Tuesday, 17 February 2015
Indian Summers in Penang
The Bellevue Hotel at Penang Hill is a photographer's private delight. From its vantage point behind the restaurant, one looks down at the promontory which is George Town. When my wife and I were there at the turn of the new year, we truly enjoyed our stay there despite the somewhat quaint service from the kitchen. To the left of the vantage point, one can see a huge structure in the distance, somehow positioned at a slightly lower elevation than the Bellevue itself.
A long time ago, this was the well-known Crag Hotel, established in 1895 by the same Sarkies Brothers from Armenia who had also developed the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel in downtown George Town and the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
In the late 19th century, a certain Captain J Kerr had leased a plot of land at Penang Hill and erected his bungalow which he called The Crag. Later, the Sarkies brothers acquired the bungalow from Kerr and turned it into the Crag Hotel. The hotel operated until the Second World War and after that, it fell into disuse. From 1955 to 1977, the International School of Penang (or Uplands School) used the building as its primary boarding school.
When I was at the Bellevue on 31 Dec 2014, I had trained my camera at the former Crag Hotel and captured this picture. The place actually looked spruced up and not as dilapidated as originally thought. Even from this distance, I had noticed that the lawn and garden was very neat. Evidently, someone was taking care of the place. It had been so cleaned up.
Then in the past fortnight or so, I've been reading that a new 10-episode television series was about to be screened in the United Kingdom. The Channel 4 TV series, called Indian Summers, would take viewers back to the summer of 1932. It would be the last days of British rule in colonial India: there's the decline of the British Raj and the birth of modern India.
The series is set in Simla - the capital of the Himachel Pradesh state in the north of India. It was here during the hottest months of the year that a burgeoning community of Brits would descend and govern from the foothills of the Himalayas, where it was cooler. However, modern-day Simla posed too many practical obstacles: too many modern high-rise buildings that couldn't be avoided in any location shooting.
Then the producers happened to visit Penang and they were swept away by our colonial past. The buildings here have far too many similarities with Simla in the past. Penang was an ideal substitute. And the former Crag Hotel became the Royal Simla Club, the focal point of the whole series. But there was still a problem.
Simla was located at the foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas. Where on earth could we find snow-capped mountains in Malaysia? Luckily, this problem was easily solved. No big deal. Like many film shows nowadays, computer-generated backdrops have come to the rescue. And so, here we are, Penang Hill has been relocated to the foothills of the Himalayas.