Since the start of the pandemic, a group of history enthusiasts has been keeping their followers occupied during lockdown with fascinating lesser-known Penang history. As a result, many local Penangites feel more connected to the state’s vibrant history, while out-of-state followers are interested to discover Penang’s lesser-known places when travel resumes.
The Penang Hidden Gems Facebook page, co-founded sometime in August 2020 by sisters, Emili and Emilia Ismail, has gained some 9,000 followers to date due to their efforts in unearthing hidden gems in Penang.
According to Emili, the idea to create the Facebook page started after joining a free walking tour around George Town led by licensed tourist guide Tger Tatt in January 2020.
“Through the tour, we learned that the heritage shophouses in Penang feature six main styles – Early Penang, Southern Chinese Eclectic, Early Straits Eclectic, Late Straits Eclectic, Art Deco, and Early Modern – each reflecting a different time period. You could tell which year they were built simply by studying the design.
“I remember telling my twin sister that we must create a Facebook page to share hidden stories about Penang. That’s how the page started,” Emili said.
Like most Penangites, Emili often takes her surroundings for granted due to her busy life, although she was born and bred in Penang.
“Sometimes we see an abandoned building, but most of us don’t have the time to find out more about the building.
“For example, many were curious about the Shih Chung Branch School along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, a vacant bungalow named Penawar in Air Itam, and the Heah Swee Lee Mansion in Bukit Tambun, but no one has the time to do a little more research.
“After we posted about these buildings, these posts received hundreds of shares with thousands of engagements. People were excited because they had found the answer they were looking for.
“So I find Penang Hidden Gems fills up a niche. Historical backstories like these bring so much ambiance to these dilapidated buildings and can add an extra layer of enjoyment to our daily experience of life,” said the 39-year-old manager in a multinational company.
Crediting the success of the Facebook page to the effort of the team members, Emili said all team members are professionals in their respective roles who contributed their professional skills at no charge.
“We have a freelance copywriter, a licensed tourist guide, a former TV host, a photographer, and a drone pilot. None of us are paid, and there’s no “boss” in the team. We’re all working towards the same goal, which is to make learning Penang’s history fun,” Emili said.
Penang Hidden Gems’ endeavour to make Penang’s rich history engaging is not without challenges, though.
One of the main problems often faced by the team is turning complex history into bite-size content. Emili provides the Penawar story as an example.
“The mansion has several interesting angles to it, but because we notice readers respond better to digestible micro-stories, we have to break the story up into two pieces; one focusing on the mansion itself and the other focusing on the previous owner Tan Sri C M Hashim, who was Penang Umno chief.”
Writing about C.M Hashim hasn’t been easy as the life of this prominent Malay leader is only briefly recounted in books and old newspaper clippings.
“Getting an interview with C.M Hashim’s children is not a viable option. Many have passed away. Few are still alive, but they are well in their 80s.
“Fortunately, we were able to get in touch with C.M Hashim’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who were more than happy to share unseen photos and newspaper clippings with us,” says Emili.
Moving forward, the team will be working with renowned festival director Joe Sidek to produce a pop-up exhibition focusing on Jawi Peranakan, a lesser-known Peranakan subgroup unique to Penang. The team is also in talks with a prominent art gallery in Penang, Ming Gallery, to work on a history and art exhibition.
Most importantly, the team is keen to organise walking tours after traveling resumes.
“Penang is where Einstein briefly visited and young Anna Leonowens of The King and I was widowed. Here in Penang, you’ll discover alluring historical gems with fascinating backstories to dazzle even the most jaded history buffs.
“When it’s safe for us to travel again, I hope that people will spend more days in Penang to experience Penang’s hidden gems through our curated tours. There is so much more to discover and appreciate in Penang than its Instagrammable spots and delicious food,” she said.
Cover images sourced from Unsplash.