This book, Seberang Perai: Stories from Across the Sea, is truly an amazing journey of a place, a region, an edge of Malaysia which is very special but much ignored and rarely celebrated. Seberang Perai has many splendoured things, rarely viewed and felt. For too long it was skipped by many ‘outsiders’, including Penang Islanders, as just a place to pass through to other points in Malaysia.
It has a history, a beauty and a power that have been latent and only recently started blossoming. It has a great story of refugees and of multiple agricultural ventures including sugar, a French presence and a Teochew legacy. Rice fields and fishing villages can still be glimpsed and enjoyed for their endearing simplicity.
There are stories of planters and plantations, Australians and airbases, great schools and scholars, politics and one of the largest pilgrimage festivals on earth at the St Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam. Not to be forgotten is that it was the home of the oldest global brand of Malaysian chili sauce called “Lingham”. And it gave us a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister and a national literature laureate as well as many other leading personalities.
Seberang Perai means ‘across the Perai River’ (Perai itself means ‘free’ and ‘unhampered’). It was named ‘Province Wellesley’ by the British colonial masters of that age, operating as the British East India Company, after Richard Wellesley, Governor of Madras and Governor-General of Bengal (1797–1805). At that time, Penang was managed from India. The place is also fondly called ‘pak hai’ in Hokkien, meaning ‘north sea’, perhaps since the length of its coast faces the northern Straits of Malacca.
Seberang Perai has an amazing archaeological and political history. There are traces of pre-historic times with evidence of a human settlement in Guar Kepah, at the south of Muda River about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago! It is part of the Bujang Valley civilisation, with the finding of Cherok Tokun relics and Buddhagupta stone with Pali inscriptions dating back to the fourth century and located in the grounds of St. Anne’s Church.
This strip of land was under the state of Kedah until it was ceded to the British East India Company to be part of Penang by the Sultan of Kedah in 1798 under the Burney Treaty. At that time it covered an area of 489.3sq km. After the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, it was expanded to 740.12sq km and has been part of the state of Penang ever since.
Seberang Perai has become an industrial hub with major steel, sugar and glass industries as well as other ventures including printing factories and a range of government installations such as the Penang Library, the Immigration Department, and transport hubs which were moved from the island to bring some balance to the ‘crowded’ island. Seberang Perai: Stories from Across the Sea is one of a few books published on Seberang Perai, and we hope it will give readers fresh insight into the region’s cultural richness. Ivy Soon and Kenny Loh have travelled the breadth of Seberang Perai for over a year to interview locals and capture their stories and images, all laced with a charming authenticity.
We are grateful to Soon and Loh for their efforts and are proud to part-fund this initiative under the Think City Grants Programme. Think City, a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional, advocates community-focused urban regeneration and has embarked on a project to breathe new life into Butterworth, Seberang Perai’s principal city, in partnership with the local council. The many splendid, sensitive and professional insights of this hidden gem will make you view Seberang Perai in a new light.
We hope this book will not only spur greater interest about the communities of Seberang Perai and their way of life, but also be the catalyst for the further blossoming of this truly splendored place in our country, rich in diversity, beauty and harmony.
Dato’ (Dr.) Anwar Fazal Chairperson, Think City Sdn. Bhd. Penang, Malaysia