An Ultimate Reference Guide to Penang Hill

loading Penang Hill – A journey through time by Mike Gibby. Entrepot Publishing 2017.

Photos and stories aplenty in this volume to fascinate any lover of the island’s highlands.

This comprehensive book will appeal to anyone who has plodded his or her way meditatively along a hill trail, or been driven in a buggy along Summit Road while asking themselves questions: what are these enormous boulders made from? Who lived in that bungalow and where did its name come from? Why are the hiker rest stops called “84” and “46”? What was the original purpose of the structure here, which is now just a pile of rubble strewn over the jungle floor? Penang Hill – A journey through time contains the answers to all of these, and many more facts and anecdotes which appeal to anyone susceptible to the charm of Penang’s Great Hill.

Mike Gibby is a British-born educator who has spent most of his life in South-East Asia and now lives in Penang. He is a keen hiker, biker, photographer and explorer of the many wonders of Penang; his favourite questions are “how?” and “why?” His other books on Malaysia include: Street Art Penang Style and Crowned with the Stars: The Life and Times of Don Carlos Cuarteron, First Prefect of Borneo 1816-1880.

Dragons guard the stairs of Mon Sejour. Mike

Penang Hill – A journey through time began life as his exploration of the Hill’s hiking trails’ history expanded to include the history of the Hill bungalows, and ultimately grew into an all-embracing and far-reaching illustrated history of Penang Hill.

Exhaustively researched, extensively referenced and affectionately written, the book leads the reader chapter by chapter through geology, bungalow architecture, conservation, the Hill’s development as a health resort, attempts to develop tourism, colonial era politics and finances, the ups-and-downs of the Hill Railway, the European-only policy, the Second World War, life under the curfew during the Emergency, the experiences of Hainanese domestic workers on the Hill, and much more. Each chapter includes dozens of photographs and images, many of which have never been previously published.

As an enthusiastic hiker himself, Mike unveils the recollections of perhaps the first hiker, William Scott (nephew of James Scott, business partner to the settlement’s founder, Francis Light), who kept records of his hikes here between 1794 and 1796. We also see photos of the PHCL Ramblers, a Chinese hiking group very active between 1915 and 1925. We are brought up to date with the chapter entitled “Walking with History”, in which Mike describes eight hiking trails, of lengths varying between 3.5km and 14km, with clear directions and beautiful accompanying photos.

In his historical research, Mike has uncovered little-known facts and personal stories of the Hill’s residents and visitors, and uses quotes and illustrations from multiple sources. He has clearly enjoyed placing the Hill’s development through the centuries in its personal, political and economic context. He does not shy away from the controversies concerning Penang Hill’s future development.

A modest construction, perched at the brow of the hill, Little Lomond was more suitable as a weekend retreat or retirement home.

Hill railway workers’ camp.

One of the things that strikes me most about the book is the amount of new (or at least unfamiliar) material you have uncovered and the new hypotheses you have formed about episodes of Penang Hill’s history. I particularly liked your theory about the Crag Hotel’s childfriendly policy and how that negatively impacted its business, and the story of “The Road that Broke the Governor”. What is your favourite Penang Hill story?

I love both those stories and the honeymoon diaries story too. If I had to choose one as a message for today, it would have to be “The Road that Broke the Governor” as it is very inspirational and reminds us that the Hill is a resource that belongs to everyone and not simply an asset to be controlled by bureaucrats; that many, many people feel passionately about the Hill.

People have said to me that it is very difficult to find information about the Hill on the internet and I’d agree – most information on the internet is simply a repeat of what can be found on other websites. My approach was to go back to the original sources – newspapers printed in the 1840s, 50s, 60s and so on, when events on the Hill were being reported as news.

Another source was the original lease documents of bungalows and correspondence in archives in Malaysia and Singapore, and of course those beautiful old photos, many from Dutch archives. One other very important source was the people who live on the Hill today – both those who own bungalows as well as those who work there, such as caretakers. They were all very helpful and friendly, and I think the book benefits hugely from their input.

You mentioned the old photos, and you have illustrated your book with over 500 photos and images – some of which are very rare. How did such a marvellous collection of old photos end up in the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in Leiden, and how did you discover them there? How did you track down the photos of Yoong Fen Shern and others? The Dutch planters in Sumatra were frequent visitors to Penang. Today, archives around the world increasingly have websites you can search and from which you can buy beautiful old images. And they have terrifically helpful staff! Then we have local enthusiasts who collect old photos and other “collectibles”. There is an informal network, a miniature world of collectors, with its own friendly rivalries.

A recurring theme in the book is the importance of Penang Hill to the climate and environment in Penang Island as a whole, with concerns about erosion, deforestation and illegal land clearing going back at least as far as James Richardson Logan’s “The probable effects on the climate of Penang”, written in 1848. Are the threats any different or more severe today than they were in 1848?

One of a pair of sweeping, symmetrical staircases leads up from the gardens to the entrance portico of Mon Sejour.

St. Brelades today.

Yes, the threats are still essentially the same as identified by Logan, who really was way ahead of his time in his views both on society and the environment. The greatest difference today, I would suggest, is that with modern construction and destruction methods, changes can be brought about more dramatically and more quickly, so the full extent of consequences aren’t seen until it’s too late.

One obvious example is the projected cable car to Teluk Bahang which will have all kinds of consequences apart from erosion. Its construction will create an illicit “highway” into the forest and water catchment areas for the exploitation of rare species, which can lead to the disappearance of large animal species such as mouse deer and pangolin by hunting. Forest birds will likely disappear due to trapping too.

Another leitmotif is the attempts by successive governments from early days to promote and expand Penang Hill as a tourist venue, and how those plans were regularly disappointed or at least seriously delayed, with planned hotels not built and planned railways not opened. As you point out in your book, there are competing visions for the future of Penang Hill’s tourism now – Disneyfication and cable cars on one side, and the proposed Unesco Biosphere and environmental tourism on the other. How do you see this playing out?

That is the big question. Previously, the people of Penang have been very forceful in the defence of their Hill. The rumoured 300-room hotel, possibly on the site of Convalescent Bungalow, will be an interesting test case. The problem as I see it is not so much the existence of a new hotel on the Hill, but rather how do you prepare the site and ship all the materials up the Hill to its location without doing tremendous damage? The Hill railway’s construction was a model of sensitive construction and minimum impact. But the small freight compartments on the current railway, and the narrow jeep road with its regular landslips, are surely not realistic routes for shipping huge volumes of material up the Hill, which makes me wonder if the plan would be to build a new road, perhaps along the route of “The Road that Broke the Governor” or a route from Jalan Mount Erskine.

The First Hill Bungalows

One of the oldest surviving examples from the pre-railway era is Mount Edgecumbe, now sadly neglected and semi-derelict. Its roof is being progressively torn away by high winds, its floors are falling through. While it is uncertain when Mount Edgecumbe was built, certainly it was owned by the prominent Hogan family in 1890, and it is mentioned in a traveller’s account of the Hill from 1901. In 1929 it was owned by Lim Cheng Teik, the elder brother of Lim Cheng Ean.

As with Lomond, Mount Edgecumbe is essentially a large single-storey wooden building, but with an airy and extensive open space below the main house where bathrooms were located. On the main floor, wide verandahs and extensive eaves provided cool temperatures and shade, sheltered from the sun. Fragments of chik blinds and a child’s swing still hang there today, evoking timeless pastimes and long sunny afternoons. The interior has the typical bungalow arrangement of a central living space with bedrooms to the side, while the kitchens and servants’ quarters occupied a separate building nearby. ‘As a rule, no native servants – not even the ayahs – sleep in the bungalow, but out in their own houses in the compounds scarcely within call.’

An 1891 newspaper notice offering Mount Edgecumbe for let listed six bathrooms amongst its features.

“Mount Edgecumbe” Penang Hills. Bungalow with six bed, six bath, dining and drawing rooms with large verandah, fully furnished. Reginald A. P. Hogan

Mount Edgecumbe, Richmond and Highlands can be seen as the final stage in the development of Penang’s pyramidal [bungalow] design imported from India incorporating aspects of the traditional Malay house. The structure that was initially slightly raised above the ground to avoid flooding and to provide improved ventilation, is now elevated on massive pillars to create a large living or working space beneath the house, while the original floor plan, based on a subdivided square, has been abandoned for a more complex arrangement of rooms that include a porch and one or more additional wings.

As most of the earliest, pre-railway era bungalows were predominantly single-storey and of wood construction, and given neglect and the passing of time, few traces of them remain today. Little remains, either, of the brick-built home of Stamford and Olivia Raffles on Mount Olivia. The superb two-storey Strawberry House atop Strawberry Hill, ‘formerly the property of the late honourable John Macalister, and now the property of C. Galastawn esq’ was a large and impressive construction, as befitted one of the island’s most prominent families. Unusually, ‘It has a double flight of rooms, the only one of the kind on this hill, and is in every respect a comfortable residence.’

The ruins of Ravenswood, probably built in 1844 or 1845, survive near the popular hikers’ Station 5 and are both easily accessible and exceptional in the sense that significant traces remain, although that which does survive is patiently being reclaimed by forest. Originally two-storey, the layout of the building’s original ground floor rooms and the positions of doorways may still be made out, while supporting brick columns and what appears to be ornamental terracing also survive.

Remains of what may have been ornamental terracing at Ravenswood.

An aerial view of Mon Sejour reveals its fading glory.

Dating from the same era as Mount Edgecumbe, yet representing a complete break with tradition on the Hill, Loke Chow Kit’s Mon Sejour was groundbreaking, and surely one of Penang Hill’s greatest architectural treasures. Unusually for its time, this bungalow was constructed in stone with a tile roof, and possesses a fascinating blend of eastern and western features, yet oddly it is not listed as a heritage building. Today, its fabric is neglected, but still worthy of rescue and rehabilitation. Single-storey Mon Sejour has an imposing facade, with an ornate triple-arched portico framing an entrance that in turn overlooks a grand, balustraded patio, with terraced gardens below. There is an elevated section of roof with clerestory ventilation for cooling the interior, a typically Chinese feature. Ornamented pillars both in the interior and exterior, and an elaborate, decorated roofline confirm Jon Lim’s observation that ‘the Straits Chinese were also interested in public architectural displays that enhanced their position in the colonial social order’.

Extracted with kind permission from the chapter “The First Hill Bungalows”, from the book Penang HillA journey through time by Mike Gibby.


Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.

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