Glimpse into life on Penang Hill

A Tale of Two Hills narrator Ong Ke Shin (left) sharing about how taro is an important part of the Penang Hill farmers’ diet.

WHILE much has been written about the history of Penang Hill, the stories of people living in it are largely unknown.

An exhibition in Penang that was part of the “A Tale of Two Hills” project sought to address that by highlighting the cultural narratives of residents there, most of whom are farmers.

Through the photographs, videos and writings of Foo Wei Meng, Leaf Yeap Lee Hua, Ong Ke Shin and Oh Chin Eng, visitors to the show held at Mano Plus in George Town’s Beach Street had a glimpse into the simple lives of people in the famous landmark.

Another exhibition on Maxwell Hill was held concurrently at the Maxwell Basecamp in Perak and featured the works of Antoine Loncle, Farahin Fadzlishah, Low Pey Sien and Wong Poh Yoke.

It was the culmination of a six-month mentorship programme supported by Penang-based charitable trust The Habitat Foundation and urban impact organisation Think City.

Under the guidance of programme coordinator Jeffrey Lim, the two teams of four visual narrators documented the people and natural wonders of the respective highlands.

In Penang, this involved recording the daily routines of Penang Hill’s farmers and getting to know their life stories through interviews.

Yeap shadowed one whose family had worked the land for generations.

While flowers were the main money maker in the olden days, dwindling local demand had seen many switching to fruits and vegetable crops. These are mostly sold at nearby wet markets.

“I was able to film him harvesting a batch of roses.

“He later cut down half of the plants to make space for fruits such as ambarella, banana and soursop,” Yeap said during a sharing session.

Meanwhile, Ong’s work focused on what the farmers eat.

Speaking to several families, she found silver taro and pinang taro to be one of the more important sources of sustenance.

“They would typically eat the petioles. The best part, the corms, is meant for consumers. I hope this project can help shed light on the farmers’ struggles,” she said.

She even gleaned a few age-old recipes which might eventually have been lost to time otherwise.

Taro crops are not as prolific as before, as farmers prefer to cultivate others like chilli that can be harvested quicker, fetch better prices and are less susceptible to damage from wild animals said Ong.

Oh found a perfect subject in his own uncle, who is a fourth-generation farmer there. He followed him day and night, recording his daily activities.

This typically started at the crack of dawn, when crops like lemongrass, papaya, pineapple and wintermelon were transported to vendors at the Air Itam Market.

As this only brought a meager income, his uncle supplemented that with a second job at the nearby Kek Lok Si Temple during the day.

In the evening, he returned to the farm to tend to his crops again, before spending time with his family at night.

“As they are not famous personalities, the stories of these farmers are rarely told,” said Oh.

“This project reminded me that Penang Hill is more than just a tourist spot,” he added.

Besides those living there, many outsiders also come to the hill regularly to hike. Its lush trails, crisp air and mostly pristine surroundings can be rather invigorating.

Foo’s work saw her speaking to dozens of hikers to find out what brought them back time and again. Invariably, most wanted to escape the concrete jungle below.

“I captured a series of photos of hikers’ backs. Because that is the side of them you typically see when hiking the trail yourself.

“It was also interesting to see the different things different people carried with them. Some had nothing but a walking stick while others were fully kitted out,” Foo added.

The exhibition on Penang Hill ran from Feb 16 to March 2 while the one on Maxwell Hill ran from Feb 17 to March 3.

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Penang Hill , people , Penang , farmers


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