Field of fond memories

The public toilet at the field.

WHEN it comes to Penang history, the older generations like the Baby Boomers and Generation X have a lot of tales to share about every vicinity in George Town.

One such place is the iconic Polo Ground or Padang Polo, a field in front of Seri Mutiara, the Penang Governor’s residence.

A favourite lovers’ haunt in the 1980s, the place was a most sought-after spot at night.

Cars could be seen parked around the ground and couples would disappear into the field in the pitch-black night.

Civil society activist and Think City chairman Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal said interest turned to

Polo Ground after Penang Botanic Gardens, which was another popular lovers’ haunt, was totally closed to vehicles in the early 80s.

“Until the 1990s when Polo Ground was also finally closed to vehicles, the field was a lovers’ haunt where drivers and motorcyclists would bring their lovers to the relatively secluded parts of the field in the evenings.

“Occasionally, cars could be seen stuck in the small trenches surrounding the field, and drivers had to wait until the following morning for help,” he said.

Polo Ground, which borders Jalan Residensi, Jalan Utama and Jalan Sepoy Lines, once served as the British military barracks.

The field was created towards the end of the 19th century as the new parade ground for British Army units stationed in George Town.

At the time, the British Army was in the process of relocating its barracks out of the crowded centre of George Town towards the western edges of the town.

Polo Ground was originally the new parade ground after the British administrators moved the military barracks from Fort Cornwallis to where Jalan Sepoy Lines is located today.

Sepoy refers to the Indian soldiers who were employed by the British.

Among the sepoy brought over to Penang was a troop enlisted by Captain Speedy, who also planted the 149-year-old baobab tree on the island between Jalan Residensi and Jalan Macalister.

The name Polo Ground dates back to colonial days, when the field was used for games of polo on horseback.Part of the reason is its proximity to Penang Turf Club, where there were stables for the horses.

Penang historian and Penang Heritage Trust vice-president Khoo Salma Nasution said Heah Swee Lee, a wealthy planter and Perak state councillor, donated the Penang Polo Ground for public use.

“Heah was the first non- European member of the Polo Club, where his son Heah Seng Hye was a leading polo player in Malaya.

“Together with Selangor Club members, they played polo with HRH The Prince of Wales during the royal visit in 1922 in a match at the Kuala Lumpur Race Course.

“Heah was the owner of Northam Lodge, the property that later became known as Soonstead and bought over by the late Penang tycoon Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew.”

Due to its proximity to Penang Hospital, Polo Ground was gazetted as an emergency landing area for helicopters.

These days more often than not, Polo Ground is used for other recreational activities, with the most popular being football.

On some days, particularly on weekends, model plane enthusiasts would fly their aircraft at the field.

For the past couple of years, it has been the venue for the annual Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Pulau Tikus assemblyman Chris Lee said there were no plans to develop the place or use it for any other activities for now.

“As Polo Ground has a special place in the hearts of Penangites and used for sports practices and social events, we want to maintain the area and ensure all of its facilities are working fine,” he said.

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