Penang Hill: The Good Old Days

An allocation of RM100 million for a cable car up Penang Hill in the 2020 budget! Penang is finally being given an allocation! I can’t recall when Penang was last apportioned anything in the budget! This calls for a celebration!

While those in the tourist industry applaud the news, objections have been raised by NGOs and certain Penangites. But come on, is there any project Penang folk have not objected to? Complaining is part of our culture! That’s how we have come this far!

As most of us know, the first bungalow at the top of Penang Hill was built in the late 18th century! This was a century – yes, over a hundred years – before the funicular was built!

Did anybody voice a complaint then? In those days, an order from the top had to be obeyed! I doubt anyone dared to speak out against the decision of the British authorities!

1Bell Retiro1
‘Bel Retiro’ Guarded by a Cannon, Early 19th Century

So who in heavens name came up with the brilliant idea of building a holiday home up the hill when transporting building material up was not only impractical but ludicrous and unimaginable?

Yes, the idea was mooted by Francis Light! ‘Bel Retiro’ was built for him and used by subsequent Governors of the Straits Settlements as a retreat away from the warm weather. Most importantly, Penang Hill appeared Malaria free and Francis Light was terrified of Malaria! Ironically, he died of the disease.

But without a train or any decent mode of transport, how did all those bricks and mortar get transported 2,700  feet or so above sea level?

Not to worry! They didn’t need a giant or artificial intelligence to accomplish this feat! For some reason, people those early days were pretty fit! Everything needed for the house was obviously carried up on horseback or by humans!

Believe it or not, despite the problem with logistics, several other bungalows were built up on the hill for the colonial masters before the railway was completed! Speak of an engineering feat!

Convalescent Bungalow, Early 19th. Century

The British obviously needed a place to recover from the hot and humid tropical weather. So, a ‘Convalescent Bungalow’ was built for those who needed to recuperate! Other bungalows for the British followed suit.

So how did the British masters ascend the hill to enjoy the cool air after the bungalows were completed? Well, there was apparently some semblance of a road up Penang Hill then; so the British officers either used horses or sat in a type of sedan chair!

In its website, Hickory, one of the bungalows in Penang Hill now available for rent,, it is stated that each porter who carried the sedan chair was paid thirty-five cents! That was a princely sum in those days when a bowl of noodles cost half a cent!

From my short stint with horses many years back, I would regard horse-riding up the hill as most challenging, but maybe fun!

But sitting on a contraption resembling a palanquin carried by four, maybe six workers up a hill path overlooking a cliff? I doubt the faint-hearted could have survived that journey! What happens if one of those balancing the sedan chair should slip or fall? I leave what could have happened to your imagination!

Despite the problem with transport, it appears that even in the nineteenth century, there was quite a bit of publicity given to Penang Hill by the British press! So it’s very likely that there could have been holiday makers visiting the hill leaving behind their carbon footprint as early as the 19th century!

Bottom Station, Early 20th. Century

When the first operational funicular was officially open to the public in 1924, commuting up and down hill was much easier. That led to more wealthy British officers and Chinese tycoons striving to build villas up the hill.


The British masters decided that the hill top was their domain; so the early Chinese tycoons were forbidden to own or build properties on the highest level of the hill. There was no such thing as democracy, only second class citizens!

But a house on the hill was the best way to show off one’s wealth and status! The Chinese tycoons compromised by building at a slightly lower altitude but somehow, despite the snub by their British masters, they still associated the Europeans with class and status!  Many of the Chinese residences were given Western names! So we have ‘Mont Sejour’, ‘Dolce Domum’ (now Hickory), ‘Fairmont’, ‘Grace Dieu’ and others.

I am glad to note that at least two tycoons remembered their Chinese roots! So we have Khoo Sian Ewe’s ‘The Great Wall’ and the ‘Heah Swee Lee Bungalow’. A big thumbs up to these towkays!

There are lots of articles online and also books on the history of Penang Hill so I will leave those of you who are interested in the facts to check these out. If you are interested in picture postcards, you’ll find lots!

Meanwhile, allow me to spin my tale of Penang Hill in the 1920s based on Grandpa’s photos. But do remember, these are strictly guesses, conclusions drawn from the photos! It’s not for the history buff!

Yeoh Cheang Aun (Seated fourth from left)

Grandpa has quite a collection of photos taken in Penang Hill in the 1920s. I deduce from these photos that the houses in Penang Hill then were ideal locations for a high society crowd on a pleasure trip.

The owners of these residences were the top tycoons of the country! So their guests were probably the Who’s Who of Penang!

Most of Grandpa’s photos of Penang Hill were taken at ‘Mont Sejour’, the residence of Mr. Loke Chow Thye. Penang Hill was also referred to as Government Hill, so some of the photos were labelled Government Hill.

Yeoh Cheang Aun (Seated centre)

The photos at ‘Mont Sejour’ were obviously taken at social gatherings up the hill. There were only guys in the photos and since both the young and the old were well attired, I assume they were from well-to-do families. These were the privileged ones!

Obviously, Mr. Chow Thye led an active social life. Based on the photos, my belief is that these gatherings were possibly held to impress! After all, anyone with a palatial holiday home like that in Penang Hill had every right to be proud of himself!  That would explain the group photos which showed the nicest views of the estate!


‘Mont Sejour’ is not by the side of the railway track. It’s along Moniot Road W. This meant that guests had to get off at the nearest station and take a walk to this magnificent residence.

Common sense tells me that Mr. Chow Thye must have had a team of cooks stationed there! After all, he had to be fed when he stayed there himself! So I can safely assume that Grandpa and his friends enjoyed sumptuous lunches when they were at Mont Sejour!


Obviously, there were photography sessions where everybody would pose for the best shots. All this took time and by the time the guests hiked to the railway station to catch the funicular down, it must have been at the end of a long day!

I have heard spooky stories related to some bungalows in Penang Hill but heritage houses usually come with spine-chilling tales!

Come to think of it, this backdrop would serve well for a novel! Such a book might even qualify for the Man Booker Prize!

Yeoh Cheang Aun (Seated)

Some of Grandpa’s photos show him at Government Hill. There is one labelled ‘Walk to Mr. Cheng Teik’s, Government Hill’ (1930). My guess is that the group was walking to Mr. Cheng Teik’s bungalow in Penang Hill but since I don’t have photos of the bungalow, I can’t say more! Hopefully, if any of his descendants are reading this, they will enlighten us!

10HiketoCheng Teiks1

I doubt there were many Penangites in the early twentieth century who took the funicular up Penang Hill just for the fun of it! There was nothing much to see and the money spent on the funicular – an exorbitant fifty cents for the ride – could have been better spent elsewhere!

But just as Penang Hill in the 1920s and 1930s was for the rich and famous, Penang Hill when I was a kid in the 1950s was a different cup of tea! My Penang Hill was a holiday spot for almost anybody!

Francis Light and his British friends would have been shocked at the idea of their exclusive hill resort turning into a holiday spot for the average Penangite!

Both my husband and I remember trips up the hill with our respective families when we were young, probably in the 1950s

There was nothing much up Penang Hill then. But kids my time were easy to please. The sight of monkey cups along the way had me, and later my sister and my cousins, all shouting in excitement!

The funicular ride took about thirty minutes with scheduled stops at the Middle Station, Upper Tunnel Station and I think at the Viaduct station.

Day Up Penang Hill for Khong Family Siblings, circa 1950

The funicular also made an extra stop on the eighth and ninth day of the Chinese New Year. It would stop next to the Jade Emperor’s temple to cater to devotees who wanted to go to the temple. This was a people-centred funicular!

Our trips up Penang Hill always took us to the top station. Honestly, I don’t remember what we did except to walk around and finally end up in Tea Kiosk – now David Browns – for a drink and some snacks. But we were happy kids and a day up Penang Hill was a bonus!

It might interest readers to know that I still have vivid memories of two ‘shopping’ trips up Penang Hill!

Mum was a very sociable person and on one trip up the hill, she started a conversation with a lady seated next to her. When she learnt that the lady supplied greens to Air Itam market and was on her way home, Mum decided we should all get down the train with the lady and go see a proper vegetable garden. Dad, with his scouting spirit, was for any adventure!

I remember a short walk, beds and beds of greens and Mum getting very excited. She ended up buying lots of greens tied up into huge bundles! Then, it dawned on my parents that we were only half way up the hill! We had not reached our destination!

But the greens were of prime importance! They couldn’t be allowed to wilt! So it was decided we should head down. But how? Would we have to walk all the way downhill? We were not at a normal train stop!

The lady who sold us the vegetables said we could just wave to the funicular heading down. So we waved and shouted, and amazingly, the train ground to a stop right in front of us! That was when I learnt that we could request stops along the rail track!

I was probably only five or six years old then, but I remember a pout on my face for the rest of that day. No Penang Hill, only lots of vegetables which I didn’t eat!  But sixty over years down the road, I begin to treasure this experience! Come on, how many people have stopped the funicular along its tracks? I may be one of the few still around!

Another trip I recall was when we made a stop on the way down from the hill top to see a flower garden. I believe one of the workers at the station recommended this as an added attraction, so we requested a stop.

There was a kind of nursery near the Middle Station. I can recollect only dahlias and my mentioning that these were flowers we could buy at the market place!

Mum insisted that these dahlias were different! They had long stalks! Well, kids didn’t argue those days! I remember sitting on the hard wooden bench of the funicular heading downhill hugging a big bunch of dahlias with such long stalks I couldn’t see anything ahead of me!

As we grew older, we somehow stopped going up Penang Hill. My love affair with Penang Hill was only revived in the 1980s when I somehow developed an addiction to hiking and made it a point to hike up Penang Hill once a week for the best ice-kacang in the world! This fascination came to an abrupt end when I fell while running downhill on a rainy day. The rest is history.

Penang Hill is now a major tourist destination but I believe the hill saw it’s heydays in the 1920s and 1930s when it was exclusively for the select few. That was a Penang Hill we can only see in postcards and photos and recreate in our imagination.

With the cable car, the funicular, environment friendly attractions and a rich history, Penang Hill should make a big comeback! Just fantasize and conjure up images of your Penang Hill in the years to come. After all,

‘Knowing what will happen tomorrow ruins the whole mystery of life!’

                                               Mehmet Murat ildan

Author: bloggingat70

I am 70 and blogging! Read about my experiences, my travel adventures, my love affair with food and other stories.

2 thoughts on “Penang Hill: The Good Old Days”

  1. Thank you for the story and the picture which not many have the chance to see.Very grateful that you are sharing those valuable pictures.


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