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Andrea Filmer

Cover Story

A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

Penang Island’s hinterland beyond the hills is developing on many fronts. Penang Monthly introduces some surprising examples.

Separated from its two nearest population centres – Teluk Kumbar and Sungai Ara – by over 8km of winding hillside road, Balik Pulau has a strong base of Hakka Chinese and rural Malay communities. The township has long been home to an aging population with the area’s younger generations moving to the east of Penang island for more lucrative job opportunities and contemporary infrastructure. Those left behind often operated traditional businesses, like noted silversmith Fong Ten Sent, who after decades of awing visitors with his intricate, shiny creations, passed away in his beloved shop in Balik Pulau town in the middle of last month. He was in his seventies.

All that, however, is quickly changing.

Modern developments now dot the township, with many more in the pipeline. Beautiful street art adorns previously blank, sun-bleached walls. Agriculture, the area’s traditional primary industry, is thriving and growing. And the émigrés are coming back – some right back to their family’s hometown. Newcomers are starting families of their own there. Be it for the durians, the pastoral getaways or fulfilling the dream of owning a home on solid ground, locals and outsiders are making their way to Balik Pulau.

Back to Basics

There is an illusion that small-town folk cannot wait to get out into the dynamic urban world. Kampung Genting native Wong Eng Huat, 40, lasted half a year away from the hills and estates of Balik Pulau.

Balik Kampung at Balik Pulau

Stunning views are available on bicycle and sunset tours at Balik Kampung at Balik Pulau.

“In 2004, after I got married, we moved to an apartment in Bukit Jambul. The traffic jams were terrible and after you got home, all you would see was four walls. My family home in Balik Pulau is in a durian estate and it’s surrounded by greenery. There were many generations of family members in the same house and we were very close with our neighbours as well. Everyone knows everyone in Balik Pulau,” says Eng Huat.

Balik Kampung at Balik Pulau

Both young and old are welcome on bicycle and sunset tours in Balik Kampung at Balik Pulau.

Moving into an apartment, Eng Huat says he barely knew who lived next door and it did not help that his wife Geraldine Chin, who taught at a nearby school, was robbed at knifepoint at their very doorstep. “The very first thing you do when you reached home was lock the grille door. Even then, I was robbed. In Balik Pulau, throughout our childhood, the gates of our houses were always open and nothing bad happened,” says Chin, 36, who grew up in Titi Teras. The couple has since moved to Air Putih, a different area in Balik Pulau.

As part of an Astro television show called Balik Kampung, the couple welcomed a child from KL into their home in 2014 for a cultural exchange between city and village folk. “Over the three days we realised that our eldest son was more of a city kid than a kampung boy after all. There were many things that he didn’t know about, for example, playing with marbles or how to choose a durian. He was like a typical city boy but staying in Balik Pulau!” Chin exclaims.

It was then that the idea of Balik Kampung at Balik Pulau took root. Utilising an almost-one acre plot of land that his father had bought several years ago, Eng Huat began transforming marshland in Kuala Jalan Bahru into a place where his three sons could connect with nature. A sheltered events space was raised up front followed by a fish pond, a boating pool, a stage and a small wooden house on stilts for firefly viewings after dark. The initial idea was to provide cycling tours, but this was quickly expanded to educational tours, inspired by frequent visits to the site by nature enthusiast and Chin’s old high school classmate, Khoo Poh Hong, who came to observe and document the rich array of flora and fauna in the area.

However, the aim was more than to immerse children in nature. Eng Huat, who manages the property full-time, says learning about the people who live on the land was just as important. “At the river, we get to show them the life of fishermen in the area and in the paddy fields, they learn how paddy is grown and who grows it,” he says.

Those lessons are integral to the two types of tours that Balik Kampung at Balik Pulau now offers: the Sunset Tour, a one-and-a-half hour bicycle ride through scenic paddy fields and to a rich mangrove forest, ending with an unbeatable view of the sunset, and the Educational Tour, which includes crab fishing (provided the tide is right), traditional games, boating, giant bubble making and a visit to a nearby bedak sejuk (cooling powder) factory.

In Balik Pulau, prices of food and goods have managed to remain relatively low and this is reflected in the unbeatably low prices of these guided tours, ranging from RM10 to RM40. Launched in November last year, the tours have been very well received during school holidays and expectedly slower at other times.

The spillover effects, however, have been priceless for the couple. “I come here with the boys on weekends and they go crazy catching praying mantises and grasshoppers, and then they go home and search the Internet for more information on them. They now say they want to be entomologists when they grow up,” Chin says.

A New Breath of Life

In Botanica.CT, Balik Pulau’s largest township development, construction on a contemporary shopping mall is set to start soon. Michelle Goh, the marketing manager for MTT Properties & Development that is developing the township, says if all goes well, ground will be broken later this year.

“The total land area for the shopping mall is six to seven acres and will take about two to two-and-a-half years to complete. The place is slated to be right in the front portion of the development and visible from the road (Jalan Sungai Pinang) when one is driving up from Balik Pulau town,” she says.

The shopping hub, the first of its kind in the town, will consist of single and double-storey
shophouses filled with retail and al fresco F&B outlets dotted with lots of greenery to suit Balik Pulau’s natural theme. They will lead up to a three-storey building that will house the mall’s anchor tenant.

“This building will be topped with a convention locale that is open for bookings for banquets and dinners,” Goh says. The final decision on the anchor tenant is yet to be made.

The mall is just one of six non-residential phases of Botanica.CT, understood to be the first garden township to be built from scratch in the state in over three decades. Two other phases have already been completed: Prince of Wales Island International School (POWIIS), which opened in September 2011; and Botanica Mansion: a clubhouse, gym and dining area centred around a beautifully restored 1881 English mansion completed in November last year. Three more non-residential projects – a medical centre, five-star hotel and retirement resort – are on the cards and will be developed over the next decade.

On the residential side, a total of nine big parcels containing 11 phases of construction are planned out, of which six phases will include the building of low-cost homes, apartments and other landed properties. “We foresee that the whole township development will be completed in less than 10 years, probably between six to eight years with many things moving concurrently,” Goh says.

On preserving and maintaining the relaxed spirit of Balik Pulau, Goh says MTT is working hard to keep the overall density of the area low. “This all started when (MTT group executive chairman) Datuk Dr Kenny Ong cycled across this piece of land with his friends and fell in love with it. That’s why he decided to build more landed property than apartments here. Our supermarket, too, is not going to be a place where only the affluent can shop. It will have enough for everyone’s needs and we’re also looking at supporting the local farming industry here by having farmers’ markets on certain days of the week,” she says.

Andrea Filmer

A mural by Russian street artist Julia Volchkova of an old fisherman mending his nets is seen just outside the former site of the Balik Pulau market.

An Affordable Township

With firm guidelines and a strong commitment to synergise with Balik Pulau’s surrounding greenery, Jagdeep Singh Deo, Penang's state executive councillor in charge of the Housing and Town & Country Planning Committees, says the area can be the next nucleus for housing and affordable living in the state.

“In urban areas in town, there is no more land and no place to develop. We have to look to either the ‘other’ side of the island or to the mainland, where Batu Kawan already contains the lion’s share of the state’s affordable housing programme. We have to reconcile development with a place like Balik Pulau, which is in the outskirts and still very green. We have to ensure that the development is sustainable and does not impinge on the positive aspects of the township,” he says.

To be sure, Balik Pulau has never been the first choice for property seekers, but things are swiftly changing with young professionals and first-time homebuyers turning their sights in that direction.

“Since I took over the housing portfolio three years ago, I’ve seen a steadily increasing number of applications for Balik Pulau. The key factor is that it’s affordable – that is the main thing when it comes to housing in Penang,” Jagdeep says.

While space in Balik Pulau may be a solution for Penang’s growing population and expanding middle class, the state is keen to maintain the original spirit and culture of the old town. To this end, the process of regulating the rezoning of land use, house pricing and an appropriate density come into play.


The Prince of Wales Island International School (POWIIS) opened in Botanica.Ct in September 2011.

Jagdeep says active agricultural land was off the table for development while affordable housing units in Balik Pulau were capped at RM300,000, matching the state’s policy for the rest of Penang. “In Balik Pulau, the majority of the zones there are agriculture or paddy, where there is a specific section. We try to ensure that Balik Pulau remains green, so when an applicant comes to the State Planning Committee to rezone agricultural land to residential, we are very sensitive to the surrounding area. If it is an active agricultural area, such as paddy farming, we are certainly not going to entertain that application,” he says.

The recent approval for 16-storey apartment blocks in the township has some residents taken aback, but Jagdeep reassures them that this is as high as it is going to get. “We have approved projects that go up to 16 storeys – 12 storeys of apartment units and a four-storey podium carpark – but we are very cautious about allowing anything more because we don’t want it to be too high density.



A three-storey villa in Botanica 4.

At the moment, we are not allowing anything more than that. That is the benchmark,” he says. He adds that housing schemes proposing developments exceeding this ceiling height, such as the 1Malaysia People's Housing (PR1MA) in Kuala Sungai Pinang which includes 25 blocks of 27-storey apartments, were told to amend their applications.

On affordable housing, Jagdeep says it is imperative that authorities get Balik Pulau started on the right foot. “One of the attractions of having housing in Balik Pulau is that the land cost is not as expensive as in other parts of the island. Developers can build more affordable houses there and, as a result, there is a natural demand. The land cost is still much, much less, although as we speak, it is actually increasing. It is affordable vis-à-vis buying in Jelutong or Tanjung Bungah. Last time in Balik Pulau, you could get a semi-detached house for RM300,000 or RM400,000. Now, it is at RM800,000 in just a few years,” he says.

Adding that in the last decade parcels of Balik Pulau land went from being sold for price per acre to price per sq foot, Jagdeep says the growth in infrastructure and connectivity between the township and its neighbouring districts would only increase its attractiveness. “That is why I am very concerned about pushing affordable housing there. If I don’t get that started now, there is going to be a time when nothing is affordable in Balik Pulau. We don’t want that to happen,” he says.

A Home Away from Home

While young homebuyers and retirees have seriously started seeing Balik Pulau as a place for building a home, the serenity of the place has also begun to attract a different crowd: tourists.

Homestays are quickly becoming the trend in Penang, even in Balik Pulau, where hand-painted signs advertise available rooms for those passing through. Several, however, stand distinctly apart, either due to their amenities, location or history.

Malihom in Bukit Penara ticks all these boxes. A 40-acre private estate surrounded by fruit orchards, Malihom was originally built as a family retreat for Datuk Seri Stephen Yeap and Datin Seri Irene Yeap after the couple stumbled upon a quaint resort with traditional Thai houses on a trip to Betong, Thailand.

"The resort immediately appealed to their love of rustic living. With the help of friends, they sourced 10 traditional Lanna teak rice barns from an antique dealer in Chiang Mai. They also sourced a lot of building materials, furniture and fitting from around the region,” says the couple’s daughter and Malihom director Daryl Yeap. She adds that the barns were constructed using tongue and groove joinery which allows them to be dismantled. “Every single piece, from the roof shingles to the flooring, was dismantled, numbered and packed into a container before being shipped to Penang,” she says.

To replace the formerly barren landscape, over 3,000 shrubs and other greenery were planted over the course of the seven-year construction period. What stands now is an exquisite and exclusive escape for all its guests. “Malihom is a place to unplug and get away from urban stress. One of the charming features about Malihom and a key reason for guests to come back again and again is that we are off the beaten track and relatively low key. Most of our guests stay with us for privacy,” Daryl says.

Although the hub of the estate lies in the main wing that houses the reception, dining and living areas, the beautiful Lanna rice barns are clearly the heart of Malihom with eight available for rental. They are collectively located on top of a hillock 1,000 feet above sea level with sweeping views of the city, Penang Bridge and the mainland on the East, and paddy fields, the open sea and Pulau Betong on the West.


One of eight Lanna rice barns available for rent at Malihom.

Daryl says the secluded location poses its own challenges. “Staffing is probably the biggest issue; we find it difficult to find staff who are willing to make the commute to Malihom,” she says. Preparing delicious dishes for the estate’s full-board guests, on the other hand, is hardly a challenge. “Balik Pulau has a very good wet market. The produce is local and fresh. We sometimes source from our fruit orchard, too,” Daryl says.

Pearly Pursuits

Few people automatically think of Balik Pulau when they see perfectly shaped oysters on buffet lines or in high-end restaurants, but it is where South-East Asia’s only single-seed oyster hatchery is located. Heading SeaHarvest Aquamarine is aquaculturist Alan Wong Chin Poh, who says that several places were evaluated for the landmark facility, but ultimately Balik Pulau was chosen. “We looked at different areas like Batu Maung, Jelutong and Teluk Bahang but Balik Pulau had the best water quality. There is no heavy metal in the water and it has an abundant natural supply of phytoplankton,” the managing director says.

Tucked away deep in Pulau Betong, SeaHarvest began the process of hatching their own oysters in 2009 after a decade-and-a-half of commissioning them from outside sources. “In the beginning, we engaged local fishermen to collect oysters from the wild. However, the supply was inconsistent. Some months we could get a few thousand, while other months saw none at all. Eventually, we began importing our oysters from Thailand and Myanmar but as the business grew, the prices demanded from us also grew and the supply remained somewhat inconsistent,” he says.

The solution was easy to identify, though hardly simple to execute. “In the aquaculture industry, you must have your own hatchery. You cannot depend on nature to supply you with the stock you need,” says Alan, who is a chemist by profession. With help from the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation’s (MOSTI’s) TechnoFund grant scheme, SeaHarvest collaborated with two lecturers from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences to start the hatchery.

Andrea Filmer

SeaHarvest's man-made nursery pool.

Most hatcheries in the region – and there are less than a handful – use the traditional method of growing oysters on recycled shells – a process that encounters several unwanted scenarios. Firstly, Alan explains, there was no way to control how many oysters attached to the shells and many would eventually die fighting for space or grow in odd shapes. “Oysters also naturally spawn only twice a year during the intermonsoon periods. With the traditional method, this means that you only have two chances a year to spawn the oysters. However, here in Penang, we’ve found a way to use broodstock conditioning that allows us to produce oyster eggs and sperm as and when we want,” he says.

The result is that SeaHarvest can produce up to a million oyster seeds every month. The added plus point of their particular method of harvesting is that the seeds can be moved even after they have undergone the process of attachment and become what is known as “spats”. “In nature, oysters spawn, swim around as larvae and then attach somewhere where they become immobile for the rest of their lives. In our hatchery, even after they ‘attach’, we can transfer them. Oysters are actually very hardy,” Alan says, without divulging the company’s trade secrets.

SeaHarvest hatches and grows oysters to an inch in length in a four-month process that involves larvae tanks, settlement tanks, nursery tanks, and a two-acre man-made nursery pond. The young oysters are then sent to contract farms for another eight months to reach their full size of three to four inches. SeaHarvest then markets them to hotels and restaurants.

Andrea Filmer

One of the adult broodstock oysters at SeaHarvest's oyster hatchery in Pulau Betong.

Officially the country’s first commercial oyster hatchery to be certified by the Malaysia Book of Records, SeaHarvest has come a long way, but Alan says they have made just a dent in the country’s oyster business. “Over 90% of the premium oysters in the country are still imported. This is because the local oyster industry is still very new and a lot of investors are reluctant to get involved. Currently, we have less than 10 contract farms that are willing to grow our oysters, which is very different from the shrimp and fish industry here. In the future, we hope that our industry grows to become like that in the US and Europe where there are many farms that grow and market the adult oysters themselves.”

Alan, like shrimp and fish farmers in other areas like Teluk Kumbar and Gertak Sanggul, remains cautious about development in Balik Pulau, particularly the proposal of three man-made islands to be reclaimed off the coast of Permatang Damar Laut. If approved, the 4,100-acre project – which will need the nod of the National Physical Planning Council headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak – will fund the state’s RM27bil Penang Transport Master Plan that includes the Light Rail Transit (LRT), monorail lines and an undersea tunnel linking the state’s island and mainland under the North Channel.

“It will affect the water, so it will affect us. In all honesty, aquaculture doesn’t work well together with development. But we always knew that eventually, Penang would be developed, so we have been preparing for alternatives,” he says.

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.
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