Weaving a fascinating tale of Penang

by Sharmilla Ganesan

Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai’s passion for history prompted his Penang’s History, My Story columns that have now been compiled into a book. Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre. — KEVIN TAN/The Star

Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai’s passion for history prompted his Penang’s History, My Story columns that have now been compiled into a book. Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre. — KEVIN TAN/The Star

History and personal stories are woven together to tell a tale of the streets of Penang.

Ask Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai about Penang, and his face immediately lights up. A dyed-in-the-wool Penangite, he can’t hide the fondness in his eyes or the pep in his voice when he talks about his hometown.

For Wong, Star Publications (M) Bhd group managing director and chief executive officer, stories of the island and his own story are practically inseparable. Thus, taking on the task of penning a weekly column on the subject, called Penang’s History, My Story, in StarMetro was a natural progression of his passion for and interest in Penang’s places, people and history. 

The column made its debut on Jan 5, 2013, to great reception, and went on for a year – the last article was published on Jan 4 this year. Compiling them together is the Penang’s History, My Story book, which will be launched tomorrow.

The book zeroes in on street names in George Town as a means of exploring the stories of a particular area, diving into the island’s rich cultural and historical heritage along the way. In fact, it was his passion for history, and disappointment over the way it is usually imparted, that prompted the author to embark on the project.

“I love history, and I’ve always wondered how people can find it boring,” says Wong, a political science and history graduate from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. 

“I blame it on our teachers, because they are bad storytellers. Even the word itself is ‘his story’, you’re supposed to tell a story, but we end up memorising facts, figures and dates. History as it is taught now is all about leaders and politicians, but why should it be so? What about people like us? Why are there no stories about the people, about social history, popular history?”

Wanting to approach and write about history differently, Wong decided to tell Penang’s story in ways that the average person could relate to: through everyday experiences and memories that would strike a chord with the reader.

“Penang is known for its heritage (George Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site), and people take great pride in it, and yet, many aren’t aware that they are living right in the midst of history. I also feel that, over the years, the names of roads, not just in Penang but all over Malaysia, are disappearing, and being replaced by names that don’t have significance. And yet, these street names are living examples of history!” he explains.

He points to Cantonment Road in Penang, which was named after the military cantonment (or camp) established there during the colonial era, as an example. 

“Not far from Cantonment Road is Sepoy Lines Road, which is named after the Indian soldier barracks that used to be there, and next to that is Barrack Road. Obviously, there is a connection between these names, and they tell a story about the past,” he says.

(In the 1800s, that entire area – from Macalister Road to Dato Keramat Road – was part of the British military precinct, which included the present Penang Prison and the polo ground; the land now occupied by Penang General Hospital.)

Penang’s History, My Story is the result of five years of research, and Wong is quick to point out that the book wouldn’t have been possible if not for the books and articles written by others, including writer, social historian and heritage advocate Khoo Salma Nasution, and history blogger Timothy Tye.

“Using the street names gave my articles structure, allowing me to talk about both the location and the personality the street was named after. But I also wanted to give life to it. What was missing from existing research was the fun parts, the storytelling element. That is where my book comes in,” says Wong.

When talking about Armenian Street and the Armenian businessmen who made Penang their home, for instance, he first refers to reality TV celebrity Kim Kardashian (who is fourth-generation Armenian) before going on to talk about the community’s hand in shaping George Town’s history – the Sarkies brothers who set up the grand Eastern & Oriental Hotel, and trader/planter Arathoon Anthony (hence, Aratoon Road), who founded stockbroking firm A.A. Anthony and Co.

This storytelling element is most pronounced when Wong revisits his own story that played out on those Penang streets, a Penang that was very different from the one we know today. For Wong, who is 53 this year, spent his entire childhood and even the early years of his working life there, and every nook and cranny of the island holds memories that he treasures still.

Take the cover of the book, which features Wong astride a Vespa in Love Lane. “Nowhere in Malaysia is there a place called that, it’s beautiful!” he says, explaining that while the exact origins of the name is unknown, theories abound that sailors who came to port went there looking for love once – or more salaciously, that it was where the rich men living in adjacent Muntri Street kept their mistresses.

The lane, however, also holds a more personal significance for Wong. As a St Xavier’s Institution boy, he passed Love Lane every day on the way to school, and his father owned a hardware stall in Cheapside, off nearby Chulia Street.

Stories of the Gurney Drive (named after Sir Henry Gurney, High Commissioner of Malaya from 1950-1951) of his youth, meanwhile, strike one as completely idyllic, as he reminisces about the pristine sandy beach, dragon boat races and digging for bucketfuls of siput remis on Sundays.

Not to mention Wong’s food-related anecdotes, which present a very different “food scene” from the one that exists today.

“Food is very much what Penang is famous for, and I wanted to tell my readers that it was served quite differently then. The famous Penang char kway teow, for example, was served with sprinkles of crabmeat on top, and besides the essential prawns, they also gave you bamboo mussels. And wantan mee, used to be called tok tok mee, because the seller used to go around tapping bamboo sticks loudly to attract customers,” he describes.

Even his early days with The Star began in Penang, with Wong joining the newspaper in 1980 after Form Six, at the Pitt Street office. (Pitt Street, now known as Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, was named after William Pitt the Younger, who was British Prime Minister when Penang was founded.) 

Even here, there was no shortage of history, as he learnt that the office building used to be the Opium and Spirits Farm Office, where government tenders were given out for such “sinful” enterprises, with the British controlling and privatising the trades to establish a monopoly.

Undeniably a labour of love for Wong (whose previous book was a compilation of his Sunday Star column, On The Beat), Penang’s History, My Story also includes different perspectives on Penang by some of his colleagues at The Star.

“A lot of people at The Star also started their careers in Penang, and I felt that this book didn’t just belong to me, but to them too. They’ve each given very interesting insights into Penang, such as Lim Cheng Hoe (senior manager, group editorial business development), who wrote about clubbing in Penang in the 1980s, or Ivy Soon (Star2’s Women and Family editor), who wrote about living in a neighbourhood with multiracial neighbours,” he says.

Heartened by the response to his column – Wong shares that of all the columns and commentaries he has written, this one has been the most popular – he is planning a series on Penang’s iconic buildings.

“When you write something political, there will always be disputes and people who don’t share your beliefs or sentiments. But when I wrote this, everybody loved it, because they were of the same view.”

> Proceeds from the sales of Penang’s History, My Story will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre. The book will be available at all major bookstores nationwide from tomorrow. It is also available from Star Publications (M) Bhd by calling the Circulation Department at 03-7967 1388 ext 1026 (ask for Ankal Letchumanan or Andrew Lim).