A fascinating hike on Pulau Jerejak offers a rare glimpse into Penang’s history.
Most Penangites are aware of Pulau Jerejak, located between Penang Island and the mainland, with the two bridges to its north and its south. But few have taken the ferry across to explore the island, and even fewer are aware of its historical significance. I have hiked here twice – once in 2012 and again earlier this year; in the intervening years this already neglected piece of Penang’s heritage has sadly noticeably decayed further.
After a pleasant 10-minute boat ride across the water from the jetty near Queensbay Mall we disembarked at the jetty by the hotel, the Jerejak Rainforest Resort. This resort, which opened in 2004, is slowly deteriorating, like almost everything else on the island. In 2012 a newly opened suspension bridge and “flying fox” were proving popular with guests; these are now abandoned. The signboards in the lobby summarises the history of Pulau Jerejak, but – perhaps understandably – without admitting that the resort is built on the site of a former leprosy camp.
The island played important roles throughout Penang’s colonial history and into its relatively recent postcolonial present. As early as 1871, the first leprosy camp was opened to provide refuge and to segregate sufferers of the thenincurable and terrifying disease from the rest of society.
A few years later, a quarantine station was opened on the island for newly arrived migrants. There they would stay until it was ascertained that they carried no smallpox, cholera, or other communicable diseases.
Our guide supervising our climb up the hill.
A larger quarantine station was built on the north of the island in 1910, capable of housing up to 3,500 people.
Meanwhile, the facilities for lepers were also expanded, and Jerejak became a centre of excellence for the treatment of leprosy as well as home for lepers from Singapore, Malacca, and the Federated Malay States. A separate camp was set up for Eurasian lepers, and a jail was built to house lepers who misbehaved.
The jail was built in 1930 to detain lepers for crimes such as opium smoking or inter-clan conflict.
These settlements became active agricultural communities, possessing schools, churches, temples, social clubs and even a band. By the 1930s, there were 1,500 lepers living in five camps dotted across the island, the most modern of which housed their populations in comfortable garden chalets. It was indeed the model leprosy settlement in the British Empire, a pioneer in its medical approach and in its relatively humane treatment of the sufferers.
The island was almost completely abandoned during World War II, but in 1946 about 200 survivors of the Burma-Siam Death Railway established temporary residence there. In 1948 a tuberculosis sanatorium was opened there, and in the 1950s a Buddhist temple, a mosque and a community hall were built to serve the 500 or so cured lepers who lived there and who worked as fishermen, farmers and businessmen.
After Independence, the Malaysian government closed the medical treatment centres and turned Pulau Jerejak into a prison camp. It operated as a penal colony until 1993. Up to 1,000 prisoners stayed there; in the prison’s earliest days, these were detainees from the 1969 race riots; later on, they were drug offenders and murderers.
A Heritage Trail
Parts of this fascinating history are still discernible to hikers, although the jungle is rapidly reclaiming its last vestiges. We set out from the resort’s “garden” along the rubbishstrewn beach, over a large boulder, and joined the end of the Razak Trail. On our previous visit in 2012, this trail was well marked with State Forestry Department signboards every 50 metres. The majority of these have now disappeared, although the trail is still quite easy to follow. It begins next to an old cooking stove – perhaps all that now remains of the chalets of the camp that were occupied by married lepers from the 1930s until the 1960s.
Abandoned cooking stove.
The trail headed quite steeply uphill at first for a few minutes, but within 20 minutes we were over the top and down close to sea level on the other side. Here we caught sight of the jail. This 12-room facility was built in 1930 to detain lepers for crimes such as opium smoking or inter-clan conflict. Now the buildings are in ruins and adorned with tree roots reminiscent of the temples of Angkor Wat.
Just the other side of the jail at a small, dilapidated bridge, the path forked. We took the right fork. Trees had made it impassable but fortunately a couple of our hikers were equipped with machetes and had soon cleared enough debris for us to pass. After 15 minutes winding through the undergrowth we caught a glimpse of the sea on our left. Following a path on our right up the hill away from the sea, we reached a couple of gateposts, which marked the entrance to a reservoir and dam. Apparently there were as many as four of these dams built in different locations on the island to provide fresh water for its inhabitants before pump water was available.
Looking down into a bunker.
We made our way back though the gateposts and followed the path for another 10 minutes before discovering some mysterious bunkers. Four circular brick openings that look much like wells were all that was visible of the bunkers, but beneath each of these was a chamber 15 feet wide by 30 feet long. Their original purpose has been forgotten, but they may possibly have been ammunition storage.
After 10 more minutes of walking, the path opened onto the beach again, and we saw several fish farms operating close to the shore. Ahead of us on the rocks were brick structures – remains of the former tuberculosis sanatorium. Most of the buildings in this area have now been completely demolished or are overgrown with weeds. One, built in 1930, is still intact, and has been appropriated as a Chinese shrine. This is also the location of a memorial to two Russian soldiers who washed up on the beach in 1914 during the Battle of Penang, when the German SMS Emden sank the Russian Zhemchug. The soldiers were buried by the lepers living there. Later, the gravestones were replaced with a memorial, which is also now falling into disrepair.
We retraced our steps back towards the jail and took the other fork, which led us onto the Balqis Trail. Like the Razak Trail, in 2012 it had been easy to follow and clearly signposted, but now it has become overgrown and less visible. Nevertheless, it is straightforward enough to follow as it clings to the shoreline.
Hidden within the trees to our left are other ruined buildings. These are part of the Eurasian leper settlement. After a few more minutes walking along what was once a tarmac road, the trail turned left. To the right was the entrance to a shipyard, which was built sometime in the 1970s or 1980s on the site of another leprosy settlement. It is said that a Catholic church was built in 1896 within the grounds, but it is off-limits to visitors.
The tarmac road, while decaying, was flat and easy to walk along – lovely in parts as it cut through the forest between the hills of the island. Within 20 minutes, we had reached the now-closed suspension bridge and flying fox, and were back within the resort’s grounds. As we relaxed with a cold beer while waiting for the ferry back to Penang Island, we reflected sadly on the lost stories of the former residents of this neglected island.
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.
THE HIKE AT A GLANCE
Map of trails on Pulau Jerejak.