Parting Glances: the slow boat to Penang

30 12 2020

There is something magical about the Penang ferry. Much like stepping onto one of the passenger ferries crossing Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, the magic is perhaps how time seems to stand absolutely still from the moment one drives onto a ferry to or from Penang for the twenty minutes or so that the journey takes.

A ferry making the crossing to Penang island at sunrise.

Sadly, the ferries — at least how I knew them — are being retired at the end of December. I would have made a long drive up to Penang just to have a last ride on one if not for the current restrictions on travel. Not having been able to do that, I am thankful that I did take a few photographs the last time I found myself on a Penang ferry in June 2016, some of which I will be including in this post.

A ferry approaching George Town.

A ferry service between Penang and the mainland has apparently been around since 1893/94. That was introduced at a time when the motorcar had not been seen in this part of the world. The first vehicle ferries were only introduced on 1 May 1925. Two lighters, onto which vehicles could be loaded onto were initially used, each pulled by a steam powered boat. A third craft, the Seberang — the first to be purposed built for the service and which had been on order with the Singapore Harbour Board’s (SHB) dockyard at Keppel — was added at the end of the same year. The Seberang, which had a length of 116′ and a beam of 22′, had a capacity of up to five vehicles and up to some 300 passengers.

Two ferries going in opposite directions.

The phenomenal growth in motorcar traffic across the channel, which doubled in the first year of operation, saw to orders for two larger vessels placed wth the SHB in 1928. The two, the SS Kulim and SS Tanjong, with a length of 128′ and a beam of 31′ had a capacity of 16 cars and 360 passengers.

The Penang Bridge, which was completed in the 1980s. The bridge is one of two that takes the bulk of the road traffic making the crossing between Penang and the mainland.

With two bridges linking the mainland to Penang island, taking up the bulk of vehicular traffic, it would only have been a matter of time that the vehicle carrying ferry service would eventually outlive its purpose. With the condition of the current fleet of vehicular ferries, which were built from 1975 to 2002 deteriorating, the vehicle ferry service will be withdrawn just a few years short of 100th year of operation. What will replace the aging roll-on/roll-off ferries will be faster and perhaps cheaper to operate passenger only ferries that lack the charm and grace of the old slow boats to Penang.

The vehicle deck.
The passenger deck.

More photographs taken in 2016:

A journey through Tanjong Pagar in 1970

23 02 2018

There is always and element of romance connected with train journeys, especially the leisurely paced journeys of the past with which one can take in the magical scenes along the way that one can only get from railway journeys. LIFE Magazine’s Carl Mydans, a legendary photograph whose work spans several decades and includes an extensive coverage of Singapore prior to the war (see “A glimpse of Singapore in 1941, the year before the darkness fell“), took one such journey out of an independent Singapore some 3 decades later, capturing a Singapore we can no longer see but through photographs of the era. The set, also includes scenes along the journey to Bangkok, along with those captured at stopovers made in West Malaysia’s main urban centres.

The photographs of Singapore are particularly interesting. There are some of the old harbour, and quite a few of the twakow decorated Singapore River along which much of Singapore’s trade passed through. There are also several street scenes, once familiar to us in the area of North Bridge Road. A couple of quite rare shots were also taken at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station including one showing a steam locomotive of a 1940s vintage, which the Malayan Railway operated until the early 1970s. There are also images of the steam locos captured during the journey.

The photographs of West Malaysia are also interesting. The replacement of rubber trees with oil palm as a crop, which had been taking place in parts of the peninsula from the 1960s to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on rubber and tin was in evidence. This is something that I well remember from the road trips to Malaysia of my early childhood. Another familiar scene from those trips were of the padi fields, which the trunk road passing through Malacca seemed to weave through. This is something Mr. Mydans also seemed to have captured quite a fair bit of.

The departure platform at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station with a prewar relic of a steam locomotive.

Malaysian Customs Inspection at the Departure Platform.

The Supreme Court and the Padang.

Hock Lam Street.

Corner of Hock Lam Street and North Bridge Road.

North Bridge Road.

The old harbour (Marina Bay today)

View of Clifford Pier and the Inner Road, and Outer Roads beyond the Detached Mole. The view today would be towards Marina Bay Sands and Marina South.

Another view of the harbour – where Marina Bay Sands and Marina South is today. The Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (Customs House today) can be seen at the lower right hand corner.

A rainbow over the harbour.

Boat Quay and the Singapore River

Walking the plank. Coolies loaded and unloaded twakows by balancing items that were often bulkier than their tiny frames over narrow and rather flimsy planks that connected the boats to the quayside.

A view of the stepped sides of the river around where Central is today.

Boat Quay.

Coolies sliding crates that were too bulky and heavy along the plank.

Lorry cranes were sometimes used instead.

But more often than not manual labour was used.

A view of the “belly of the carp”.

The Journey North

(with stops in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok)

A steam locomotive at what looks like Gemas Railway Station.

More steam locomotives (at Gemas?).

Inside the train cabin.

Train along a shunt line.

Rubber estates and rubber tappers were a common sight – even along the roads up north.

So were water buffaloes and padi fields.

Padi field.

Another view of a padi field.

Oil palms taking root. A drive to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on rubber and tin from the 1960s would see oil palms colour a landscape once dominated by rubber trees.

Another cabin view.

A break in the journey – a view of the Stadthuys Malacca.

Jalan Kota in Malacca.

View of the Malacca River.

The Arthur Benison Hubback designed (old) KL Railway Station .

Another view of the south end of the KL Railway Station – with a view also of the KL Railway Administration Building.

A southward view down Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (ex Victory Avenue) with the KL Railway Station on the left and the KL Railway Administration Building on the right, also designed by Arthur Bennison Hubback.

The Railway Administration Building and Masjid Negara.

A view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left.

Another view down Jalan Raja in KL with the BagunanSultan Abdul Samad on the left and Dataran Merdeka on the right.

Sungai Siput Railway Station.

The Penang Ferry from Butterworth.

A view of Butterworth.

George Town – with a view towards the clan jetties.

The Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

Air Itam and the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

What looks like the Leong San Tong in the Khoo Kongsi in George Town.

The Penang Hill funicular railway.

More padi fields.

Possibly southern Thailand.


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