Walk Zone: Balik Pulau - Penang Island's Rural Solace

By Syafiqah Nazurah Mukhtar, Lim Sok Swan

September 2021 FEATURE
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Paddy fields of Balik Pulau. Photo by: Rexy Prakash Chacko

THE EXISTENCE OF the countryside is key to city development. It balances urban stress and supplies the city's needs and sustenance. Urban resilience is almost impossible without this balance.

For Penang Island, the western plains have always been a psychological counterweight to the globally connected eastern lowlands, where the seaport, airport and free trade zones lie. Low-lying and hemmed in by high hills on three sides, and openly facing the Indian Ocean, this part of Penang has naturally acted as a rural anchor sustaining its people physically and emotionally.

The term "Balik Pulau" and its Chinese equivalent "浮罗 山背" refer to the hinterland – the opposite side – of the Island. Its long coastline bordered by rising slopes provided it with a sense of mystery and inaccessibility. It was recorded in 1807 that there was a Malay village with 35 to 40 people there, who supported themselves by planting rice, sugar cane, pumpkins and other vegetables, and fishing at the river mouth. Whatever extra crops they had were apparently sent with some difficulty to the east coast, to George Town's markets.

A census of the area in 1818 revealed the presence of seven villages comprised of 183 houses sheltering 986 persons.1 By the beginning of the 20th century, the town of Balik Pulau had become a proper settlement. The many heritage buildings found in "Kongsi", the traditional name of downtown Balik Pulau, bear witness to that.

The most prominent landmark was an old fountain, which is now a roundabout. It was erected by Koh Seang Tat, a local magnate, to commemorate the visit in 1882 of Sir Frederick Weld, Governor of the Straits Settlements. This was his token of gratitude for the improvements made in the Balik Pulau district during Weld's term in office.2 The Penang City Council recently restored it with funding from the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry.3

The town centre was a market that had been in business since 1904, selling crops and items produced locally. Balik Pulau is in fact a paradise for spices and fruits, and has been so throughout Penang's modern history. Agricultural activities still cover the hilly slopes facing the setting sun, and have formed the basis for famous eco-tourism sightseeing spots such as Ghee Hup Nutmeg Factory (1953), Bao Sheng Durian Farm (1959) and Tropical Fruit Farm (1993). These are all located on the hills overlooking the northern side of the plains, around Sungai Pinang.

An exciting fact about this district is that it contains as many as 632 durian orchards (as of 2017). While most of these orchards measure six to eight acres, a small number are 20 to 30 acres large and even more extensive than that. Based on the Malaysian Department of Agriculture's list of registered crops, 11 of the 12 durian cultivars registered to individuals in Penang Island originated in Balik Pulau, with one-third attributed to individuals in Sungai Pinang.4 Considering the fact that there have been approximately 100 registered durian cultivars in Malaysia that individuals have submitted, the tiny area of Balik Pulau accounts for over 10% of these, and one of these, ang he (red prawn), is considered a premium variety.5

In 2014 and 2015, the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia (MyIPO) listed Balik Pulau's durian and nutmeg as protected geographical indications in recognition of their reputation, uniqueness and quality.6

The market has now been moved to a more prominent place, with an extended food court building, not far from the town centre, near the Chong Teik Elementary School, one of the oldest schools in Balik Pulau, founded in 1911.

Neatly parked boats at the Pantai Malindo Fishermen's Jetty. Photo by: Rexy Prakash Chacko

Two schools are found around the corner, both initiated by the Roman Catholic Church of The Holy Name of Jesus before the Second World War. These are the Sacred Heart School and St. George School. Education has always been of primary importance to the rural population in Penang, living as they always did cognisant of the opportunities on the other side of the hills.

The church is of course another historical landmark. It was established here in 1854 by Rev Fr Ducotey. Designed by him, he had nine stained glass windows imported from Bruges, Belgium; these are well-preserved, and remain the eye-catching features of the church building today.7

The presence of many other places of worship in the area testifies to cultural diversity of Balik Pulau society. These include the Xuan Wu Chinese Temple (1800s), the Thendayabani Muthumariamman Hindu Temple (1880s) and the At-Taqwa or Kongsi Mosque (1900s).

Balik Pulau does not have many colonial buildings proclaiming power, prosperity or wealth. For the whole western coast, much of the built legacy is found in the old humble buildings at river mouths of Sungai Pinang, Sungai Kongsi, Pantai Malindo, Pulau Betong and Pasir Panjang. Here, where the riches of the sea are brought in every day, cottage industries flourished, and have been maintained within families for generations.

Photo by: Dan Lee

Some of the products have become very hard to find for those living on the eastern side of the Island. These include exotic items such as the handmade bedak sejuk or cooling powder. Lean Seng Business, near Kuala Sungai Kongsi, produces this. Founded as late as in 1975, it continues as a family business. Bedak sejuk is used for removing skin blemishes and alleviating itchiness.

Nearby, at Jalan Baru in a tiny shop, one finds a kuih bahulu seller. This traditional vanilla-flavoured sponge cake is made from flour, castor sugar and eggs. It is a perfect snack to go with some local chilled refreshing drink, such as air nira (made from the sap of nipah palm) or coconut water, abundantly available for sale in the area.

Between Pulau Betong to Pasir Panjang, the most pronounced – and pungent – cottage industry is the making of belacan (shrimp paste). The Chop Kim Hoa Belacan Factory is the main producer of this essential item. A popular taste-enhancing item in Malaysian cooking, this product is sold throughout Malaysia and shipped abroad.

New enterprises found in the area include Seaharvest Aquamarine, the first commercial oyster hatchery. It began operations in 2009, breeding local types of oysters, using locally developed technology. This exciting and ground-breaking enterprise is also becoming an eco-tourism destination.

Some fish farms are located on two small islands facing the estuary of Pulau Betong town, also named Betong. Many place names in Malaysia are closely related to their topography. So don't be surprised if you find an island has the same name as the city or town started with the prefix "Pulau". Pulau Tikus is another example.

Bedak sejuk.

With its economy depending on agricultural technologies and eco-tourism, environmental protection has become a major undertaking on the west coast. Sustainable development is high on the agenda of most stakeholders here.

One must not forget the tsunami had shown the power of nature in 2004. Penang was the hardest hit by among others in Malaysia. Out of the 68 deaths recorded, 52 fatalities happened in Penang, with 34 lives taken in Pantai Pasir Panjang in Balik Pulau.8

One key effort is the protection of the thick mangroves along the coast through the gazetting of the swampland as permanent forest reserves.9 An arboretum plot has been established by the State Forestry Department inside the reserve near Pantai Malindo. The public can view the mangrove forest from a raised boardwalk without getting their feet wet or muddy.10

Due to its outstanding natural beauty and rich rural character, the Balik Pulau district has also become a source of inspiration for artists in recent years. Many of them have opened art studios and art camps to take advantage of the calm village environment and the low costs of living in the area.11

Balik Pulau also has provided surfaces for international street art. Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic created the first two murals in 2014 during the Urban Exchange International Street Art Festival, one depicting a silversmith and another being a mural at Botanica Mansion in Air Putih. Since then, many murals have appeared in various locations, most notably portraits featuring a fisherman and a rubber tapper, painted in 2016 by Russian street artist Julia Volchkova. Such events have drawn much attention to this side of Penang Island, raising consciousness about the cultural and natural assets inherent in these hill slopes and plains.12

Syafiqah Nazurah Mukhtar

is an Urban and Regional Planning graduate from Universiti Sains Malaysia. She is currently pursuing her PhD and is a project researcher at Penang Institute.

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.