Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Old and new railway stations at Bukit Mertajam

Behind these few trees stands the old railway station at the end of Station Road in Bukit Mertajam. The building has fallen into disuse recently because the station has been relocated down the tracks (about two kilometres away along Jalan Permatang Rawa) due to the double tracking project. The new station is modern, unlike this old one which is steeped with nostalgia.

I was very surprised to see that all the old platforms have been torn down. Even the rickety metal overhead pedestrian bridge that enabled passengers to walk from the station building to the furthest platform had been dismantled. All that was left was a vast expense stretching from left to right and of course, the rail tracks.

The overhead bridge on the far right of this picture is not accessible from the railway station's grounds. It just stretches across the tracks and connects Jalan Megat Harun to the old quarters of Bukit Mertajam town.

In my opinion, the biggest casualty was that the old station signboards which displayed the name of the railway station to arriving passengers had also been removed. And, I have no idea what is to become of this old building itself. Big, big pity, indeed.

Anyhow, the building wasn't entirely deserted. Apart from workers and a security guard, there were three or four old timers spending their time here either reading newspapers or sitting quietly. For this latter group of people, perhaps they still couldn't get used to the fact that trains no longer stop here. No more passengers or their their waiting families. No more hustle and bustle of people two or three times a day.

But the trains still do go past the old railway station. About a minute or two before a train whizzes by, a whistle would go off, ostensibly to warn workers and trespassers off the tracks. Then the train would come rumbling by. But it doesn't slow down nor does it stop. No, it just goes speedily down the track and disappears into the distance. There's certainly a pang of helplessness when watching this unfold right in front of your eyes.

In the meantime, this is the spanking new railway station off Jalan Permatang Rawa in Bukit Mertajam. It was still work-in-progress when I took these pictures in late September. The station had just been relocated here. During a one-week transition period, vans were utilised to transfer arriving passengers to the old station just in case they had people waiting for them there.

These are the new platforms. I noticed that there weren't much activity either. The staff were just relaxing away until a train arrived. There weren't any extra train tracks either, or an increase in the number of platforms. But the station certainly was more spacious.

On the outside, life was just as slow when I was there. And the ticketing office was just a makeshift structure built out of old containers. So sorry that the staff had to work under such conditions until the building is fit for occupation.

This sign irked me a lot. But considering how the standard of English in this country has gone to the dogs, I am not surprised that Malayan Railways - that's what KTM stands for: Keretapi Tanah Melayu - had overlooked this very fundamental mistake that the new station's correct name should be Bukit Mertajam Railway Station. This wasn't the only signboard with the mistake. There were several dotted along the access road leading to the new station. Anyhow, if only KTM had saved the old station signboards and relocated them here instead of destroying them...

Monday, 28 October 2013

A little bit of Bukit Mertajam history

Today's blog article is a translation from a story, 王琛发 (2008), 大山脚历史, that might have appeared originally in a forum hosted on Zoom Penang and possibly copied later to Wikipedia, or vice-versa. However, Zoom Penang no longer exists as a website while Wikipedia still carries the history bit (still full of grammatical errors and all). As I now live in Bukit Mertajam, this story below is both fascinating and interesting to me.

Prior to my moving to Bukit Mertajam, my main interaction with this cowboy town was as a staff of the now defunct Ban Hin Lee Bank. The bank opened its fifth branch in this town in December 1977 and on and off, I had occasions to visit the branch which was initially located at Aston Road and later at Station Road. After Ban Hin Lee Bank was acquired by Southern Bank in 2000, I was sent to this Bukit Mertajam branch for several months where I underwent training and familiarisation before redeployment to Kulim as the head of its deposits department.

Also, it could be that in 1974, the Penang Schools Sports Council decided to organise that year's school chess competition in Province Wellesley. Although I had already left the Penang Free School, my ties were still strong enough and I remember my enthusiasm joining the school's chess team on a bus trip to Bukit Mertajam. Giving the team some moral support, you see.

I also remember at that time, the bus station was located near a field where the present Summit Hotel now stands. In the middle of the field was a small clock tower which has since disappeared. However, I cannot remember the results of the chess competition at all. Did the chess team win, or did they lose? I don't know. That, by the way, was my very first time in Bukit Mertajam.

So here it is, a short but unverifiable account of the development of Bukit Mertajam town. Just don't take it as the gospel truth, okay?
Bukit Mertajam is a town in Central Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai Tengah), Penang, with the Chinese community forming the majority of the total population. Jit Sin High School is one of the top performing schools in Malaysia. The town is also famed for the St Anne’s Catholic Church, with its annual St Anne’s Novena and Feast being held every year at the end of July which attracts thousands of devotees from all around the country. As a major town in Province Wellesley, Bukit Mertajam serves as one of the many economic hubs in the northern region.

A hundred years ago, Bukit Mertajam was merely a barren wasteland filled with wild animals and swampy marshlands infested with crocodiles.

Although so far there is no complete written record on the early settlement of Bukit Mertajam, archeologists had recently discovered much evidence on the antiquity of the town.

According to archeological findings, there was an early settlement in Bukit Mertajam some 1,500 years ago in the fifth century based on the discovery of the Cherok To'kun Relics, which is a stone tablet carved with ancient Sanskrit writings, and which is now displayed in the grounds of the St Anne’s Church along Kulim Road.

Based on the early Chinese settlers of Bukit Mertajam, the urban planning of the old section of the town was established in 1886 by the Hock Teik Cheng Sin temple community, with the Pek Kong Temple as a town core while the shops, markets and bazaars radiated around the temple.

The Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple along Pasar Road not only served as a centre for Chinese folk religious worship but also functioned as an administrative body for the Chinese community which consisted of four clan associations. At that time, the temple community was responsible for the economic and social welfare of the Chinese community including schools, graveyards, events, social activities and properties.

The Chinese community in Bukit Mertajam are mostly from the Teochew clan. They hail mostly from Huizhou, Guangdong, China and speaks the Teochew dialect. The Teochews once made up nearly half of the total population in Seberang Perai.

The time of the Malay archipelago during the fifth and sixth centuries was known as the Indian cultural era in which Malay kingdoms at that time embraced Hinduism. Evidence arising from the discovery of the Cherok To'kun Relics has shown that the early settlers of Bukit Mertajam had Hindu influence.

The Indians have long discovered the Malay Peninsula. In the Indian literature which is known as the Ramayana text, they had referred to the Malay Peninsula as Suvarnabhumi (Land of Gold). During the third century, the Indians began to trade in the Malay Archipelago regions. These traders were mainly from the Southern Indian kingdom of Chola and Pallava. Soon, the Kedah plain had a large influence of Hinduism and Buddhism with the erection of many temples and candis. The Kedah kingdom had been the trading hub and centre of Hindu civilisation in the Malay Archipelago region. Bukit Mertajam at that time focused on paddy cultivation.

The region of Bukit Mertajam was followed by Thai influence during the 18th century. During this era, Bukit Mertajam existed as a quaint Malay village which was based on paddy cultivation. However, these villagers were either persecuted by the Siamese or had fled.

Early Discovery
According to the Huizhou clan association, the town’s history could be traced back to 1822 when the immigrants from Huizhou begin to settle in Penang, involving in farming. Agriculture was once a major industry in Penang.

After Capt Francis Light discovered Penang in 1786, Penang become a centre for spice trade in the East Indies to supply the European market. Then there was a ten-year conflict between the Dutch and the British in South-East Asia. In order to dominate the spice trade and prevent it from further supply disruptions, the British started the cultivation of spice in British colonial settlements like Province Wellesley.

Major Forbes Ross MacDonald was the Superintendent of the Prince of Wales Island (Penang Island) in 1799. In his report, he brought in the Huizhou people and assisted them by providing transportation to travel to Penang from their homeland, land for cultivation, housing and social welfare. This opened up the floodgates for more Chinese to venture into farming in Province Wellesley. At that time, many people in the Huizhou region in China suffered from famine, drought and violence due to land disputes. People from Huizhou came to Penang to look for greener pastures.

In June 1800, the Huizhou people began to settle within the vicinity of the present-day Bukit Mertajam. Earlier in that year, the first Lieutenant- Governor of Prince of Wales Island, Sir George Alexander William Leith, had negotiated a further treaty with the Sultan of Kedah for the cessation of a strip of land in Kedah in the mainland which was later known as Province Wellesley. Province Wellesley was named after Richard Wellesley, the Governor-General of India.

Before the East India Company gained control of Province Wellesley, the Chinese had already begun their sugarcane plantations in Batu Kawan. In 1800, seeing the high demand of herbs and spices in Europe, the British encouraged the residents of Bukit Mertajam to grow various spices such as pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Besides agriculture, the residents of Bukit Mertajam begin to engage in alternative income such as quarrying.

It is known that during the 19th century, Bukit Mertajam was the largest producer of granite in the northern region. At that time, the quarrying areas in the town were the areas surrounding St Anne’s Church and Berapit. Granite was used to construct the Penang prison on the island. They were transported by ferrying the rocks across the sea. The Huizhou people dominated the granite quarrying industry until the Second World War.

During the 1930s the Chinese began mass cultivation of sugarcane in Bukit Mertajam as a source of sucrose for exportation to England. Sugarcane plantations were concentrated in key areas of Bukit Mertajam surrounding the town and the Bukit Mertajam High School area near the railway tracks.

The rivers and streams that flowed from the Bukit Mertajam hill into the low plains are now replaced by the large urban drainage systems to cope with the large amount of storm water. Around the newly built temple which was constructed along the river bank, the Huizhou people first settled as farmers in hilly terrains, farming lands as well as hills. The marketplace was established on hillocks surrounding the valley with the river flowing through the centre.

The region surrounding Bukit Mertajam during the spice trade era in the 19th century was only accessible by boat and junk. Sungai Juru and Sungai Rambai were the main transportation waterways in the town, with Sungai Rambai and the Padang Lalang region as the main harbour that served the town. There was no land transportation that connected the town, except mud roads that led to Butterworth. Therefore, all trade and products such as spices and granites had to be transported through the river.

Early Development
Records have shown the demographics of Province Wellesley in 1861, which at that time had a total population of 64000. Ethnic breakdown was as follows: Europeans 76, Malays 56,236, Chinese 7,204, Indians 3,515 and Siamese 186. The majority of the Malays settled in the northern portion of Province Wellesley as fisherman and farmers, while the Bengalis were involved in the livestock industry. Many Chinese conducted business in the town areas, especially in Bukit Mertajam.

In 1899, rubber plantations had replaced sugarcane. During that time, the railway system that connected Prai, Nibong Tebal and Bukit Mertajam was completed. The railway track which connected Kuala Lumpur and Singapore was completed next in 1909, making railway as the main transportation system. In 1914, rubber was the main production in Bukit Mertajam.

With the rapid development and improvement of the transportation system, the population of the town increased dramatically. The first Malay vernacular school was set up in 1800 in Cherok To'kun. Another Malay school was opened in Sungai Rambai three years later. The first Chinese vernacular school, Jit Sin School, was opened on 3 March 1918. Jit Sin School was first established by the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple committee along Jalan Pasar, after purchasing 120,000 dollars worth of land for the building of the school. Bukit Mertajam High School was first opened in 1927, the Convent school was founded in 1931 while Kim Sen School was established in 1939.

The first motorcar in Bukit Mertajam was in 1920. By 1930, there were 15 private motorcars owned by the residents of Bukit Mertajam.

Development was slow before the Second World War. Then in 18 December 1941, the Japanese troops attacked Pearl Harbour with Indochina as their military base. Japanese troops first landed in Kota Bharu, Songkhla and Pattani by sea in the same year and then travelled by land to conquer Malaya.

On the 17th of December, Japanese troops conquered Penang, and at the same time Bukit Mertajam was also affected. Before the British retreated in 1941 the railway station in Bukit Mertajam had been blown up. The railway station was constructed again in 1942 by the Japanese and they used Bukit Mertajam High School as a military base. At that time, Bukit Mertajam High School was forced to close down.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, Bukit Mertajam became a thriving town with bustling business activities and trade. Development was rapid. Entertainment centres such as cinemas and theatres were opened in 1956 and 1957.

There was significant urbanisation after 1957. What started as a village later developed into a major urban area. Recent development followed with the establishment of new townships such as Taman Sri Rambai, Taman Kota Permai, Taman Desa Damai, Taman Alma, Taman Sentosa, Taman Bukit, Taman Tenang and Taman Mutiara.

The hospital along Kulim Road was built in 1960, the post office was built in 1968, while the train station was built in 1983.

Today, Bukit Mertajam remains one of the trading and economic hubs in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Protestant cemetery

I was at the old Protestant cemetery in Northam Road, George Town, Penang, recently and this is the grave of the Revd Robert Sparke Hutchings, founder of the Penang Free School, which celebrated its 197th anniversary on the 21st of October 2013. 

This year also marks the nonagintennary of The Old Frees' Association (If you don't know what "nonagintennary" means, go figure it out yourself. I also had to look it up, haha....) and the golden anniversary of the present OFA building in Northam Road. The association was established in 1923 by a group of Old Boys and we have been carrying on with the proud tradition of fraternising with fellow Old Frees ever since. In 1963, the present premises was declared open by the previous Raja of Perlis who also happened to be the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong at that time.

And to cap up a rather magical moment on Monday, the 21st of October was also the anniversary date of Francis Light's death. It is to be noted that Light was a sea-faring captain and was never knighted by any British monarch. 

Capt Francis Light, the man who established the Prince of Wales Island as a trading post for the East India Company in 1786 and became its first Superintendent, died on 21 Oct 1794 itself (and not 25 Oct 1794 as erroneously reported in wikipedia and elsewhere that chose to copy this mistake without verifying.) This is his grave at the Protestant cemetery.

I found two other references or sources to support this date of Light's demise. The first is the marble slab in the canopy at the grounds of the Church of St George the Martyr in Farquhar Street, George Town, which had this dedication that read: "In Memory of Francis Light Esq who first established this island as an English Settlement and was many years Governor born in the County of Suffolk in England and died October 21st 1794"

The second was a 141-page book, A Short Sketch of the Lives of Francis and William Light by Archibald Francis Steuart, which was published in 1901 by Sampson Low, Marston & Company of London.

On page 33, Steuart wrote: "At the commencement of the settlement the colonists were surprised by the absence of fever, but in 1787 the superintendent was struck down with a malarial attack. In 1794 he was seized by another malarial fever. He was able to dictate a will on the 20th of October, but succumbed on the following day, to the great grief of his friends and of the islanders."

I did not have time to walk all around the whole cemetery as I had to rush to the Penang Free School for their Speech Day, but I did manage to locate a few graves of several notable early pioneers of the Prince of Wales Island, such as:

John Alexander Bannerman was the sixth Governor of the Prince of Wales Island. He died on 8 Aug 1819. 

William Petrie was the fifth Governor of the Prince of Wales Island. He died in office on 26 Oct 1816.

James Scott was Francis Light's business partner. He died on 19 Sep 1808. I still have doubts whether or not Scott acted fairly for Light's widow, Martina Rozells, in the execution of Light's will.

James Richardson Logan was a prominent lawyer and an early human rights supporter. He died on 20 Oct 1869.

And of course, the grave of Thomas Leonowens, a person of almost anonymous status if not for the fact that his widow, Anna, later went on to become a Royal Governess for six years in the court of Mongkut, King of Siam. Think Thomas Leonowens, think of The King And I.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Rainy day landslips

My wife and I went walking on the tar road at the Bukit Mertajam hill in Cherok To'Kun last Sunday afternoon. Sky was much overcast but luckily, there wasn't any rain. Anyhow, the wet weather of the past fortnight had already inflicted its damage on the hill slopes.

As per our routine if we use the road, we would walk only to the part where the road joined one of the hill trails (accessible by a ladder propped up against a slope), maybe a distance of about 1.3 kilometres one-way from the car park. Along the way we came across at least seven landslips, some severe, some less so.

Several parts of the road were covered with yellow soil. Small boulders had also rolled down from the eroded slopes. On the way down, we overheard a fellow hiker commenting that he was at the hill the previous day but he gave up all attempts of climbing because yellowed water was gushing down from the hill slopes.

Here are a few pictures of the damage. I know that the authorities already have their hands full helping people who are affected by floods on the mainland of Penang, but I hope they can also clear up the mess here as soon as practicably possible.


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Nothing like home

To a young kid, nothing provides more security than his own home. That is, apart from the parents' presence, of course. And home to this young kid here was this rented pre-war house in Seang Tek Road.  The rented premises was, for all purposes, my home, my fort and my castle, all rolled into one.

I've absolutely no idea how long my grandparents had been staying here before I was born, but my parents were married in this house. And this was where I grew up until around 1979 when the landlord wanted the row of four houses back and we had to relocate to Zoo Road in Ayer Itam. I remember the landlord was an Indian but most probably he was a chettiar. Every month, he would come around to collect the rental. Though $32 is such a small sum today, it was a very big amount in the 60s and 70s.

Very few people owned a car in those days. Certainly, we didn't; but we did have two bicycles. One belonged to my granddad which he used until he died in 1966 while my father used the other one to cycle to work daily at the old Mercantile Bank in Beach Street. Only much later, in that same year I think, he bought a Honda C50 motorcycle to commute to the office.

That purchase freed up both bicycles in the house. And they went idle until 1969. One fine morning, I nicked one of the bicycles without my parents' knowledge and cycled to school. Of course, it created a lot of alarm at home, which I was blissfully unaware of at that time, because a bicycle had gone missing suddenly and my usual school taximan was worried stiff that I did not board his vehicle that morning. But from that day onwards, I cycled to school.

What I remember vaguely of my father's C50 Honda cub was that during some civil disturbances in the streets of Penang in 1967, he turned up at the school gate one day to fetch me home. Was it the Penang hartal of November 1967? I can't remember exactly.

Apart from the bicycles, the only way anyone in the family moved around was by public transport. The bus services in those days were very efficient. We sat either the George Town City Council buses or the green Lim Seng Seng Co Ltd buses that plied from Maxwell Road to the Ayer Itam village. Ten cents or 15 cents would take us from the city centre to the Kuantan Road junction. If we wanted to travel the whole distance to Ayer Itam, I think the fare was 20 cents or 25 cents.

Many times, I would accompany my mother to Penang Road or Gladstone Road. We would wait outside a barber shop at Dato Kramat Road and clamber on board the bus when it arrived. I remember the big uncovered drain outside this row of houses. The only thing preventing people from falling into the drain was a barrier of cast iron pipes. Only much later did the City Council lay concrete slabs over the drain.

Of course, we would also take a bus back from town, alighting at the bus stop near the Kuantan Road junction. I was always very thrilled to climb up on the seat and ring the bell once the bus had passed the Eastern Smelting plant.

Occasionally, my mother would decide to take the bus right up to Ayer Itam in order to visit some relatives there. I would be told not to ring the bell. So I would just sit by the bus window and watch the Seang Tek Road house pass me by. Every time it did, without fail, my heart would skip a beat and sink. It was as if I crying out in my heart, "Our house is there, I can see it from the bus, but why are we not stopping and going home?" That was how I felt about the security of my home was when I was not more than 10 years old.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Robert Sparke Hutchings remembered, 2013

I turned up at the old Protestant cemetery in Northam Road, George Town at about seven o'clock in the morning yesterday. Unlike last year, I did not see anyone milling around the entrance into the place. Last year we - meaning myself and the teachers, prefects and other pupils from the Penang Free School - had come too early and the cemetery's caretakers had not arrived to open the gate yet.

Whether or not the school's contingent had arrived early this time, well, I don't know because it was already daylight and the gates were open. I simply walked in, tried to get my bearings straight and headed in the direction where I hoped the Revd Robert Sparke Hutchings' grave would be.

Then I saw that the pastor was already there and a small group of people had assembled and were getting ready for the memorial service. I quickly joined them. It was such a simple and solemn occasion, but full of significance in remembering the founder of the Penang Free School.

Prayers were conducted by the Revd Ho Kong Eng from the Church of St George the Martyr, and several of the boys participated in the readings. That concluded, the Free School contingent sang the PFS School Rally while the boys from the Hutchings School sang theirs. The service ended after bouquets and wreaths were laid at Hutchings' grave. 

The boys and teacher from Hutchings School.

And this item below was the report that came out in The Star newspaper today (Metro North, page 2).

Monday, 21 October 2013

Opening of new Free School premises

Good morning or good afternoon or good evening to you, wherever you are! 

Today is the 197th anniversary of the founding of the Penang Free School. We are just three years short of celebrating our alma mater's bicentenary.

So when was it that the Penang Free School relocated from the old Farquhar Street premises to the present Green Lane grounds? I had written previously that I would try and find out.

Well, I am very certain now. I can now confirm that the relocation of the old school took place on 9 January 1928 and not 9 January 1925. This was the extensive report that appeared in The Straits Echo newspaper of 10 January 1928:

To read the full report, click here.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hope porky lasts

My wife and I were roaming around at the Gurney Plaza yesterday afternoon. We were about to scoot off for dinner downtown when it started pouring.

That put paid to our intention to have some chicken chop at the CF hawker centre in Weld Quay.

Not that we minded it a lot because we had also been eyeing this outlet at the lower ground floor of the shopping mall.

Rather than getting ourselves wet, we decided to patronise the Mr Porky burger joint.

We had noticed this outlet here about a week or two ago. Time then was just not right. Couldn't be a better time now to tuck in.

Turned out that the burger was very nice and succulent. The burger and bacon had been grilled to almost perfection and we enjoyed the meat's natural juices. Don't have to slosh all sorts of chilli sauce or tomato sauce on it.

When we were there on a Saturday afternoon, there were only two other customers before us. While we ate, four others sat down at the tables.

Hardly very encouraging, in my opinion. The food may taste good but if the customers don't come, it is very difficult to see the business sustaining for long.

I hope they will, because although I will not be eating any burger for quite a while to come, I want them to be around when the urge for a burger strikes me again.

(Mr Porky Burger n Dog is located next to the Cold Storage supermarket, Eu Yan Sang and Guardian Pharmacy on the lower ground floor of Gurney Plaza. Obviously, the food is non-halal.)


Saturday, 19 October 2013

Richard Clayderman is coming

We just returned from the island. An afternoon of walking and shopping at the Gurney Plaza where, upon my wife's urging, we picked up two tickets for the Richard Clayderman concert.

This would be the first time that this internationally-known pianist is performing in Penang. Actually, I'm sure it will be pretty exciting to watch him in person, and my wife will be thrilled.

The salesperson at the Popular Book Store told us that it would not be possible to choose our seats. We would have to accept whatever seats that the computerised ticketing system booked for us.

The only choice we could have was to choose whether to sit on the left side or the right side of the convention centre at Straits Quay in Tanjong Tokong.

I wasn't too happy with the lack of choice but in the end, I opted to sit on the left side, five seats away from the aisle. Oh well....

You can scream if you want to

I went for another round of acupuncture treatment at the Ku Cheng Tse Buddhist Temple in Seberang Jaya last Thursday. Fascinating though everything was, I hope it is not getting addictive. The lady acupuncturist asked me why I was so quiet. "Was it painful," she asked after she had stuck six needles into me. Just a little bit, I responded, especially that last needle. "You can scream if you want to," she replied, grinning.


Friday, 18 October 2013


Why would anyone want to join The Old Frees' Association? Indeed, why would anyone want to join any association, society or club? If the reason is to see what the association can do for you, then it is the wrong reason.

Don't just join an organisation to see what benefits you can get from it. That would be selfish and self-serving. Join, lah, for the sake of fraternising and fraternity. If you cannot see the overall good, if you cannot see the whole picture, then don't join at all. This excerpt from a facebook group probably sums up my thoughts very well.