The little island that was the gateway to Penang a century ago

By Opalyn Mok

GEORGE TOWN, April 4 — More than a century ago, a small island off the main island of Penang was the first stop for immigrants coming to the state.

Between the years of 1877 and 1957, all arriving migrants were first quarantined at the island, Pulau Jerejak, before they were allowed to enter what was then called Prince of Wales Island.

A total of five separate leprosy camps were built on various pieces of flat land on Pulau Jerejak. — Picture courtesy of Mike Gibby

According to historian and author, Mike Gibby, 69, more than 1.13 million people were quarantined on the island over the years.

“We can say that a major portion of the ancestors of Penangites today were quarantined there,” he told reporters at a press conference announcing a public forum on Pulau Jerejak.

The Quarantine Camp was converted into a detention camp on Pulau Jerejak. — Picture courtesy of Mike Gibby

The little island off the east of Penang Island also has one of the earliest leprosy sanatoriums in the country, which was founded by Chinese businessmen in Penang.

“The first 25 lepers moved into the building voluntarily before the island was recognised as a leprosarium and later hosted more than 7,000 lepers,” he said.

More than 5,000 people died on the small island and the cemeteries where they were buried still exist on the island, most of which covered by the natural vegetation.

He said there are now only a few leprosy camps remaining on the island while the main sanatorium is already gone.

“This island is a part of the history of the straits settlement and a history of Malaya,” he said.

Gibby, who is writing a book on Pulau Jerejak, said these remnants of the island’s rich history will be gone if a proposed redevelopment project for the island is approved.

The original leprosy hospital was opened in 1871. — Picture courtesy of Mike Gibby

Penang Forum, a coalition of Penang non-governmental organisations, is organising a public forum titled #savejerejak: Unravelling the secret of Pulau Jerejak at Penang Institute on April 8.

Penang Forum member Ben Wismen said a panel of researchers and historians will present facts about the island as a quarantine camp, a leprosarium, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a detention centre and a natural forest reserve.

He stressed that Penang Forum was not against development, but hoped that any developments planned for the island will take into account the history, significance and social sentiments of the island.

He said developments planned for the island should be sustainable and consider its natural environment that was previously due to be gazetted as a permanent forest reserve.

UDA Holdings had last year announced that it had entered into a joint-venture agreement with Q Islands Development Sdn Bhd (QID) to redevelop Jerejak Rainforest Resort & Spa.

They also planned to build a mixed development project on the 32.3ha of land surrounding the resort that will include 1,200 residential units, a theme park, a marina, hotels and a cycling track.

UDA Holdings said the Penang state government already approved the redevelopment master plan and work is expected to start in late 2017.