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A House; A Hotel; A School; A Film Set; A Treasure


[UPDATE June 23, 2015: This is the primary filming location of the new UK Drama series, "Indian Summers"]


Uplands School and Crag Hotel on Penang Hill

“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.

Malayan Giant Squirrel near Uplands School on Penang Hill

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.”

wooden bridge to uplands school on penang hill

Crossing over the bridge, deserted buildings greeted us on both sides of the path, and an entryway beckoned us to explore.

entrance to crag hotel and uplands school on penang hill

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.

address numbers at uplands school in penang

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.

dormitory building at uplands school and crag hotel on penang hill

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.

1929 year plate on building addition to Crag Hotel on Penang Hill

 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 main staircase at Uplands School in Penang where the annual class photos were taken
The annual class photos at Uplands were taken on the staircase
After Uplands moved out in 1977, the site has remained unoccupied to this day. However, there was a flash of its previous glory when the main building was used as a shooting location for two pivotal scenes in the French film, Indochine (first, as Catherine Deneuve’s residence, and second, as a restaurant where she dances the tango with her adopted daughter). The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1992.


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.

main building of uplands school on penang hill and set of Indochine film inside main building of uplands school and set of Indochine film

Now that the Penang Hill railway has reopened, and development plans are underway for the top of the hill, it would be wonderful to see this Penang treasure restored. Don’t you?

main building of uplands school on penang hill (and also crag hotel)


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.

Pulau Pinang Magazine issue on Penang Hill

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 arecabooks@gmail.com.

26 comments:

Victor said...

I heard the main building/site was haunted. Looked eerily enough just looking at the photos, and the black dog (something out of a horror movie).

Reese said...

Hi Victor,

Very eery. Not a place I would want to walk through at night.

Reese said...

An update since I posted this story yesterday:

The Star published an article today about the Penang State government reaching a deal with a big resort developer based in Indonesia, which will be signed in two weeks. The developer stated that they will preserve the main building and turn it into a restaurant/lounge.

Difficult to trust developers in Penang, but fingers crossed they keep their word and retain the historical charm of the site.

For anyone wanting to visit the site in its current state, I would recommend getting there soon. I'm sure the developer will seal off the property soon, if not already.

stephen said...

The artist rendering of the place after Reno works depicts a building of glass which looks totally Incongruent with the setting.I hope they restore the "Sanatorium" to it's former glory and keep it's rustic charm.I don't mind spending a couple of nights there after the transformation to take in the ethereal charm of the place, have tea in the gardens amidst the foliage, cool minty breeze and maybe have the company of ghosts from the past to talk about about how it was in those days of fluctuating rubber prices, tropical maladies and perils of tin mining or even the problems of native help. That would be brilliant!

Han Chuan Ong said...

For a good read on the former British governors' fascination with Penang Hill as a respite from the tropical heat, read Kate Sanderson's Past Particles in Penang. The book describes the Penang that I was never aware of when living on the island for 18 years of my life.

Reese said...

Hi Stephen,

Wonder if they will hire a few "Penang Ghost Busters" before they renovate the place. Plenty of them around willing to do the job.

Mark & Reese

P.S. Got your last comment - let's just say you, "hit the nail on the head"

Reese said...

Hi Han Chuan,

Thanks for the tip. Would love to read it, but I haven't seen it anywhere in Penang. Any idea where we can pick up a copy?

Thanks!

Reese

Han Chuan said...

Reese,

It is available from Amazon.com, but I am not sure if about deliveries to Malaysia. I am in Arkansas, so I was able to order it online.

Cheers,
Han Chuan

debi said...

Reese,

I loved reading this. I hope the main building will be preserved. From the pictures, it's a fascinating place.

The building looks mysterious and inviting to the curious. The green surroundings give an aura of safety.

These are beautiful pictures taken with an artistic eye.

Christina Schweighofer said...

What a fascinating post! i'd have been scared to bits walking in there. Looks very scary, haunted. I'll keep fingers crossed too that the developer treats the place with respect and does more good than harm. Keep us in the loop!

Reese said...

Thank you Debi and Christina! Yes, fingers crossed that the developers keep the main building intact, and also keep the historic appeal of the area (and keep a ghost or two around).

Will keep everyone updated.

Rasa Malaysia said...

Great to see and read the history of this hotel which will be an Amanresorts in the future. Having an Amanresorts in Penang WILL put Penang on a completely new level of hip, and I am personally very excited about it.

Reese said...

Thanks Bee. It will be good to see the property brought back to life and used as it originally was - a hotel.

Christina Schweighofer said...

What a fascinating post! i'd have been scared to bits walking in there. Looks very scary, haunted. I'll keep fingers crossed too that the developer treats the place with respect and does more good than harm. Keep us in the loop!

Paul Baillies said...

Nice to see these photos. I was a boarder here back in 1953 (lower bungalow school then up to crags) 1955-56.We used to have assembly in a room to the right of the main entrance and mealtimes at the big building with the stone steps. To the left of this and below there were a couple of caves in the granite foundations under the building which were out of bounds if my memory serves me well

Reese said...

Thank you, Paul, for sharing your stories of Uplands School. Always wonderful to hear firsthand accounts of what life was like in Penang many years ago.

chichung said...

Very nice webpage, i will try to follow your recommends. such as second book shop...etc
is still possible to visit the old Crag Hotel? i'll travel to Penang tomorrow for six days (30Aug~4Spet), i love to see the old place around Penang (specially abandoned place). would you mind to show me the way how to get there.
or u could also send to my E-mail account: chunglala@hotmail.com
ChiChung From Hong Kong

seasonwithspice said...

Hi Chi Chung, sorry for the late reply. We've been pretty busy with www.SeasonWithSpice.com.

Hope you had a wonderful trip to Penang and made it to Crag Hotel!

chichung said...

Hi, we had great time at Penang, couldn't get to the Crag Hotel, but we enjoyed the night market for food, second-hand bookshop at the Chowrasta Market, Flea Market, Goh Chan Lau (Shih Chung School) and the 99-Door Mansion at Nibong Tebal. We also like the ferry to the Butterworth as well, George Town is just like a old Hong Kong, we would like to come again. cheers!

seasonwithspice said...

Hi Chi Chung - It's wonderful to know that you had a great time in Penang. Looks like you managed to explore some of the off touristy places for the unique experiences.

John Pease said...

Brings back memories. I was there as a student between 1965 and 1968. Our headmaster was a Mr Warwick Banfield from New Zealand. The buildings below were the dormitories.

Season with Spice said...

Thank you for sharing, John. Happy we could bring back some good memories for you. Best, Reese & Mark

Susan R. said...

My brother Hugh and i were at Uplands from around1959/60. Our headmaster was Mr. Thurley. I was also at the lower bungalow - or Grace Dieu which was the preschool (I was 4 years old when i first went there to board) then up to the main schol. It was an amazing place to go to school - monkeys outside the windows when you were meant to concentrate on your studies - huge trees with ropes to climb up, huge roots at the bases of the trees to climb into - and meals in the big building with the steps - the assemblys and the all important dishing out of the letters from our long suffering parents. It is lovely to see the buildings being restored. The series so far is very good.

JackieJago said...

Brings back memories for me too. I was a boarder at Uplands around 1960. Don't remember much about the lessons or teachers to be honest But I do remember how beautiful it was up there. I loved going up on the train and the walk along the path to the school. So sad to see it so uncared for. It was a special place and I am happy that I had the experience of spending time there.

Mark Lagerstedt said...

Hi Susan
I remember you and your brother. I was at Uplands for 3 years between 1960 and 1963. I am pretty sure Hugh and I were in the same marbles team. I will be in Penang next month and will make attempt to get to the old school. I Would love to hear from you.

Best regards

Mark Lagerstedt (my mother was the nurse)

Season with Spice said...

Hi Mark, just a quick update. We're not in Penang any longer, but we found out that the new UK drama series, "Indian Summers" is using the the site as their primary filming location. Based on the clips that we've seen online, it looks like the film crew completed extensive renovation. Would be interesting to visit, but it may be off limits to visitors now. However, if you do get there, we would love to see pictures. All the best, Reese & Mark (CapturingPenang@gmail.com)