Walk Zone: Penang Hill - A Cultural and Ecological Treasure Trove

By Lim Sok Swan

September 2021 FEATURE
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Penang Hill's Lower Station, circa 2012. Photo by: tang90246/123rf.com

AS THE FIRST colonial hill station in Malaysia, Penang Hill is an indelible part of The Penang Story. But beyond the administrative function that the station fulfilled, the highlands that form the geological spine of Penang Island is a cultural and ecological treasure trove.

Besides being a peaceful back garden for Penang lovers who love hiking, jogging or leisure walking, or who seek a slightly lower temperature to pass the day, this ridge hides historical buildings and its peaks and valleys are a haven of biodiversity and historical buildings.

The most popular way to ascent Penang Hill is through its funicular railway system, the only one of its kind in Malaysia. The Lower Station is located at the top end of Jalan Bukit Bendera (formerly Hill Railway Road). In the 1930s, nine-seater trolleybuses were built explicitly to provide a shuttle service going from the Lower Station to Jalan Air Itam. And at the Air Itam Roundabout, other means of public transport took over to link this important node to the busy seaport at Weld Quay, George Town.1

Thni Kong Thuah Temple. Photo by: tsyew@123rf.com

The roundabout itself was once an exciting place to visit. The Ambassador Cinema there was a popular attraction; the building was later turned into a supermarket – and is currently a busy kopitiam. Diagonally across the road stands a war memorial park where a sizeable bronze-coloured monument stands to commemorate the war efforts of Malayans, especially the 1930s Second Sino-Japanese War. The memorial was inaugurated by tycoon and philanthropist Lim Lean Teng in 1951 and turned into a war memorial park in 2011.2

Not everyone who comes to Jalan Bukit Bendera heads for Penang Hill. Today this road is lined with peaceful residential areas, but among them stand many prominent Chinese temples, including the Thni Kong Thuah temple. This was built by the Hokkien community in the 1860s in homage to Thni Kong (The Jade Emperor God) – the Supreme Ruler of Heaven. This complex is popularly visited, especially on the deity's birthday on the ninth day after Chinese New Year.3

A Hill of Peaks

Penang Hill comprises seven peaks, namely Strawberry Hill, Halliburton Hill, Flagstaff Hill, Government Hill, Tiger Hill, Western Hill and Gun Hill. Bukit Bendera, Flagstaff Hill, is the most developed peak and stands at 735m above sea level. Most of the residential and commercial activities in the highlands take place here.

It does not take too much time to reach Flagstaff Hill with the latest funicular railway service. Revamped in 2011, this fourth-generation system is able to carry up to 100 people per trip from Lower Station to Upper Station, in about 10 minutes non-stop.

The first attempt to build a Penang Hill railway was made in 1897, but this failed due to technical problems. The timber-made second attempt was eventually successful, and came into use in 1924, happily functioning until it was retired in 1977, to be replaced by the third-generation system.4

One of the earlier coaches is currently displayed right at the entrance of Astaka Penang Hill, the food complex on the hilltop. An exemplar of the third-generation metal-bodied, red-and-white coach is permanently parked at the Middle Station. It could ferry 60 people on 30-minute trips, but passengers had to switch coaches at the Middle Station.5

Most visitors to Penang Hill come for the spectacular views of George Town, Penang's eastern plains, and the peninsular lowlands slimly connected to the Island by two bridges. The cooler temperature encourages leisure walkers and hikers, and food and beverage outlets offer local delicacies.

However, the history of Penang Hill is a colourful one, and its historical and cultural heritage is a rich one; basic knowledge about this is soon to be displayed at the Penang Hill Gallery currently being developed close to the Upper Station.

The Heritage Conservation Department of the MBPP has identified 37 heritage buildings, 36 of which are bungalows and the remainder is the police station. Nine of the bungalows are government-owned, namely Bel Retiro, Bel Retiro's Gate House, Convalescent, Edgecliff, Woodside, Hillside, Fern Hill, Southview, and the Old Crag Hotel.

Bel Retiro's Gate House.

Bel Retiro is the first to be built, and that was done by Penang's founder, Francis Light. More and more bungalows emerged soon after that, placed along Summit Road (presently Jalan Tuanku Yahya Petra). Caretakers brought over from India were employed to manage the bungalows, and some of these families remain as caretakers to this day. Until the early 20th century, no non-whites were allowed to build residences there, and when that was finally allowed, these had to be constructed on an elevation lower than Summit Road.7

Until the 1980s, it was possible to members of the public to rent state-owned bungalows such as Woodside, Fernhill and Hill Side, for RM20 or RM40 per night.8 Some Penangites still treasure memories of exciting nights spent in the dark forested environment frightening and outdoing each other late at night with ghost stories about the bungalows themselves.

Hiking is a popular way to get close to the natural resources of Penang Hill. Many enthusiasts in Penang spend much of their leisure time exploring the many pathways and hiking trails that exist, be these accessed from Air Itam, Bukit Olivia (Tanjung Tokong), Penang Botanic Gardens, Penang City Park, Balik Pulau, or Teluk Bahang. Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) has mapped many of these trails and created a navigation app for public use.9

View from Penang Hill. Photo By: Ch'ng Shi P'ng

Much of Penang Hill's forestry is within a reserve. There is great need to preserve this treasure because it is both a catchment area, and also a 130-million-year-old primary forest.10 According to the 2020 Special Area Plan, 26% (195.74 hectares) of Penang Hill (742.51 hectares) are a Permanent Forest Reserve while 69% are water catchment areas, including Waterfall catchment area, Air Itam catchment area and Sungai Tat catchment area.11

Protecting Penang Hill is therefore always an urgent matter, and educating the public about its historical, cultural and environmental value remains a key occupation for many. As in most cases, the tourism sector has to be properly managed, and educational programmes have been planned and made publicly available, such as the Nature Walks at Penang Hill, organised by volunteers12 and the Rainforest Explorer Programme, managed by The Habitat Penang Hill.13

Penang is doing its utmost to have Penang Hill and its surrounding areas listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. So far, Malaysia has only two UNESCO biosphere reserves listed; these are Tasik Chini, which received recognition in 2009 and Crocker Range in Sabah which got on the list in 2014. According to UNESCO, biosphere reserves are terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems or a combination thereof internationally recognised within the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) framework.14

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.