Mike Gibby takes us on ‘A Journey Through Time’

By Opalyn Mok

GEORGE TOWN, April 22 ― It is the highest vantage point on the island with a stunning panoramic view so it is no surprise that many rich Penangites had homes up on Penang Hill.

Back in the late 1800s, it was supposed to be an Europeans-only enclave. This was the reason why the first-ever Penang Hill Railway was built in 1904. Never mind that it failed on the very day it was launched, said writer Mike Gibby.

The retired teacher who loved hiking up the many trails up the hill was so fascinated by the stories he heard about the hill and its many beautiful, heritage mansions that he wrote a book titled Penang Hill, A Journey Through Time.

“They started building bungalows, actual real bungalows, you know ― the wooden, single-storey ones with a nice veranda around it ― back in 1802 but most didn't last very long because of the materials used to build them,” Gibby said.

This is the previous hill railway system with the red coaches that was in operation for over 50 years before they replaced it with the faster and newer ones. ― Picture courtesy of Mike Gibby

Due to the nice cool weather on the hill and its superb view, there were plans to turn it into an elite European suburb where only the “rich and white” were allowed to take up a lot and build a home on it.

“When they first publicised the lots available on the hill, the lease specified that they can only be owned by Europeans and cannot be sold to non-Europeans at that time,” he said.

That's when they started building a railway to bring building materials up the hill. Embarrassingly, the first railway could not work.

“They built the railway but the engine was not powerful enough so on the day they launched it, what happened was, they got all these important guests sitting on the coaches and then when they started the engine, nothing happened, it didn't move... it was a very embarrassing moment,” he recounted.

Some parts of the first original railway can still be seen along a trail on the way up the hill.

An aeriel view of the impressive Mon Sejour. ― Picture courtesy of Mike Gibby

The spritely 69-year-old said the best way to know more about the resort hill is to hike up along its many trails and explore the more than 40 mansions and old bungalows on it.

The previous plan to turn the hill into a European enclave also did not pan out as the world was first hit by an economic depression and then as things were looking up again, World War II happened.

“The clause that the lots were for ‘whites only’ disappeared after the war as a lot of properties were then put up for sale and whoever had the money could buy them because they just wanted to get rid of the properties,” he said.

Many of these were built in the early 1900s so they should be considered heritage buildings but Gibby said it was disappointing that some are not even listed as Category II buildings under the Penang Island City Council's heritage building listings.

“One of the most beautiful bungalows up there, I think, is the Mon Sejour, that was built by Loke Chow Kit back in the 1880s,” he said.

One of the beautiful mansions on Penang Hill ― Grace Dieu. ― Picture courtesy of Mike Gibby

The building is located along Moniot Road West which is halfway up the hill and has a unique architecture which is a mix of Colonial, Baroque, Italian and Straits Eclectic influences.

Gibby's book is not only about the history of Penang Hill and the bungalows but an overall view of its past, its present and future..

The hardcover book, published by Entrepot Publishing, is available at all major and local independent bookstores. Find out more at: http://entrepotpublishing.com.