The Hill of Stories

Yoke Pin actually started with the history of Balik Pulau laksa which is quite apt as people do arrive in hoardes for this noodle dish.
Of course, Nic and I were privileged to hear the OTHER laksa story, as told to us by Mr Tan, the equally famous laksa stall owner. But then again, he told us his story because he saw me looking through the myBalikPulau map, a map of the interesting and quaint places of the town.
This map is published by artsED, a non-profit organisation which offers arts education to young people. It is a guide to what’s what in Balik Pulau as it gives a non-resident some idea of the town, what to eat, where to go and what to expect.
Mr Tan must have been peeved that his stall was NOT mentioned in this map. Uncle John’s laksa stall got all the acclaim in this map so he must’ve felt he needed to defend his laksa lineage. He even started grumbling that the facts in the map were wrong etc because the researchers (comprising youths) did not get the right stories! I listened, bemused.
Anyway, his grumpiness didn’t spoil the trip at all. We had fun walking down the one main street of Balik Pulau town. (Speaking of laksa, YB Yusmadi, the MP who followed us on this visit, told us about another laksa called Laksa Janggus. It is called such because it is situated under a bunch of janggus or cashewnut trees. This is a self-service style where you pile your own laksa ingredients and serve yourself. It’s located on Jalan Bharu.)
We learnt about the famous landmark, the roundabout which was actually a water pump and trough in the olden days for horses to drink from! Due to vandalism, the top part made of metal is missing. Originally a water pump, it became a monument/roundabout in 1882 due to a rich farmer called Koh Seang Tatt. Koh decided to build it when Sir Frederick Weld came for a visit. Until today, it is still one of the best landmarks of this town. If you do get lost, just find your way to this landmark. It is the meeting point of 3 different roads.
Climbing the Hills for God
The Roman Catholics were also here since 1800s. In fact you can see their churches and schools – SMK Sacred Heart and SMK St George as well as the quaint Roman Catholic church after Sacred Heart school. The church began as an attap house in 1854 but soon grew bigger as the parishioners grew more and more (they gave land to the Hakka who became Catholics!). That’s why there’s a number of Hakka in this town, no doubt drawn by the exciting lure of land.
In those days, the Caucasian priests who conducted mass had to learn the local dialects such as Hakka in order to communicate with their congregation. Interestingly too, the priests had to make that 3-4 hour trek from the other side of the island through the Air Itam Reservoir hills to reach Balik Pulau in order to conduct mass! Now that is amazing.
Yoke Pin also told us about the silversmith in town, Mr Fong who makes tiny handcrafted silver miniature knick-knacks. He’s growing old so he doesn’t take custom orders anymore. His shop is at the right of the roundabout if you are coming down from the main road of the town.

Mr Fong's signage is in 3 different languages.
Mr Fong's signage is in 3 different languages.

Old Photos Wanted
We ended up at the Moral Uplifting Society where we got a slideshow of historical Balik Pulau. According to Yoke Pin, it was difficult for them to get old photos of the town. So if you are from Balik Pulau, or have relatives who still have old photos or old stories of this town, please contact her or PHT. PHT and artsED are compiling the history of this town and need all the help they can get.
Balik Pulau in the old days...this is main street
Balik Pulau in the old days...this is main street

I heartily support the writing of history from the local people’s perspective. Old stories, old chit-chat. These allow us to go back in time and relive the times. With it comes appreciation for what the early settlers had to endure to build up a town. I cannot imagine how it must be for priests to trek their way here to do mass, or how far removed the residents here were from Georgetown.
The Yellow Bus Company bus depot in Balik Pulau
The Yellow Bus Company bus depot in Balik Pulau

This ulu-ness from town was another source of one man’s riches. Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew at that time had the idea of starting a bus service which serviced Balik Pulau. The Yellow Bus Company was the only way residents living here could travel to town in those days. The bus depot is no longer there as the Yellow Bus Company has gone out of business (though if you look closely you can still see the bus depot).
Can you see the old bus depot behind the Pensonic signboard?
Can you see the old bus depot behind the Pensonic signboard?

There’s really a number of interesting things to do in Balik Pulau if you wander long enough. Yusmadi spoke of the homestay village for tourists who wanted to sample the Malay villagers’ way of life. One of the rustic villages was voted the cleanest village in Malaysia, according to Yusmadi.
This young politician seemed genuine enough in wanting to help his town to grow and he invited everyone who wanted to help to pitch in to grow the town in positive ways. We got invited to visit his service centre, painted a bright yellow you can’t miss (and located at the strategic junction between Jalan Tun Sardon and Main Road). He was starting a community centre to bring the residents together to develop the town and yet at the same time preserving what was meaningful.
Visiting Yusmadi's service centre
Visiting Yusmadi's service centre

Another Laksa Place
So what else is there in Balik Pulau?
There’s another laksa shack near the Chinese fishing village of Kuala Jalan Bharu which sells not only laksa but Hokkien mee and lor-bak. I’ve tasted the laksa at this place and it is again, deliciousness in a bowl. But this place opens only on Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 5pm. Lots of out-of-towners come here. It’s like some secret hideout where people in the know will know how to get here! It’s actually a villager’s wooden house where the porch becomes the makeshift eating area. I was introduced to this place by an Englishman, of all people. (Thanks Nigel!)
More Stuff to See and Do
There’s just too many interesting spots to blog about and I recommend you picking up a copy of the myBalikPulau map so you can hunt down all the yummy makan spots, belacan factories, air nira stalls, coconut plantations, batik shack, Stepping Stone Centre (run by Asia Community Service, an NGO), paddy fields, beach (Pantai Pasir Panjang), Pulau Betong fishing village, herb garden in Kampung Sg Korok, kuih bahulu maker, bedak sejuk maker and lots more.
This map is available at the Arts-ED website plus you can see how the map was conceptualised and brought to life by the children of Balik Pulau.
So the next time someone says Penang is boring, ask them if they’ve explored Balik Pulau, the agricultural heartland of the island.