[UPDATE June 23, 2015: This is the primary filming location of the new UK Drama series, "Indian Summers"]
“There’s not much up here. I mean the view is really nice, but...”
I pointed at a small, outdoor stage, and laughed. “You can have your photo taken with a snake around your neck?”
“Yeah, that’s why I paid 30 ringgit to come up Penang Hill.” Mark glanced over at a sign that advertised 25 ringgit for a golf cart tour down the road and back. He shook his head. “Wow, this might be a bigger tourist trap than Snake Temple.
“Okay, let’s go.”
We headed back to the train station when someone called out our names from behind. Penang has over a million people, but it is a small enough world where you keep bumping into someone you know.
It was a local friend of ours who is active in the heritage movement in George Town, and around the island. He had just finished a meeting with the Penang Hill Corporation and had a look of disappointment. “Do you guys want to go and check out the old Crag Hotel?”
We looked at each other and then nodded to him.
We hadn’t heard of the hotel, but after he explained its location, we realized it was a cluster of buildings on a nearby hilltop that we saw earlier from the lawn area in the back of the rundown Bellevue Hotel. Our friend also told us that two developers were vying for the opportunity to raze it to the ground and build a five star hotel on the land.
We followed him down a steep, paved road, where we were lucky enough to spot Malayan Giant Squirrels, hopping along the tree branches above.
We stepped off the main road to the right and entered a hidden dirt road that the jungle was trying to reclaim. If that wasn’t enough to keep people out, a few wild dogs were barking and running ahead of us. “Not a good idea to come here alone.”
“And probably not a good idea in a small group either,” Mark half joked.
When we came around a corner, we were met by a black dog sitting on a wooden bridge, guarding the only way in. But when we approached, the dog forgot his duty and ran off. Or maybe Mark got the password correct when he said out loud – “I’m not going in there.”
Crossing over the bridge, deserted buildings greeted us on both sides of the path, and an entryway beckoned us to explore.
As we passed by, and wandered through, building after building in silence, I expected to feel an emptiness. But images of rusting doorknobs, address plaques, crumbling stairwells and bathrooms, and open windows, reminded me that this was a place full of life. And as I learned, a place with a fascinating history.
Around 1885-1890, a house was built on the site by Captain J.W. Kerr – an employee of the East India Company who traded between Penang and Aceh. But shortly after, around 1894, the site was already converted into a hotel as a retreat for Europeans to escape the heat of the lowlands.
At the turn of the century, the hotel was taken over by the Sarkies Brothers – the famous Armenian hoteliers who ran the most elegant chain of hotels in Southeast Asia, which included the E&O in George Town, the Raffles in Singapore, and the Strand in Rangoon. With their reputation of extravagance, the brothers developed the Crag Hotel into a famous retreat, especially popular with honeymooners.
The brothers built additional chalets to accommodate more guests, including families. These smaller buildings were scattered around the main building, which was situated at the highest point of the hill at 2,260 feet. Leading up a stone staircase, guests would be welcomed into the grand hall of the dining room, and then to the side lounge and reading room areas.
The hotel was renovated again when it changed hands in the late 1920s, with the new hotel owners adding an extension to the main building in 1929.
The Crag Hotel continued operations until WWII broke out. But when the Japanese finally surrendered in 1945, the hotel was not revived. After a decade of disuse, Uplands School – a boarding school for the children of European plantation owners – leased the property and opened it to 60 primary school students in January 1955. The secluded location was specifically chosen for safety, since this was during the Malay Emergency - the guerrilla war between the Commonwealth and the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948-1960. Uplands School's presence on the hill spanned three decades, with the highlight being Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the school in 1972.
|The annual class photos at Uplands were taken on the staircase|
While many of the chalets are now in disrepair, the main building is in surprisingly good shape. What’s most captivating as I peered into the rooms is that I could still find signs of each period in its colourful history. Beautiful, wooden shutter windows that overlook the property and George Town far below, stirring images of the Crag Hotel, with guests lounging on recliners, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Chalk boards in the smaller rooms, with broken pieces of chalk on the floor, reminding me that the halls were once filled with students, studying in the cooler air of Penang Hill. And large wooden frame backdrops in the main dining hall, left behind by the film crew of Indochine.
For anyone visiting Penang Hill, I highly recommend reading through the special Penang Hill issue of Pulau Pinang Magazine from 1989 (Vol. 1, No. 4), which covers the history, culture, and botany of the hill, as well as extensive details on many of the colonial mansions located there.
Unfortunately, the magazine is very difficult to come by now. If there is enough demand, maybe the former editor, Salma Khoo, will republish them. You can contact her at her publishing company, Areca Books, at firstname.lastname@example.org.