One thing that needs to be known about us Malaysians is that we can be downright superstitious. Our tourism, in fact, partly concentrates on the mystical aspects of certain historical sites. The infamous Penang War Museum, as an example, is lauded as a haunted spotlight due to its dark past. The museum is carved out of the actual British fortress built on top of the Batu Maung hill in the outskirts of the island that would later fall into the hands of the Japanese army during WWII. What used to be a place of protection became a concentration camp of sorts that now testifies a series of tortures imposed on the British supporters and army. Locals have been shunning the place since the end of the war for fear of the unrest spirits and for that reason, it makes for a haunting attraction that mixes historical facts with, I dare say, a slight dash of folklore.
Similar to the Northam Road Cemetery, the place had been on my go-to list in Penang for ages. It’s partly morbid curiosity, I reckon. And the thirst for history, as always. I needed the right party to go with and almost signed up for the haunted night tour but my sister M adamantly refused for the fear of safety. The three of us climbed the hill on one rainy afternoon instead and boy, was that a better choice. The place felt heavy in the midst of that monsoon rain, even during the day. The grounds were mostly empty, save for a few tourists roaming through the abandoned barracks. There were deep tunnels that lead into hundreds of feet underground and artillery shelters that were eaten up by age and mold. We huddled together as we go through a passage that was pitch-black and seemed like it went on forever without sufficient air to breathe in. The light shining from our camera phones did nothing to help the situation. The passage led us straight into the belly of the fortress where rifles, bayonets, ammunition and bombshells were secretly hidden.
We ventured into the communications control rooms that stood in the far end of the camp grounds and once again, the air felt thick. The yellowed walls were graced with photographs of the British soldiers who perished during the fight with the Japanese. M and I were instantly fascinated by a portrait of a young, fairly good-looking army officer in his early 20s when all of sudden, we felt the chill on the back of our necks. I shook off the feeling by snapping a photograph of the soldier’s portrait. Lo and behold, the camera immediately whirred into an unsuspecting noise and stopped rolling. Its fully-charged battery in my camera drained itself to an early death. Nobody could explain what happened as I tried my best to revive my camera. N chalked it down to the messing of energies around us; M was just disturbed by the uncanniness of it all and urged we move to the other bunkers-turned-prisons and leave once the rain stops.
All in all, I thought the place was well-preserved with leftovers of war paraphernalia and personal belongings of the soldiers who served Malaya till their very deaths. Unfortunately, its rich history wasn’t emphasized enough compared to the myths of the roaming ghouls and the supposedly menacing figures by the name of Colonel Suzuki and General Yamashita, who both vested interest in decapitating the British-Malayan army. That’s a shame because it could very well be an astounding testament to past atrocities yet the museum was nowhere as good as the others I’d been to, such as Tuol Sleng in Cambodia and Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum. The ghosts of our past are long behind us and if anything should be left would be the historical imprint of inhumanity.