Few people realise that Pulau Jerejak has a hidden heritage so haunting that it was once featured in the History Channel.
Most of the migrants arriving in Penang from China and India and other Asian nations – the ancestors of many Penangites – had to spend a stint in quarantine in Pulau Jerejak. That alone should strike a chord among Penangites today.
But there is a darker past only experienced first-hand by the island’s ostracised inhabitants of years gone by. The Alcatraz of Malaysia once housed leprosy and tuberculosis patients isolated from the rest of society as well as suspected drug traffickers, other criminals, and political dissidents, many of them detained without a fair trial.
Tormented souls, treated outcasts, many forgotten – forcibly and cruelly separated from loved ones and the rest of society. It was a place where hopes and dreams were shatttered, where no one could see the tears of its inhabitants nor hear their cries of anguish over their rejection.
Reminders of this painful past can be found in the remnants of eerie jail cells and dormitories in the jungle, in the many desolate tombstones with barely readable inscriptions scattered around the island, in the ruins of places of worship where residents beseeched the Almighty, searching desperately for solace.
A memorial to a couple of Russian soldiers killed during the sinking of their ship at the Penang harbour by a German cruiser in 1914 lies on the eastern side of the island. One theory is that local fisherfolk found their bodies drifting in the waters near Pulau Jerejak and buried them on the island.
Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that the now-shuttered Tropical Island Resort never returned a profit?
The panoramic views amidst the lush jungle-clad hills may make it a compelling place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life – but the tranquility is deceptive. Beneath the surface, the disturbing memories of the island’s tortured past hardly make the place the most idyllic setting to live in.