Seberang Perai: the place you take the ferry from, to get across to Penang island.
For photographer Kenny Loh and scores of Malaysians who don’t live in Seberang Perai, that’s what the mainland of Penang was for years. A waiting room of sorts.
“I grew up in Ipoh, and my father would take us to Penang quite often,” says Loh. But all he knew of the mainland then was seen from the deck of the ferry, as the strip of land dwindled in the distance and George Town – a much ballyhooed Unesco World Heritage Site in later years – grew bigger. That was its narrative, the place to leave from.
But Seberang Perai –“across the Perai river”, in Malay – actually makes up the larger land mass of Penang, 740sqkm to the island’s 293sqkm. It’s mostly flat, except for the rise of Bukit Mertajam. Long and comparatively narrow, its main town is Butterworth (Bagan, to locals), which lies along the Perai River and faces its George Town cousin across the water.
It is also, according to the foreword to Seberang Perai: Stories From Across The Sea, a new book from Loh and journalist Ivy Soon, “on the brink of transformation ... its days on the margins numbered”.
Growth and the flow of visitors have been slowly but steadily increased by the 2014 opening of the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge, the third link between island and mainland (if you count the ferry service). Launched in August at the Butterworth Fringe Festival, this book is perfectly poised to capture the spirit of Seberang Perai as it emerges, blinking, from its chrysalis.
The whispers of Seberang Perai grew, tendril-like, from another book: Loh’s Born In Malaysia.
After living abroad for many years, in 2010 he sought to reacquaint himself with his country and its people by travelling with his camera and capturing their stories – and found himself captivated by their extraordinary everyday narratives.
After the book came out, there were still stories he wanted to tell. Time and again, Penang drew him.
Soon, a journalist with The Star, interviewed him about the self-published labour of love. At the interview, it emerged that her roots lay in Seberang Perai, her family having moved there from George Town when she was a toddler. She has lived in Kuala Lumpur for 26 years but her sense of belonging in Seberang Perai is ingrained.
“The first time I explored Seberang Perai as a journalist was 10 years ago, when I worked on a food guide for the area for Flavours magazine,” she says.
“That was when I got to know Kepala Batas, learnt about the Teochew culture in the south, tasted the chicken rice and chai kuih in Sungai Bakap – all the parts of Penang that people don’t really know.”
When Loh decided to work on a new book focusing on Penang, Soon was the natural choice to provide the words to his photos.
Looking for funding, the duo submitted a proposal to Think City, the community-based body that spearheaded the urban regeneration of George Town and which has now turned its sights on KL, Butterworth and Johor Baru.
Think City, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Bhd, agreed to provide a grant for the book, but it was to focus on Seberang Perai.
When Soon mentioned the project to Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, Star Media Group’s group managing director and CEO, the proud Penang boy decided that the book would be published by the company in conjunction with The Star’s 45th anniversary (celebrated on Sept 9, 2016).
“Kenny and I decided that the best way to tell the story of the place was through its people,” says Soon, explaining their approach to putting the book together.
“At first, I didn’t know if we would have enough subjects to interview. By the third trip, I realised we might have too many! There is just so much culture and colour in this place,” says Loh.
“We didn’t want to do something solely steeped in nostalgia,” says Soon. “The idea that the island is eminent is firmly entrenched, but Seberang Perai is the future of Penang – so we kept the tone contemporary. At the same time, we wanted to show how deep the roots go here.”
These roots include strong ties to Penang’s colonial past; Seberang Perai Utara’s position as a hub for Islamic studies; and the transformative Perai industrial zone.
So who is Seberang Perai? Soon and Loh introduce readers to a myriad characters, providing short but meaningful glimpses into their lives.
While today the numbers of Royal Australian Air Force personnel in Butterworth are nowhere near what they were in the 1970s and 1980s, they remain a well-remembered signifier of place in their tailored shorts and collared shirts.
In Kepala Batas, a craftsman painstakingly creates rattan birdcages with perfect symmetry, as his father did – but his job is slightly less labour-intensive because he can buy processed rattan, then dry it in the sun. In Tasik Gelugor, another young man has taken on his father’s well-known leather capal (sandal) business, slowly and sustainably building the business, keeping to treasured traditional methods but using social media to expand his customer base.
A farsighted, determined woman in Kota Aur, Penaga has single-handedly rallied 14 other families to join her in a homestay programme, hosting guests from all over world. They arrange cooking and handicraft classes, and tell stories of how Kota Aur was once the capital of ancient Langkasuka.
In Nibong Tebal, a durian farmer – whose trees are as distinctive to him as people – is recognised as the owner of the award-winning or chee (black thorn) cultivar.
Each story looks to past, present and future.
One of Loh’s favourite photos is spread over two pages. It shows a group of Indians walking up a hill towards a temple, while the southern area of Batu Kawan sprawls behind and below them (see top image).
Batu Kawan is significant to Indians; many of them lived in the area from the 1830s on, when they were bought in to work on sugarcane plantations, then rubber estates. In the early 1990s, the Penang Development Corporation bought over the land.
“With all the new development, many have since moved out of the area, but they do come back to worship,” explains Loh.
“Last year, a developer had a dream that he should build a temple, so he spent RM1.8mil building one for Lord Murugan. Most of the land is flat, but the temple is on a hill so that their deity can look out over the land.”
Seberang Perai – distilled through Loh’s lens and Soon’s words – may provide insight even for locals.
“At the book launch (in August 2016), I had locals coming up to me and going ‘Oh, we have that? We have wau bulan around here?’” says Loh.
A greater whole
The fascinating fragments of lives build into a whole that makes you want to immediately pack a bag and explore the Balai Bisik Kuala Muda, where buying and selling is conducted in whispers (“bisik” is Malay for “whisper”), or the Teochew biscuit shop in Nibong Tebal, where much of the sweet stuff is still made by hand.
As the year of working on the book drew to a close, Loh and Soon realised that they had discovered a community drawn together from disparate areas, with a shared pride in where they now live.
“They have strong generational ties because most of these families have been here for so long,” says Loh.
“The sense of community is very strong here, even if it takes different forms,” adds Soon.
“In Bukit Tambun, there is a guy whose family owns a lot of land. They have set up a herbal sauna there – and they charge just RM3 per person, because it’s all about people’s well-being for them. They plant their own herbs, and the proceeds go to charity.
“Again, it’s not something that is steeped in nostalgia – as a whole, the people here tend to embrace newer initiatives like recycling, going green. Anything for the greater good of the community,” Soon says.
One of Soon’s favourite stories is that of 82-year-old Govindasamy, a third generation plantation worker from Batu Kawan.
“He worked hard and by 1969, saved up enough to buy a house and move out of the estate. We met him on a Sunday morning and he told us that he had already made RM30 that day by fixing bicycles! It’s that can-do spirit you find in Seberang Perai, that determination to make something of their lives,” she says.
“You cannot ask me which is my favourite story! In Nibong Tebal, a father entrusted the youngest of his four daughters to revive their family's 70-year-old coffee brand. The coach in Seberang Jaya, who teaches special needs kids to swim – he also taught my mother! How can I possibly choose one?
“We hope that this book will help Seberang Perai enter people’s consciousness. Let them know that there is a vibrant, dense, living mainland.
“While it is localised to Seberang Perai, this book also tells the story of Malaysia. The spirit that built the country, that keeps it strong, away from the politics and the headlines,” says Soon.
“When I did my first book, I said it was about the heroes of Malaysia. So is this one. It has been a privilege to listen to their stories.”
Seberang Perai: Stories From Across The Sea (Star Media Group), retailing at RM65, is available at Kinokuniya KLCC and selected MPH stores.