Vale of Tempe road.
Datuk Seri Nazir Ariff has lived on Pearl Hill for the last quarter of a century, and remembers the first meeting the group ever held. “It was in the hall above the Tanjung Bungah Market and there were about 200 to 300 people present. I was one of the first members and I donated RM1,000 to open their first bank account. The initial idea of TBRA was to look after the environment of Tanjung Bungah and to remind the government of certain responsibilities. But it was a very friendly organisation,” he says.
Environmentalists, he recalls, made up much of the group’s first committee and after that, a few expatriates joined. Then, Nazir claims, more assertive individuals took charge. “It has evolved into a very aggressive organisation. If you want to ask or campaign for something, you can do it in a nice way or a nasty way, but they often choose the nasty way. You also have a group of very frustrated expatriates who came here and want to live in this country but they want to make sure that nothing ever changes here. That’s not fair. We are a developing country, so there must be housing and development for the people here,” he states.
Fresh produce up for sale at the morning market.
Conceding that there are always pros and cons to modernisation, Nazir says that many have benefitted from development in Tanjung Bungah, which has resulted in an influx of heterogeneous residents. “There were very few restaurants around the area about 10 years ago, but now, you don’t really have to go to town for food. We have everything from Indian to Italian and a really great hawker food centre near The Cove. There’s really everything you need in Tanjung Bungah,” he says.
On traffic woes, Nazir says the situation is quite taxing during peak hours, but that is a price residents have to pay for living in an attractive suburb. “Personally, I can leave for work at 9am, but if you try to get out at 7.30am or 8am, you’re stuck. That’s part of life, though, especially when you’re young and starting to make your way. In the end, we can’t be selfish and just want to keep Tanjung Bungah to ourselves,” he says.
Cyclists having a break at a beach in Tanjung Bungah, soaking up the view.
Having lived in almost every corner of Penang island, the WWF Malaysia advisory board member believes he has found the quintessential spot in the state to stay. Born in Air Itam and having grown up in Green Lane, Nazir spent much of his adult life in company quarters on Jalan Macalister and proudly says he was one of the first highrise residents in Tanjung Bungah, securing a unit in the Horizon Tower condominium in the late 1980s. “I have the sea in front and a hill at the back and altogether, I find it very peaceful. The environment is better, the air is better and the water is purer and sweeter. We get it from the Guillemard Reservoir,” he says.
Nazir travels out of the country a lot, but always looks forward to coming back to Tanjung Bungah. After all, there’s no place like home, and at the everexpanding Tanjung Bungah, life is good.
Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.