In Penang, a hill railway story for the ages


A view of Penang Hill and a first-generation, open-concept wooden funicular coach travelling on the viaduct. Photo: University of Leiden

As a popular tourist destination, it would seem that Penang Hill had given up all its secrets over time.

But truth be told, the group of lush inland peaks near the centre of Penang Island still has hidden facets that even lifelong locals do not know about.

A new pictorial book titled Penang Hill Railway: 100 Years Of Transformation might just change that. Besides peeling back the layers surrounding the hill’s iconic funicular railway service, it also delves into the area’s natural heritage and history – and shows why it remains such a fascinating attraction to this day.

The 100-page hardcover was commissioned by Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the funicular in October and published by Elaton Publishing.

The Penang-based award-winning firm is helmed by David S.T. Loh and Rebecca Lee. They were also the photographers behind all the book’s present-day imagery, and also served as its editor-in-chief and production editor respectively. Freelance writer Koay Su Lyn authored the content.

Up in the clouds

“Our aim was to tell a compelling story, so anyone who reads it would want to visit the hill themselves,” says Loh.

He and Lee made countless trips to the hill over a period of several months, hiking up and down trails to snap everything from the trains and tracks, to stately bungalows, geological features and diverse flora and fauna. With the latter, they never knew what they were going to encounter on any given day.

Loh (left) and Lee posing with the book 'Penang Hill Railway: 100 Years Of Transformation' during its launch in George Town last month. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon KaiLoh (left) and Lee posing with the book 'Penang Hill Railway: 100 Years Of Transformation' during its launch in George Town last month. Photo: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

Some of the prize shots include a dusky leaf langur cradling its young and rare orchids in bloom. They also stayed overnight at the hill’s bungalows, to be able to capture nocturnal wildlife and stunning sunrises.

“When you see the langur jumping between trees, chances are you’d also catch the racket-tailed drongo. Because the swaying branches disturb and bring out insects which the latter feeds on. We were also lucky to spot the elusive giant squirrel,” says Lee.

They also managed to photograph the hill’s waterfall, which remains unknown to most people today except for the most seasoned of hikers.

“I grew up thinking the waterfall had dried up, but there it was, rumbling away. It’s so beautiful and needs to be promoted,” says Loh, who is also an experienced drone photographer.

The first-generation funicular train travelling along the viaduct. Photo: University of LeidenThe first-generation funicular train travelling along the viaduct. Photo: University of Leiden

He captured many aerial views of the area, much like those in their previous publication Over Penang which won the Malaysia National Library Book Award under the English category in 2020.

“We sought to challenge ourselves further and produce impactful visuals that no one had seen before. Hopefully, to inspire greater appreciation of this wonderful place.

“Because as the saying goes, if you don’t know something, you won’t love it. And if you don’t love it, you won’t protect it,” says Loh, formerly a photojournalist with The Star and Reuters, before becoming editor-in-chief of the latter’s global pictures desk.

Complementing the modern imagery are a cache of archival photos provided by various sources. The team took great pains enhancing them with modern post-processing techniques, to better bring to life centuries worth of rich and untold stories.

Signal station days

The book will take readers back to the hill’s origins in 1789 as a signal station and convalescent resort. Back then, the colonial gentry who wanted to reach the summit had to ascend on foot, ponies or doolie-carriers. It would take another century before plans for a hill railway were finally mooted.

The third-generation funicular train emerging from the railway's iconic tunnel, which is one of the steepest of its kind in the world. Photo: David S.T. Loh The third-generation funicular train emerging from the railway's iconic tunnel, which is one of the steepest of its kind in the world. Photo: David S.T. Loh

The first scheme completed in 1905 revolved around a water wheel but failed. The second system, designed by engineer Arnold Robert Johnson to a Swiss funicular system, was finally able to conquer the hill’s steep incline. When operations commenced in October 1923, the railway was hailed as an engineering marvel.

There were many other triumphs and hiccups along the way as the funicular evolved and brought economic development to the nearby Air Itam and Paya Terubong townships.

The Penang Hill Railway book team’s compelling text and visual narratives – which includes a timeline cleverly laid out like stops on a railway map – will help readers bridge the past and present.

For Koay, a lawyer by training, the book was sort of a passion project. Her late father’s family used to live at the foothills and even though they moved elsewhere by the time she was born, he still took her up the peak frequently on the second-generation red and white trains in use between 1977 and 2010.

A European lady being carried up the hill on a sedan chair by doolie-carriers, circa 1895. Photo: Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen LeidenA European lady being carried up the hill on a sedan chair by doolie-carriers, circa 1895. Photo: Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen Leiden

In terms of comfort, they were a significant improvement over the first-generation wooden coaches, which were partially open to the elements, employed from the funicular’s start in 1923 to 1977. The current, blue and white third-generation coaches were introduced in 2011 following a major, RM63mil overhaul of the railway.

Beyond the heights

“It brought back a lot of memories. The hill is so rich in history and it needs to be made known to the wider public, especially the younger generation,” says Koay.

“One aspect we wanted to shed light on was the transformative effect the railway had for those living on the hill or involved in its construction. The latter subsequently became part of the new hill communities alongside the European enclaves, assuming roles as bungalow caretakers, farmers and more.”

Railway developments also had a spillover effect in the areas nearby Penang Hill.

Purple hues of daybreak envelope the Bel Retiro bungalow, the Penang Yang di-Pertuan Negeri’s official hill residence. Photo: David S.T. LohPurple hues of daybreak envelope the Bel Retiro bungalow, the Penang Yang di-Pertuan Negeri’s official hill residence. Photo: David S.T. Loh

“The railway also catalysed infrastructural development for the nearby town of Air Itam in the ensuing decades,” says Koay, who is also a researcher and became acquainted with the hill’s history after working on several projects with the PHC.

Loh, a Penangite himself, sums it up: “We were cognisant of striking a good balance between visual storytelling and facts. We want the book to show a side of Penang that people never knew existed and don’t realise is still around.

“The hill alone proves that the state has much to offer besides street food and street art – and we should take pride in it. Having travelled extensively, we believe that Penang can certainly hold its own as a destination.”

The book (retailing at RM80) is available at selected bookstores in Penang and is also available from the Penang Hill gift shop located at the Lower Station, Sunda Shelves in Petaling Jaya and online.

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