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.

A Tale of 2 Laksa

Went for the monthly PHT visit on Sunday to Balik Pulau. It was worth it though as PHT visits are always educational. I suppose that is why we keep being members. (If you want to be a member, call them at +604 264 2631 or email

A slower pace of life this side of Penang is found in Balik Pulau
A slower pace of life this side of Penang is found in Balik Pulau

For us, Balik Pulau is about durians when the season rolls around each May to August. It thrills us that we get to climb some hills just to partake in our favourite fruit.
This time, the 40 of us members were joined by Yusmadi Yusoff, the MP for Balik Pulau. Dressed in a grey long sleeve shirt with dark slacks, he was ready to accompany us as we walked down the main street of his little town (yes, he is a local boy, bred in Balik Pulau).
Yoke Pin started with the history of laksa (she prefers Uncle John's laksa if you want to know)
Yoke Pin started with the history of laksa (she prefers Uncle John's laksa if you want to know)

Many a time, I am left amazed at the rich history we have here in Penang. The rich narratives, the old stories, the people who used to live here are incredibly fascinating. If only students joined PHT, they wouldn’t despise history that is taught in schools by teachers who don’t know how to tell proper stories of the people and places that matter.
Anyway, besides durian, Balik Pulau (which simply means “the other side of the island”) is also famous for its asam laksa or Penang laksa.
This visit saw us stopping for asam laksa at Chuang Heong Cafe which is directly opposite the old (and no longer used) Pasar Balik Pulau. Yusmadi was coerced into treating the bunch of us for laksa so he picked this one although Yoke Pin gave us the history of the other one, the corner coffeeshop laksa stall manned by Uncle John and his wife.
Watching laksa man in action at Chuan Heong Cafe
Watching laksa man in action at Chuan Heong Cafe

Actually I would have preferred to try Uncle John’s laksa as I’ve always seen tourists spilling out of that coffeeshop each time we pass by! I was decidedly curious about the taste of Uncle John’s laksa, reputedly a recipe he bought from a Mrs Kim who had gotten it from Grandma Khoo. The Khoo family was one of the richest families in Balik Pulau and the story went that Madam Khoo was the original laksa soup supplier to all of Balik Pulau laksa stalls at one time.
You cannot leave this town without sampling its famous asam laksa
You cannot leave this town without sampling its famous asam laksa

Here’s why Balik Pulau is famed for its laksa – it is smack in the midst of fishing villages and coconut plantations. Fresh kembung fish make all the difference to the laksa gravy. Besides the traditional asam laksa, there’s also the laksa lemak version which uses coconut cream or santan. Coconuts are plentiful in this part of Penang.
The old Balik Pulau market place
The old Balik Pulau market place

Another interesting nugget of history: you cannot miss the tallest shop in this town at Number 100. It’s a Chinese shophouse once owned by the Kapitan Cina, Mr Chee, who is the great-great grandfather of the current occupant, Mr Khoo. We were supposed to visit Mr Khoo’s home to see his sprawling house but this did not materialize. Oh well. Maybe another time!
Kapitan Cina's home and also tallest shophouse in town
Kapitan Cina's home and also tallest shophouse in town

Nic and I always love chatting with people and so as we slurped up the last spoonfuls of laksa gravy, the stall owner, Mr Tan came by. I’m sure he was pleased that Yusmadi picked his shop over the competitor opposite to belanja us all.
He started to regale us with his laksa lineage. The original laksa of Balik Pulau fame actually belonged to his family. His father started selling laksa in 1968 at the old market place. When the new market was built, the stall was shifted there (the Tan family has 2 stalls in the new market, Stall Number 30 and 37).
However, business wasn’t as fantastic as they had hoped so they found a shoplot at the present Chuan Heong Cafe. So now they have 3 stalls of laksa! He mentioned that most locals don’t eat laksa, it’s the outsiders (non-Balik Pulau residents and outstation tourists) who make up the bulk of his business. He groused that the stall opposite (Uncle John, a.k.a his competitor-lah) was getting all the business as they had a website and their website popped up in all the search engines so that’s why they’ve been doing so well! (As an aside, I thought, well, Uncle Tan, you could do the same too. You could get yourself a website, right? Why don’t you?)
My verdict is that Uncle Tan’s laksa is pretty decent. It is flavourful and fragrant, packed with lots of kembung fish. The gravy is just nice, not overly spicy that it burns your tongue, nor is it so mild that you cannot taste the spice mix. Portions are also good enough. I also tried the laksa lemak version which is creamier. I cannot say which I like best, the asam or lemak version, as both have their own deliciousness factors! Try both. I think the price is about RM2.50 to RM3 per bowl.
When you are here, you must order the nutmeg and asam boi drink. Balik Pulau is famous for its nutmeg farms so you are getting the real thing here and not some nutmeg cordial (this is what happens if you order nutmeg drink in Georgetown sometimes). Some people may not like this drink as it leaves a sappy aftertaste. It’s like eating lots of nutmeg at one go and then your tongue starts feeling like someone rubbed sandpaper all over it. That’s the feeling.
This is just Part 1 of Balik Pulau. Look out for Part 2 where Yoke Pin took us on a trip down Balik Pulau lanes!

Want To Be Another Kind of Apprentice?

I found out about this programme from Fidel, a friend who is the PAPA Programme Coordinator. I’ve known her for a while now and she and her husband are very supportive of heritage arts and events of Penang. Her two children are active in Anak-anak Kota, a brilliant programme for Penang school children. In fact I know quite a few outgoing youth who used to work with Janet Pillai on her highly commendable Anak-anak Kota Programme (which also netted Janet the DIGI Award).
This is Fidel, the programme coordinator
Anyway, I had been meaning to write about this PAPA or Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisans for some time now. It’s a great initiative under Penang Heritage Trust to ensure that dying trades have some form on continuity. History and culture are after all intertwined. Especially in Penang.
penang apprenticeship program for artisans
To take part in this PAPA Programme, you have to dedicate a good deal of time (4 hours a day I believe) as you will be taught by the the masters themselves. Their target group is essentially people who will learn the crafts and use these newfound skills to help themselves earn a good living. It is certainly not for people like me who want to learn it as a hobby! That’s a no-no because it defeats the original purpose of the apprenticeship.
rattan baskets made by the apprentices
As some of these teachers are aging, it is a sad fact that when they pass on, their skills pass on with them too. Their skills are another kind of assets which matter a lot to our history and heritage. While I am wistful about this fact, it is heartening that PHT is taking the first step to ensure these amazing arts are not lost.
know your rattan 101 - different rattan for weaving baskets
For instance, Fidel tells me that a professional took a sabbatical from her stressful career to focus on learning how to weave baskets from rattan.
chinese carving programme is also available
You can also be an apprentice to a master carver for Chinese signboards. I am interested but I am not eligible for this programme for various reasons. As it is, I don’t read Chinese. It will be hard on me even if I am qualified to take this programme.
interested in making manik or nyonya beaded slippers?
Nyonya beading, a patient and intricate art, is also available. I’m hopeless at such delicate art and craft so this is definitely not my kind of apprenticeship.
If you are interested or know of friend who would be keen on this PAPA PHT Programme, get details, get the form and get cracking. 😉
Or call Fidel at 012 456 5867 for details.
UPDATE (15 Oct 2009): PAPA is now housed in the quaint row of pre-war shophouses along Lebuh Acheh (look for No. 66) where the mosque is. It’s open on week days so you can pop in to buy their products or learn more about the dying arts and crafts of Penang. We bought a rattan lamp for RM40 recently as decor for our new apartment. They can also make bespoke rattan items if you wish. I’m ordering a cat basket for Margaret soon and a laundry basket for myself.