The high life: Growing up on the peak

loading Goh Thiang Siang, caretaker of The White House.

For many Penangites, the Hill is a place for Sunday morning hikes, a slice of nature close to the city. But some people remember growing up on its slopes and still call the highlands home today.

From George Town, Penang Hill is a quiet presence, a thought that barely registers even as it looms in the background. It appears intermittently throughout the city: turn a corner and it’s there, grey and distant, like an old friend you run into briefly on the street. The crumbling villas that dot the hillside are a ghostly souvenir of colonial grandeur that has long since decayed, fading memories of a half-remembered empire.

But there are those for whom the Hill was – and still is – home. I meet Tan Boon Kuan and Goh Thiang Siang, Ah Siang for short, at the Penang Turf Club to hear stories about life on Penang’s highlands. Tan, an elegant man with a high forehead and arching eyebrows, is the child of migrants from China. He called Penang Hill home between 1954 and 1970 – living there first in a house called “Richmond” and later at a villa named “Southview”. His father worked as a caretaker for City Hall – which owned the bungalows – and as security guard and butler; he looked after the houses when they weren’t in use and made sure things ran smoothly when there was company. It is clear from Tan’s humour and easy way with words that he grew up in a family that regularly entertained guests.

Ah Siang is a caretaker himself, like his father and grandfather before him. He looks after a bungalow owned by the Penang Turf Club, “The White House”, where he was actually born. He supplements his income by growing flowers and vegetables in its garden, coming down from the Hill on a daily basis to sell his produce at the local market.

Childhood on the Hill

What was it like growing up on the Hill? Less isolated than it might sound at first, according to Tan. “So many families… It was just like a small kampong,” he reminisces.

There were many children too. “Last time we’d get together, we’d play with gasing, with elastic bands. We’d go to Tiger Hill, play in the stream.” The picture Tan paints of life on the Hill is one of bucolic nostalgia, an image of midcentury Malaysia reminiscent of an advert.

It was not all play, of course. Tan attended Kong Ming Primary at the foot of the Hill, and the old funicular railway was his school bus. “The first train in the morning, at 6.30am, was packed with kids. Even when I took that first train down, I was always late,” says Tan. “On top of that, the funicular broke down quite often. So we walked. For the children, we were very happy. But for the older generation, it was a horrible experience.

“When we came back from afternoon school, we’d have a torchlight and a raincoat.” The streetlights were far apart, and sometimes lightning would knock the power out. But the children knew the Hill intimately, for this was their home.

Tan remembers the old funicular carriage, with its wooden walls and manually-operated doors. “Halfway, you had to change trains,” he says. Back then, the journey lasted considerably longer than it does today. “Nowadays we don’t take the train; we take the Jeep Track.”

Visits to George Town were few and far between. The Hill was “self-contained. Only for marketing did we go down to Air Itam.

“We had a clinic. No doctor, just a hospital attendant. A post office, a police station, a temple, a mosque. It was a small community. There used to be two Telekom men up there. They had their own quarters.”

Despite the lack of a doctor, many children were born on the Hill. Ah Siang was one of them. With no doctor, it came down to a midwife to deliver the babies. The pair tells me stories of children born on the Jeep Track and under trees. Life was not easy for women on the Hill.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Hill’s community still had an active social life. The bungalows, belonging to the City Council, Public Works Department (PWD) or prominent companies, were a weekend retreat for staff. This was where the caretakers really shined: “When people come, you cook for them. Then there’s the upkeep of the bungalow: changing the sheets – like a hotel,” says Tan, enumerating his parents’ role.

It was a way of life carried on from the colonial era. These houses were built for the British, who took to the Hill for respite from the tropical heat. Founded in the early days of the colony, this was the earliest “hill-station” in British India, predating Simla and Darjeeling.

The Hill also reinforced social hierarchies, placing the British colonisers quite literally above non-European Penangites; well into the 20th century, non-whites were not allowed to build their homes above Viaduct Station. It was a pattern of segregation practiced in the hill-stations across British India, a tangible reminder of who was in charge.

The White House.

The completion of the Penang Hill Railway in the 1920s facilitated a boom in house-building on the Hill. It was no longer necessary to hike – or to be carried in a sedan chair by coolies – up the Hill. Unlike the light and airy homes the British built for themselves in George Town, houses on the Hill were solidly built from stone. Where townhouses adopted elements of Malay and Indian architecture to deal with the climate, the cooler weather on Penang Hill allowed Europeans to build themselves a slice of “home”. They did so in granite and stained glass. With names like “Fairmont”, “Claremont”, “Bel Retiro” and “Grace Dieu”, Penang’s hilltop homes were designed to cocoon their owners from the reality of life in the tropics.

According to Tan, some colonial characters endured well into the 1950s. “There used to be a Brit called ‘Major Allan’. He used to go up and down every day. Every day when we went to school we’d see him.”

With Merdeka, however, the Union Jack was forever lowered over Malaya, and the British came down from the Hill. The city of George Town and a number of local towkays soon assumed ownership of these trophy houses. For Penang’s high society, a new era was beginning.

What remained was the sense of community on the Hill. During Chinese New Year, the various caretakers would visit each other’s families bearing gifts. “We walked from house to house,” says Tan. “There were a lot of caretakers. They mingled.”

Tan marked the milestones of his life up on the Hill. “I got married up there,” he says, a smile tracing across his lips, “right on the top.

“It was a simple life. Last time it was quite peaceful. You could sleep with your door open.” The biggest concern for the denizens of the Hill was not robbers, but dangers of the slithery kind. “There are a lot of snakes in the jungle,” Tan says.

Home no longer

Both Tan and Ah Siang have their doubts about the future of life on the Hill.

“It isn’t like before,” says Tan, “when my parents cared for Richmond. There’d be guests on weekends.” Now many government and company-owned houses remain underutilised, or even abandoned. “Even PWD houses… the upkeep is not like before. There are a few private bungalows; people still stay up there, but fewer people do these days.”

With a view like this, it's not hard to imagine settling down in Penang Hill.

Why has this happened? According to both, changing tastes have meant the Hill is no longer a desirable weekend getaway. The families who once called the Hill home have also dispersed.

The owners of hilltop bungalows might open their homes up once or twice a year. Other houses are less fortunate, left to crumble under the pressure of the vines and trees that are gradually reclaiming their stones for the Hill. A home on the Hill isn’t the status symbol it used to be; in an age of global capital, trophy homes are just as likely to be overseas. And with cheap air fares democratising travel, a weekend getaway need not be confined to the island. The villas on Penang Hill face an identity crisis.

“I think Ah Siang is the last generation to live there. In the future, I think people will go up for work and come back down again. It’s more convenient,” says Tan. “He will work until he can’t work anymore. Then he will stop… he will be staying up there for quite some time though.”

Ah Siang agrees: “Bô-lâng. Bô-internet (No people. No Internet),” he says, outlining why he thinks the younger generation shies away from living and working on the Hill.

There are other problems too: a caretaker’s wages aren’t enough to support a family, and farming – the most common source of secondary income for caretakers – is hard work. “It’s a dying trade,” says Ah Siang. “The young ones don’t want to do it.” Indeed, his wife and children prefer to live in Farlim, at the bottom of the Hill. On his motorbike, Ah Siang makes the trip up and down the Hill every day. For now he intends to stay put.

Tan would like to stay on the Hill again too. “For me, if I had a place to stay, I’d like to stay there. I mean, it’s nice to live there. There are so many places to walk. But I think it’s not appealing to the younger generation.”

To live on the Hill is to live one step removed from the present, to keep the noise and smog of George Town at arm’s length, the city lights sparkling in the distance. In an era of instant digital connection, Penang Hill maintains a sense of splendid isolation. So as we battle with the pace of modern life, and as peace, space and calm become precious commodities, perhaps it is time to reclaim the quiet luxury afforded by Penang Hill for ourselves.

Soon-Tzu Speechley studied History and Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is now an editor and research assistant at Areca Books, a member of the Penang Heritage Trust, and a shaper at the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community George Town Hub.

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