A sunrise from 5 years ago

20 01 2013

It was close to the time of when this photograph of the sunrise over the South Channel separating the island of Penang from the mainland was taken that I wrote the first words of this blog. That was some five years ago today on 20 January 2008, which does make it the blog’s 5th Anniversary today (although I only began actively maintaining it from May 2009).

A sunrise 5 years ago.

A sunrise 5 years ago.





Penang’s link to the Bronze Elephant in Singapore

19 01 2010

I am not one who is fond of wandering around  burial places. Having had a bad experience at a cemetery on St. John’s Island on a school camp where a few teachers and some senior students had conspired to scare the hell out of my classmates, I had developed an irrational fear of cemeteries, and made it a point to avoid cemeteries like the plague. There had been occasions when I didn’t have much of a choice: once, on a cold and dark winter’s evening, I had missed the bus stop to get to my lodging in Earl’s Court in London, and I ended up having to walk by the Brompton Cemetery – and having an overactive imagination did not help. There were of course the occasions when I did venture into cemeteries out of choice: looking for the resting place of Hector Berlioz at the Cimetière de Montmartre, I ended up losing myself and wandering aimlessly around the cemetery – somehow I wasn’t the only one as I encountered a few American tourists doing the same, in search of the grave of Jim Morrison (who is actually buried across town at the Cimetière du Montparnasse). I once did the same at the Necropolis in Glasgow as well, when at the end of a walk on autumn’s evening to soak in the magnificent colours of the fall, I somehow ended up getting lost among the tombstones of the old cemetery. So, when I found myself walking by the old Protestant Cemetery along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in the half light of dawn on my way to take some photographs of the ruined Shih Chung Branch School building next  to the cemetery, I passed up the opportunity to explore the cemetery, after taking a few photographs from the safety of the clearing just inside the cemetery grounds by the main gate. The cluster of trees staring eerily at me as if beckoning me to walk through the passage it held open for me, looking as if it was a scene from the Twilight Zone added to a sense of unease, as did the solitary trishaw that sat in the clearing, seemingly awaiting the custom of perhaps one of the cemetery’s inhabitants.

Wandering aimlessly around the Necropolis in Glasgow, Autumn 1988

The Protestant Cemetery was used between 1789 to 1892.

A side gate to the Protestant Cemetery.

A solitary trishaw waits, as if waiting for the custom of one of the cemetery's inhabitants.

Gravestones include one of the British colony of Penang's founder, Captain Francis Light.

View through the cluster of trees in the Protestant Cemetery. It seemed as if the path made by the rows of trees were beckoning me to walk into a scene from the Twilight Zone!

Thus, it was only much later, when I was doing some research into the background of the abandoned Shih Chung Branch School building, that I came across an interesting link between the cemetery and a bronze statue of an elephant in Singapore and the story of the English school teacher at the court of King Mongkut Siam both of which had fascinated me in my childhood. Apparently, Thomas Leonowens the husband of a certain Anna Leonowens (Anna is the subject of the story), who as a young hotel keeper in Penang was struck down with Apoplexy in 1859, and is buried in the cemetery. That Anna would have later taken up the position at the Siamese Royal Court if her husband had still been alive, we do not know, but we can speculate that it was in these circumstances that she did take the position up three years later, which provided us with the delightful tale of Anna and the King, and perhaps opened the doors to the travels of one of Anna’s pupils, Chulalongkorn, the eldest son of Monkut, who ascended the Siamese throne upon his father’s death. Chulalongkorn had on one of his trips presented the statue of the bronze elephant as a gift to Singapore, which was the first foreign place in which Chulalongkorn had set foot on in his vast travels.

Inscription on the tomb of Thomas Leonowens at the old Protestant Cemetery in Penang.

The cemetery is also interesting from the perspective that among those laid to rest there, are several notable personalities which include Captain Francis Light, the founder of the British Colony of Penang and Quintin Dick Thompson, the brother-in-law of modern Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles. Another interesting  note on the cemetery is that there are over 30 Chinese graves which date from the 1860s to the 1880s, which is suggested, may have belonged to Christian Hakkas who came to Penang after the Taiping Rebellion in China. Perhaps, given the interesting facts I have uncovered, I would summon up my courage to venture into the Twilight Zone the next time I visit Penang.





The other Raffles Hotel

15 01 2010

Driving along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah in Georgetown, Penang, one day, I noticed an old building in a state of ruin, in the area that is known as Millionaire’s Row – the stretch of street where a row of large mansions line the shoreline along the former Northam Road. The dilapidated building would make a wonderful subject for a horror flick, standing close to the eerie old Protestant Cemetery. With the words “Shih Chung Branch School” quite clearly emblazoned on the façade, it was clear that it was an abandoned school building, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to learn of the building’s fascinating past while doing a search on why and when the building was abandoned.

In ruins

The building had started its life as the five storey mansion of a wealthy and prominent Penangite, Cheah Tek Soon in the 1880s. It would have been a magnificent sight to behold back then, and was apparently the first five storey mansion built in the Straits Settlements, being referred to as the “Goh Chan Lau” or Five Storey Bungalow by the locals. A book “Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya” published in 1908 was said to draw reference to the mansion as the “the pagoda-like residency of a wealthy Chinaman which is four storeys in height, from the topmost balcony of which a splendid bird’s-eye view of the harbour and mainland is obtained”.

The mansion also played its part in the history of China, being sold to fund Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s revolutionary efforts, by Cheah Tek Soon’s daughter who inherited the building and was married to a supporter of Sun Yat Sen. With the sale of the mansion to a rich local merchant Tye Kee Yoon in the 1910s, the mansion began its life as the Bellevue Hotel, which with an intended reputation for luxury, service and comfort, could have epitomised the Romance of Travel at the turn of the century, and came to be popularly known as Raffles-by-the Sea.

An old postcard of Raffles by the Sea in its heyday

A search through a digitised database of the Straits Times would yield several advertisements for the hotel which provide some insight into its clientele – one in 1912 reads: RAFFLES-BY-THE-SEA Penang. A SELECT UP TO DATE FAMILY HOTEL Under the direct management of the English Proprietor and Proprietress, situated in the best part of Penang, with an unequalled view of Hills and Sea. A suitable Establishment for Ladies visiting Penang alone.” Alas, although the intention was to mimic the luxury offered by the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, complete with afternoon teas on the lawn, the hotel was maybe a little less successful than the owner had envisaged and it closed a little later.

In the 1920s, the building was leased to be used as the Government English School. What is known however is that  the building began the final stage of its life as the Shih Chung Branch School after the Second World War. News reports point to the building being abandoned when the Shih Chung Branch School relocated to Sungei Nibong. When? Well, I still don’t know.

Another view of the former Raffles-by-the-Sea in ruins

Another view of the former Raffles-by-the-Sea in ruins





Penang … a doorway to the past

7 01 2010

A few months spent in Penang put me in touch with its streets of old shop houses, street vendors and hawkers that for me, were reminiscent of a long forgotten Singapore. I was transported back to the Singapore that time has erased, the Singapore that I had spent my age of discovery growing up. The images of Singapore etched deep in my memory began to come back to me as if I was looking through old photographs and postcards of a Singapore frozen in time. It was then that I thought of looking into my collection of memories and impressions formed along the journey of life, and seeing what I could discover …

Sunrise over the Southern Channel and the Penang Bridge during my second visit to the island in 2007

I had first travelled to Penang as a school boy – my parents deciding to go beyond Cameron Highlands, the northernmost point on the west coast of Malaysia that we visited on ocassion, to venture further north to Ipoh and Penang. It was a trip that I would remember well, not for the impressions it made on me, but for one, it was the last outing to Malaysia on which my maternal grandmother had accompanied us on, and it was also the trip on which I got quite ill, developing a high fever in Penang, for which I had to visit a doctor on the return journey – for which we had to make an unscheduled stop in Ipoh .

Recollections of the impressions that Penang had made on me after some 30 years were sketchy to say the least, but with the opportunity to wander around the streets that the stint in Penang had given me, I was brought in touch with some of the places I had seen, bringing back a rush of memories of my first trip to Penang. I began to remember … the Towne House Hotel that we had put up at on Penang Road – still looking very much the same as it did all those years back, an icon of sorts at the end of Penang Road – the Hotel Malaysia, the Penang Hill funicular train, the magical Penang Ferry, and how could I forget it … the Esplanade, where on an evening stroll, I had persuaded my parents to buy me a toy from a street vendor on a bicycle – a Whee-Lo, a plastic wheel with a magnetic steel axle that rolls on a bent steel wire rail as it is moved up and down.

The Towne House Hotel on Penang Road where I had stayed at during a holiday to the island as a schoolboy in the 1970s - it still looks the same after all these years!

Hotel Malaysia on Penang Road - I guess you can call it an icon of sorts; one that I remember very well

The Penang Ferry used to be the only link between the mainland and the island until 1985. It is an icon that may soon disappear with the construction of a second bridge

The streets of Penang somehow provided a sense of being back in the Singapore of my childhood … the Singapore that I had very fond memories of but nothing more. It was a Singapore that one could only see mostly in black and white: in books, postcards and photographs, and in films from that era. It was a Singapore that one could see but not touch, one that one could no longer immerse oneself in: the streets of old, the colourful street markets, the hawkers and vendors that were permament features to the streets and back lanes, the shop houses and five-foot ways, the whiff of coffee beans roasting or bread being baked in a neighbourhood bakery … It seemed for a while almost as if I was back to a time I had forgotten about … back to where my heart is … back home …

The streets of Penang are reminscent of the Singapore of old

Streets filled with hawker stalls and street vendors - like being transported back in time to the Singapore of 40 years ago

A street vendor - a common sight on the streets of Singapore once upon a time

Hawkers and Vendors seem to be a part of the street scenery as it was all those years back in Singapore








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