A group posing at the edge of the Penang Hill railway platform. (Pictures courtesy of Alan Teh Leam Seng)

“CONSIDER yourself lucky. The modern funicular train you took is both safe and comfortable. What else do you want?” my childhood friend, Ng Keat Chew asks when I tell him about my most recent Penang trip which was marred by the unusually large crowd of tourists who took advantage of the extended weekend to converge on the island.

Ng and I meet regularly and this time around we’re at our favourite nasi kandar joint in Kampung Perak. I must have caught him on the wrong footing when I started to rattle off a string of complaints right from the moment we met.

“Lucky? Are you sure? It’s no joke having to queue up in the tropical heat for more than hour before boarding the train up Penang Hill. The ticketing station was overflowing with people. I felt like I was in a can of sardines,” I continue, just as the waiter arrives at our table armed with a rather short pencil and quite a thick wad of palm-sized paper held together with a rubber band.

We know the dishes in Restoran Bunga Tanjung like the back of our hands and our orders are made within minutes. My friend proceeds to enlighten me with light anecdotes pertaining to Penang Hill soon after the waiter melts into the crowd of hungry customers who’ve just arrived.

“You shouldn’t complain about the railway. It’s a godsend for us. Before it was introduced, accessing Penang Hill was a real challenge. Until the early 1920s, the young and energetic had to tackle the long ascent on foot, following the zig-zagging hill paths that start from somewhere near the Waterfall Gardens. The wealthier ones depended on teams of between four and six Tamil coolies to carry them up on sedan chairs slung on bamboo poles!” quips Ng as I listen, mouth agape.

A group posing at the Waterfall Gardens entrance to the trail leading up to Penang Hill.

The practice of hauling people up first started in the 19th century. Back then, the labourers were paid 46 cents each per trip, making the total conveyance cost of a princely $2.76! “A lot could be bought using that sum in those days so paying RM10 for your ride up is comparatively cheap,” he concludes before adding that the haulage rate was a flat charge and the poor labourers were not at liberty to ask for more even if their customers were plus sized!

To help take their minds off the heavy load, Ng shares that it was common for the coolies to sing and chat among themselves during the way up. “First hand accounts in the past say that the din created by the men would often herald their impending arrival to those already waiting up at the peak,” adds Ng, chuckling.

My friend, a self-confessed railway buff, admits that there’s not much record of Penang Hill’s early development. This includes the construction of the many historic buildings as well as the numerous paths and trails that criss-cross the surrounding densely forested area. “All we know is that back in the early 19th century, Penang Hill was the only developed hill station in Malaya. Both the government and private bungalows bearing famous names like Bel Retiro, Belle Vue, Strawberry, Richmond and Halliburton were already in existence then,” explains Ng explains as he shows me several vintage images of these historic buildings stored in his phone’s memory chip.

Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of our food. Established back in the late 1950s, this restaurant has successfully managed to maintain its superior food quality and efficient service. In between mouthfuls of savoury ayam kurma and daging rempah, Ng continues to enthral me with his amazing knowledge.

Right from the beginning of colonial rule, Penang Hill served as the perfect place for the ruling British elite to escape the sweltering tropical heat. Apart from the significant drop in temperature, the hill also became a place where they could experience an entire change in surroundings. The slow tempo of living up at the summit gave them the much desired relief from the rigmarole of work and responsibilities they so willingly left behind in heat-glazed George Town below.

Two Malay ladies posing in front of the Belle Vue bungalow back in the late 1940s


“The most impressive building on Penang Hill in the past was surely the Bel Retiro. Standing at 774 metres above sea level, this sprawling building commands an all-round vantage view of both the forest-clad interior as well as the azure sea yonder. The Governor regularly made Bel Retiro his holiday residence during the early years of the British settlement,” explains Ng, before breaking into a wide grin, as if recalling something funny.

My lanky friend then continues to confide a hilarious tale that happened during the days when the mail boat called at the port once every month. The Governor and his retinue, if they happened to be staying at the Bel Retiro, would rush down once the sailing ship was sighted off the Penang coast. “You must remember that back in the early days, the mail boat offered the swiftest way of getting news from England. Its arrival was definitely a much awaited moment.”

Continuing, he adds with a chuckle: “The importance placed on the mail boat soon prompted several young men to perpetrate a prank.” It seemed that sometime in the mid 1880s, the pranksters rigged a Chinese junk with brightly lit lanterns to make it look quite like the mail boat from a distance.

When the time was nearly due for the arrival of the much awaited mail boat, the men sailed their craft to Muka Head, which until today remains the western sea approach to Penang harbour. In his haste, the guard manning the Muka Head lighthouse thought it was the actual mail boat approaching. He promptly fired the mail gun to signal the boat’s arrival. Everyone, including the Governor, rushed towards the harbour.

“The practical jokers were elated to see their prank work like a charm. They quickly extinguished the lights and sailed quietly away into the darkness. At the same time, the welcoming party was waiting anxiously at the harbour. They had consternation painted all over their faces when the boat failed to arrive. Someone in the crowd even started speculating that the vessel could have gone down with all hands on deck! It took the people some time to realise that the entire episode was just a joke,” my friend says, the grin still on his face.

A European lady sitting on her sedan chair waiting to be carried up Penang Hill

The idea for a railway up Penang Hill was first broached in 1897, during a time when motorcars had yet to arrive in Malaya. Its initial opening several years later proved to be such a fiasco that it eventually attracted a report in the Pinang Gazette. The local daily reported that the train refused to budge even an inch after the all clear signal was given. That prompted the passengers to alight and push, at first good humouredly and then furiously. Finally, the engine gave way under the strain and began spilling oil all over the tracks.

“History has it that the empty carriage was eventually pushed by hand two yards up the track before the people finally gave up,” Ng relates, adding that the project was abandoned soon after and the railway guard subsequently converted the abandoned carriages into chicken coops!

Several other futile attempts followed suit until a fully functional one was finally inaugurated on New Year’s Day 1924 by Sir Lawrence Guillermard, the-then Governor of the Straits Settlements. “That historic day marked the beginning of speedy development on Penang Hill. It was no longer an exclusive retreat for the wealthy elites as local residents started to take a fancy of living there as well. Soon, more houses started sprouting up at the summit as well as mid-hill!”

View at the top showing the Penang Hill Mosque


By the early 1930s, it had become clear to everyone that Penang Hill was an asset to both Penang and Malaya as a whole. Although stations at Fraser’s Hill and Cameron Highlands had already been established by then, Penang Hill still retained its pole position. It had a clear advantage that none of the others had — it offered visitors quick accessibility to urban amenities in nearby George Town as well as enjoy complete privacy in their hill top bungalows.

Despite the vast contribution from the railway, certain quarters in Penang felt that the hill wasn’t developing as rapidly or as satisfactorily as had been hoped. To them, the main solution to this problem was for the construction of a proper hill road.

First proposed sometime in 1933, it was initially rejected by the Straits Settlements Legislative Council. The consensus at that time was that the intrusive project would result in more houses being built and the higher population number would harm the fragility of the hill’s ecosystem.

Students living in Penang Hill were issued complimentary passes.

“The inevitable happened some 30 years later. By then, the overall advantage of easier accessibility and the enhanced status of Penang Hill as a premier tourist attraction far outweighed the threat to the peace and privacy of the appreciative few,” says Ng towards the end of our meal.

As our plates are being cleared, he adds: “Do visit the many historic and newly conserved establishments while you’re up there. There’s a nice hotel there which was once the residence of William Halliburton, the first Sherriff of Prince of Wales Island. That’s the old name for Penang back in the early 18th century when it was still under the British East India Company.”

We end our evening by drawing comparisons to the Penang Hill railway’s rapid rise in popularity. “In its first year of operations in 1924, the train made 4,021 trips and ferried a total of 35,201 passengers. In 2010, our Federal Government modernised the system by spending RM63 million. By next year, the upgraded third generation trains modelled by Swiss manufacturer Garaventa are projected to transport up to 1.5 million people up the hill annually,” Ng doles out the statistics effortlessly from memory.

“I hope you’ll remember what I’ve said the next time you find yourself waiting in line to board our modern Penang Hill train. Being able to reach the summit in mere minutes is definitely much better than hiring a team of labourers who take more than six hours to get the job done!” adds Ng, as we part ways. I can only smile and nod my head in agreement. Surely I’ll not complain again next time.

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