Recently I posted an article about the Penang War Museum in Malaysia, and some of the various ghost stories that have been attached to it. But as far as contemporary local folklore goes, I was only scratching the surface.
Malaysia – and it seems Penang, in particular – is rife with tales of the living dead. The island is a melting pot of different cultures and traditions (Malay, Chinese and Indian, primarily) and with those cultures and their religions come a wealth of superstitions. During the week I spent there I was overwhelmed with stories of haunted houses, curses and other supernatural goings-on. What follows is a visual tour through some of the highlights.
Penang Ghost Museum
The newly opened ‘Ghost Museum’ in Georgetown, Penang’s largest settlement, seemed like a good place to start. It’s a garish and colourful collection, where the title museum felt like a bit of a stretch. Yes – it features information panels that talk visitors through various local ghost stories. But the Ghost Museum felt more like a fairground ride than anything else.
Screams and clanking-chain sound effects play over the speakers; things go bump, lights flash, and plastic mannequins hang from nooses. After walking through the exhibitions on Chinese and Malay ghost tales, I stumbled into the land of fiction – with a room full of pirate ghosts, followed by Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, reanimated mummies and even a selection of characters from Japanese horror movies.
After all the colour and commotion of the museum it felt good to get back to basics: walking around Georgetown by night, following up stories about haunted houses and restless ghosts.
The ‘Blue Mansion’ features heavily in local folklore – featuring a classic tale of wealth and corruption and tragic lovers. A burned out school in the town centre is another place where locals claim to have encountered supernatural beings… but it’s only one of many. The more I researched the subject, the more stories I found until it seemed as though no abandoned building on the island was without its undead occupants.
And then there are the cemeteries. Unsurprisingly, these places are considered to be rich in restless spirits and a visit to the old Protestant Cemetery, in Georgetown, made for a particularly atmospheric end to the evening.
On Penang Hill
When the British occupied Malaysia (back then, the Crown territory of Malaya) they very often found the climate here too much. I could sympathise – it’s swelteringly hot, and humid, whereas higher in the hills, away from the coast, the cooler air makes for a much more clement atmosphere. Many of those occupying British officers had their homes built high on Penang Hill and today, many of those homes now sit abandoned.
The area known as Penang Hill is large enough that I only saw a fraction of it. Narrow roads weave up and down through the steep contours of the terrain, ducking beneath jungle canopies, and sometimes splitting off into dead ends that lead to long-abandoned mansions. I took the funicular up the hill, a precariously steep track lit by street lamps that looked as though they hadn’t been replaced since Victorian times. At the top, there’s a complex of bars and restaurants and viewpoints that has been very much built for the tourists.
But beyond that, one needn’t walk far to get lost in the empty green lanes of Penang Hill. We quickly left the crowds behind, and headed out to find one of the hill’s most famous ruins: the old Crag Hotel.
The Crag Hotel
The building is beautiful. I imagine it was truly luxurious once, but even now, stripped and abandoned, it commands an incredible presence. The old stone building perches on the side of Penang Hill, high above the towers of Georgetown and the waters beyond. Nature has reclaimed it – wild dogs barked at our approach, while black-faced monkeys screamed down at us from the trees. There were two mopeds parked outside the old building. We’d meet the owners inside – two young Indian men, sat on the veranda facing out towards the view. They had bottles of beer, and one of them turned to give me a lazy nod as we passed.
I didn’t need to read anything about the place, to know that there were stories here. The lavish wooden floorboards, the swinging saloon doors and dumb waiters that lined the kitchen – this old colonial building had clearly seen some lives come and go in its time. But whatever ghosts the Crag Hotel had now were drowned out by its beauty. It’s hard to feel uncomfortable in such a magnificent building. It’s difficult to feel haunted when gazing out over the Strait of Malacca from a high jungle promontory.
As I wrote above, for now this is just a visual tour of the locations. We’re still missing the meat of it, the ghost stories themselves – but I’ll get to it soon, writing up this article in full to give a good taste of local myths and urban legends. I have only just published another post about Malaysian ghosts – and I want to get to some other subjects next. But soon enough, I’ll circle back around to tell you more about the restless spirits of Penang Island.