Old Penang: Penang Hill Railway

Old Penang: Penang Hill Railway

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Why rush to the top of Penang Hill, when the ride up in the slow ol’ wooden train was itself a priceless multi-sensational experience.

Penang Hill Railway Lower Station circa 1930s - Photograph courtesy of Ric Francis, from his book 'Penang Hill'

Penang Hill Railway
Penang Hill Railway - Photograph courtesy of Ric Francis, from his book 'Penang Hill&#039
Postcard of Penang Hill Railway in the 1960s - Image credit: www.myphilately.com

A ride up Penang in the 1960s
by tunglang

The old, steady and trusty way up to the top of the mist-covered hill haven in Penang – riding up in a slope-hugging wooden train – was something of great anticipation in my childhood. I can still visualise the unforgettable moments of ‘touching the clouds’ with visibility of not more than 10 feet, the misty chills at the top station – breathing in the super-refreshing cool mist that was like the draught from an open fridge, and exhaling the heavy vapour, as I imitated John Wayne smoking Rough Rider cigarettes. And to see and touch the abundant ‘queen-sized’ flowers half as large as my face was truly amazing. With so much fresh oxygen, things floral grew real big!

My yearly ‘pilgrimage’ to Penang Hill on the first day of Chinese New Year with my wonderful dad has been etched in my mind – a priceless experience no other hill trips, not even the superficial, over-commercialised and crowded Genting Highlands could ever match. Taking the Municipal bus at 6.15am and reaching the Ayer Itam roundabout to sip Kopi-O kau kau at a kopitiam, we still had spare time to walk some distance to the base station for the early train ride up the hill.

In fact, we were among the few early visitors/commuters to greet the train attendants, who methodically carried out their daily duties of checking and making sure the trips were without delay or technical problems. The smell of grease, cables, granite brick wall, coagulated rubber sheets (from farms) and the surrounding jungle greens, still ringing with sleepless crickets and toads, were enough to jump-start my adrenalin for the much-anticipated morning ride. And the train tickets smelled real good too!

When the inside grille gate was finally opened, I was let in like a gleeful dog, running around the train porch before the memorable moment of touching the brass door handle of the train and boarding the all wooden but steady-as-a-rock slanted train. My choice of seating or (mostly) standing on seat was in the front row just behind the train driver. Sitting would have rendered me a dwarf, what more with the sloping, hard wooden seats.

The moment of truth came when we were locked safely inside the cabin. Soon the bell rang and the grand ol’ train started to climb at the first tug of the over-greased thick cable. I could feel my heart displace a few centimetres at the first jerk before the train moved. It was a thrilling mechanical feat … the feel of the vibrating rolling wheels in torque on cast iron rails… you just became part of the ol’ train gently climbing at leisure up the steep hill amidst nature’s tranquility, transported to another world of old colonial charm. Almost half a century old, yet the wooden train was steady and strong like ‘Or Kau’ Guinness Stout.

The seat in the front row, whether going uphill or downhill, provided the perfect vantage point for soaking in the panorama. Time slowed down, affording one the luxury of absorbing in great sensual detail the splendour of the rainforest – ferns, monkey cups, the flora, mushrooms, giant ants, monkeys, spiders, birds and hundred-year-old trees crowned by tall bluish-green canopies.

The occasional brief stops for local hill residents provided extra precious time to draw closer to Nature and to breathe in the pristine oxygen-rich air creeping into the cabin through huge open windows. That was the natural air-con without the need for an artificial air-con.

And of course, to gaze at the heritage ambience of wooden electric cable poles and to wonder in nostalgia at the antiquated pre-war lamps with warm tungsten light bulbs, ‘decorated’ with spider webs for the half-slumbering queen spiders.

If one was dreaming of travelling to faraway lands to see picturesque cottage homes, there was (and still is) no better alternative place to see the real thing in Malaysia than in Penang Hill. Nestled among embracing trees and occasional guardian spirit boulders, the idyllic bungalows stirred the happy spirits of the already fascinated tourists, as they gazed from the windows of the slow-moving trains, their minds transfixed by the mental images of relaxation, serenity, and sanctuary during this recuperative getaway-from-the-boss sojourn. The smoking chimneys, miniature attic windows, stone bricks, Victorian architecture, pine trees and wind-direction roosters added a surreal charm and holiday sensation of European countryside in the midst of the tropical rainforest of Penang Hill.

Though it was just a halfway trip up the hill for both of us, the 20 minutes or so ride seemed to me a lifetime of innocent happiness – time in fact stood still. Looking forward to this journey, I would wait for dad and me to take that once-a year-trip up the hill to visit my grandparents’ homestead, nestled among embracing trees, ferns and the ever-sprouting vegetable gardens.

As dad and I alighted from the ol’ train at mid-station into the cool breezy air outside, I walked reluctantly away in envy of those tourists who could still continue the second half of the journey in the slow train up to the summit, where the cotton-like mist came floating in the air every sleepy afternoon in the 1960s.

As the Chinese proverb goes: “The journey is the reward”. So it was with the Penang Hill Railway. Why rush to the top, when the climb up in the ol’ train itself was truly a priceless multi-sensational experience.

The new hill railway track by-passing the old Middle Station with an old train parked inside - Photograph: Ric Francis
Mothballed: Another old train parked on the old upper loop - Photograph: Ric Francis

24 COMMENTS

    • You mean to tear down the Speedy Gonzales fridge train, unsightly track & cable? Just like the Botanic Garden 2 arches?
      The problem with Fed’s Satu Lagi Projek is build first without public approval; $pend, $pend, $pend; then let the complaint/outcry take its (anticipated) course.
      You and I will then see who is the natural target for dirt throwing though it is beyond his jurisdiction (over Fed’s problematic projects).
      And the Feds will wryly say why give Penang any more development fund or Satu Lagi Projek when they always complain?

      In fact this Satu Lagi Projek came with an unspoken, hidden caveat after passing the key of responsibility to the state gomen:
      “Please take care of this Penang Hill Railway upgraded for the Penangites to enjoy shiok, shiok. Any problem that may come after today’s hand over, you Kau Tim.”

      The so-called ‘good’ deeds are done & ‘dirty’ hands washed, but the sorrow of tackling problems by the tons begins.

       
  1. Looking at the new hill railway track pics by Ric Francis, it makes one (foreign tourist) wonders why are there 2 ‘usable’ tracks overlapping and laying side by side but only one in use.
    Why not have 2 choices: a slow ride & a Speedy Gonzales ride? (I would prefer a cable car option for the impatient ones and leave the magical slow ride untouched).
    As it is, it smacks of wasteful use of resources, which also makes for an ugly, unimaginative presentation of a world record hill railway with a history & reputation of tourists’ unforgettable experience. And don’t forget the frequent break down which BTW, I heard from my visiting British friend of another no train service just last week!
    Call it another stray dog interruption or no spare parts or missing manual, it looks to be a frequent, standard feature of Penang Hill Railway of Unexpected Down Time.

    By the look of things ‘side by side':
    Then why not revive the old trams running side by side the Rapid buses?
    Or the Indian bullock carts & DHL delivery vans / Ah Kow lorries?
    Or instead of saving only the heritage front facades of bungalows but wantonly destroy the entire back, integrate it whole into a congruous architectural development. Side by side.
    Anyway, not all things can go side by side without innovative solutions! Unless one is devoid of taste and common sense.

    Not all modern designs are for replacing time-tested utilities, esp. the ones with functional values, manual based, heritage values and tourism potentials or pull. We may say that moving on with the time is right thinking which no one doubts at face value but it is not the blanket death sentence of all things with age or without ‘changih’ presentation or trendy hi-technology. Careful introspective consideration rather than individualistic preference of trendy fancies is the way to move froward without regrets of the unforeseen or convenient but proof-less Act of God excuses!

    We still can’t accept the word ‘recycle’ as an option to save, reuse or readapt. It has to be on the profitable line of “make obsolete so as to make new things,” which was an old destructive thinking of the Industrial Age of massive resource wastage of the 20th century AD. It is most pervasive in the digital gadgets & electronic industries where obsolete due date is ‘sentenced’ on every product leaving the production line before it ever reaches the consumer. Never mind that it still can function well to customer’s satisfaction beyond the due date. So the argument of no new product line or no product extension means no business to profit from. Which is kind of short-changing & forced-purchase-to-upgrade us unsuspecting consumers in order to stay alive in business! What an obsolete way of staying alive!

    The New Age of Save Planet Earth is still foreign in the dizzy minds of profiteers waiting in line to manufac & reap high profits without careful consideration of optimal product life cycle, market needs, distribution, pricing, scarce resources and environment. Fashion is the new millennium mantra and $$$thinking, never mind that we have no clear, absolute ideas of how to save and reuse scarce resources, or how to be innovative to create new uses that will enhance our lives or add complementary value to existing uses or utilities.

    Soon, Penang will have ‘Side by Side’ presentation of old & new.

     
  2. One should not jump to conclusions. There are many progressive thinking penangites that does not agree to keeping everything heritage. It’s time to move on.

     
  3. Ever since they (Feds) upgraded the Penang Hill Railway, I have not sinked a foot at the base station. I’d rather leisurely walk/hike up the hill road from Botanic Garden and get to smell and touch Nature first hand without the frenzy dizzy feel of Speedy Gonzales in fridge train prone to stray dog’s barking.
    BTW, are there sinister plans to install incongruous, ugly & plastic Darth Vader design?
    Why has it to be ‘perishable’ trendy plastic designs without cultural significance (some overtly slippery cleanliness obsessed but dangerous and expensive/costly to Penang’s famed affordable standard of living) replacing Penang’s heritage icons like kopitiams, heritage bungalows, trams, prewar houses, roundabouts, monsoon drains, street hawker stalls, walking food vendors, Victorian street lamps, and wet markets?
    Now I am fearing the worst for our heritage trishaws. Will they face the same modernism-remake-to-extinction of made in China plastic becas with recycled electric motors steered by marauding Mongolians?

    Time for morning Kopi-O kau kau to get rid of Darth Vader invasion of my mind. (Too much reading of the coming Giants or Nephilim during our near future time of destruction & sorrows of mankind)

     
  4. if only we have internet during 80’s – 90’s era when Penang was booming so that we have people power to ensure proper spending of state revenues.
    if only tunglang can share his tales during 80’s & 90’s to give people nolstagic feels and get to truly “gerak” the administrator not to waste/leak and preserve the heritage and upgrade their values for future generations to witness.
    We have lost some shining moments of the past due to negligence or simply bo chap attitudes of past administrators.
    We can just hope there are less Maneaters otherwise I Can’t Go For That !

     
  5. probably my wishful thinking that we can travel back in time if we can have movie screening under moonlight on top of penang hill during weekends. Show claasics like p ramlee (& saloma) movies, john wayne’s classic western (eg El Dorado, True Grit etc) and so on.
    tunglang can relive past memories playing cowboy this time with his sons or grandsons.

    in reality i do expect Starbuck, Kim Garry, KFC etc will park their outlets there unless penang gomen can find alternate sources of revenues.

    As in Clint Eatwood’s movies, we have The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in Penang. We all know who they are now.

     
    • Penangites should treasure the idyllic lifestyle and not to be consumed by fast-paced lifestyle to chase the $$$. Need to be patient and productive but not rushing for results as it will cause you immerse stress and anxiety.

      Remember to ‘smell the flower’ as you walk along the road.

       
    • More than 20 years ago, I made my first and last trip up to Penang hill. To go up there is no problem but to come back, it was really a nightmare. From evening, we have to wait until night because of the slow tram. There were long long queue with everyone waiting to go back at 5pm with a thousand at the hill top waiting to go home for dinner, bath and sleep. How to solve it?

       
      • To build more or speedy transport facilities just to cater for the occasional (not everyday affair) 5pm crowds is not a viable nor financially prudent solution. Already there is an alternative jeep transportation up the hill via Botanic Garden. And why not eat at the hill top restaurants and tea terraces and food court. And there’s a hill hotel to stay and enjoy the sunrise and sunset.

        If you know how and when to avoid the occasional crowd – to enjoy exotic Penang Hill.

        BTW, the experience of Penang Hill resort is entirely different from that of the Genting Highlands, which is mostly the casino and theme parks and rushing here and there to maximize the holiday packages.

        Penang Hill begs to differ entirely.
        The train ride, a unique world record experience was one part. (The present one of ‘bottled up’ with full blast air con, misted up poor view windows and rush-climbing like Speedy Gonzales is not my kind of intimate experience of an otherwise unique train ride).

        The hill top is another part which is more to soaking in nature’s serenity, recuperative stay in colonial bungalow charm and exploring with close-up nature adventures. It is a place not for the typical Speedy Gonzales of ‘gobbling up’ in haste without the intimate, memorable experience of a lifetime.

         
      • Sean,
        How about similar practical and inexpensive devices / inventions that can speedily (like the Pg Hill Speedy Gonzales coach) send/ship out/extradite those Barang Naik goons out of Penang ASAP?
        Hello, many talented Penang engineers comrades at FTZ. Think about it.

         
  6. Well noted article, I have a book soon to be released on the full History of the first two railways, book will be published in Penang by ARECA BOOKS. At present my book on Penang Trams Trolleybuses & Railways is available from bookshops in Penang or from ARECA
    Ric Francis

     

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