Community project helps stories of Penang Hill, Maxwell Hill reach new heights

One of the Penang Hill farmers sorting out his harvest of lemongrass. Photo: A Tale of Two Hills

There is a little magic in every hill and those visiting a pair of recently-opened exhibitions would certainly feel it.

A Tale Of Two Hills, which is being held concurrently now in Penang and Perak, is shining a spotlight on the rich natural heritage and cultural narratives of Penang Hill and Maxwell Hill respectively.

They are among the country’s earliest hill stations, established to give British colonists a cool escape from the searing tropical heat of the lowlands and also the threat of malaria.

Penang Hill is actually a collective term for a number of hills at the heart of the island. The colony’s founder Captain Francis Light is said to have first plotted a track to the top one of the peaks back in 1788. It became known as Flagstaff Hill, which is still reflected in the Malay name Bukit Bendera.

Maxwell Hill was established a century later in 1884, serving as both a retreat and observation post for tin-mining activities in nearby Larut and Taiping. Though officially renamed Bukit Larut in 1979 but many still refer to it with the English moniker. Regardless, both have centuries of stories to tell.

And these are articulated through the exhibition’s photographs, illustrations, videos and written narratives. The wide range of topics explored include sustainability, biodiversity, endemicity to human society, the cultural impacts of colonialism and migration, as well as the inter-generational dynamics of communities living at both locations.

The Maxwell Hill team documenting one of the old bungalows during their fieldwork. Photo: A Tale of Two HillsThe Maxwell Hill team documenting one of the old bungalows during their fieldwork. Photo: A Tale of Two Hills

These were created by a group of eight visual narrators (four for each location) under a six-month mentorship programme supported by Penang-based charitable trust The Habitat Foundation and urban impact organisational Think City.

The exhibition on Penang Hill opened at the Mano Plus store on Beach Street in George Town last Thursday (Feb 16), while the one on Maxwell Hill opened at the Maxwell Basecamp on Friday (Feb 17).

Programme coordinator Jeffrey Lim said A Tale Of Two Hills originated from the need to document the rich culture and people living within the Penang Hill biosphere reserve.

This grew into a mentorship programme meant to train and upskill young locals. Subsequently, it was also expanded to include Maxwell Hill, owing to both highlands’ similarities.

Conversations are key

“We felt it was important to include and work with locals from each location. They would produce their own documentation and record their own narratives,” said Lim about the scope of the project.

On the Penang side, narrators are Foo Wei Meng, Leaf Yeap Lee Hua, Ong Ke Shin and Oh Chin Eng. While all were familiar with the hill, the experience opened up a flurry of new discoveries.

Penang Hill narrator Ong Ke Shin captured the daily lives of the farmers. Photo: A Tale of Two HillsPenang Hill narrator Ong Ke Shin captured the daily lives of the farmers. Photo: A Tale of Two Hills

Ong remarked, “Penang Hill is often perceived as a tourist destination with British origins. But through this project, we hope the many endeavours by locals could be better appreciated.”

Approaching the residents, most of whom are farmers, was not easy initially. Many were shy or reluctant to be interviewed. But the team persisted and eventually won their trust and friendships.

“The more conversations we had, the more we were able to unlock the hidden treasure troves of stories not widely known to the public,” Ong added of her experience.

Offering an example, Yeap chimed in, “You’d be surprised to know there are numerous flower farms at the middle parts of the hill. These used to plant chrysanthemums but have now switched to roses and dahlias to cater to market demand. I was lucky enough to shoot a farmer harvesting roses and record a chapter of his life.”

Such farmers used to spend hours each day going down into town to sell their crop then hiking back up to get home. Motor paths were finally built in the 1960s and have since made life easier. Today, these trails are also enjoyed by hikers.

Images of Maxwell Hill from Low Pey Sien seen at the 'A Tale of Two Hills' exhibition at Maxwell Hill in Perak. Photo: A Tale of Two HillsImages of Maxwell Hill from Low Pey Sien seen at the 'A Tale of Two Hills' exhibition at Maxwell Hill in Perak. Photo: A Tale of Two Hills

“During my schooling days, my family would take me up the hill on holidays. Since then, it’s always had a cosy place in my heart. For me, hills are like landmarks of a certain place. When you see them from far away, you know you are reaching your destination. Moreover, when you hike up one, you feel a sense of closeness spiritually.”

Their project mentor Wan Atikah Wan Yusoff noted, “Everyone knows Penang Hill for its funicular train, colonial bungalows and ice kacang. But less has been spoken about the peoples who’ve been living on it for generations. A Tale Of Two Hills seeks to unravel these intimate stories. It also brings to light the typology of frequent hikers who keep coming back.”

Eye-opening experience

Maxwell Hill narrators Antoine Loncle, Farahin Fadzlishah, Low Pey Sien and Wong Poh Yoke had never been up the hill before the project, so the experience was eye-opening.

“You could feel the pristineness and abundance of life. Insects greeted us. We met the folks there and stepped into their world. I was amazed by how warm they all were.

“For the first time in years, I also felt a deep sense of calm when I sat on a large rock near the Angkasa bungalow to watch the sunset. I feel as if I had left a piece of my heart there,” Farahin said.

Exhibits on Maxwell Hill, displayed at the Maxwell Basecamp. Photo: A Tale of Two HillsExhibits on Maxwell Hill, displayed at the Maxwell Basecamp. Photo: A Tale of Two Hills

Wong paid particular attention to the indigenous flora and fauna. The discoveries, while exciting, also proved bittersweet as few know about the beautiful world that exists here.

“It made me realise how little we understand nature. One particular species grew among rock crevices instead of soil. It showed how adaptable and resilient life can be.

“The weather also changes quickly. While on a walk to the Caulfield Hill summit, it was misty and about to rain. Suddenly there was a big crash and lightning struck near us. I could smell burning. It reminds you how powerful nature is and makes you think about the challenges humans face living in such places.”

Maxwell Hill project mentor Liew Suet Fun hopes the expressions of the visual narrators will allow viewers to better perceive the multi-faceted universe that lies on the hill.

“Her presence has shaped the lives of communities on and around her, and they have also shaped her. Every exhibit makes its own statement and should be viewed both on the merit of its creative expression and for the narratives it offers,” she pointed out.

Indeed, such cultural and natural assets are what make the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia so enticing. The former tells a story of human evolution, migration and civilisation, while the latter underscores our interactions with the environment, according to Think City’s manager for culture-based economic development Sazlin Sabri.

Penang Hill narrator Oh Chin Eng documenting one of the rose farms. Photo: A Tale of Two HillsPenang Hill narrator Oh Chin Eng documenting one of the rose farms. Photo: A Tale of Two Hills

“They are gems just waiting to be discovered. Both Penang Hill and Maxwell Hill demonstrate the possibilities of discovering, interpreting and developing historical and cultural sites on a local and international scale. We hope the journey of putting this together gives everyone an opportunity to better understand and appreciate these hills and their surroundings,” she said.

A natural curiosity

The Habitat Foundation executive director Justine Vaz described the project as “a first step towards capturing a little of the magic of our hills and collective heritage”.

The organisation is involved in recognising the rich natural and cultural heritage of Penang Island under Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. As social landscapes are key to any location, the need to capture and tell human stories was no less important.

“All of us have a natural curiosity about our fellow citizens and how they experience the country in special and different ways. Place and belonging are an essential part of the life experience. When we meet new people, one of the typical questions we ask is where do they come from.

“I hope this makes everyone a bit more curious about the wonderful diversity which makes up the fabric of Malaysian society,” added Vaz, who coined the project title.

Summing it up, Lim said visitors to the exhibitions will be treated to an insightful, visual and story-telling experience about the heartland people of Malaysia.

He said group exhibition tours are available upon request. Interested parties can drop an email to to arrange. Throughout the show, narrators and mentors would also be present in turns to meet the public.

A Tale Of Two Hills is also supported by the Northern Region Archaeotourism Network and Local Economic Development Programme, a Think City initiative which aims to leverage the country’s archaeological heritage as an enabler for regenerative socio-economic growth and development.

A Tale Of Two Hills exhibition programme: Penang Hill (ends March 2) at Mano Plus, 37A & B, Beach Street, George Town, Penang, 9am to 6pm (Monday to Thursday) and 9am to 9pm (Friday to Sunday). Maxwell Hill (ends March 3) at Maxwell Basecamp, Kompartment 45, Kaki Bukit Larut, Taiping, Perak, 9am to 6pm (Monday to Sunday). More info here.

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