Ask Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai about Penang, and his face immediately lights up. A dyed-in-the-wool Penangite, he can’t hide the fondness in his eyes or the pep in his voice when he talks about his hometown.
For Wong, Star Publications (M) Bhd group managing director and chief executive officer, stories of the island and his own story are practically inseparable. Thus, taking on the task of penning a weekly column on the subject, called Penang’s History, My Story, in StarMetro was a natural progression of his passion for and interest in Penang’s places, people and history.
The column made its debut on Jan 5, 2013, to great reception, and went on for a year – the last article was published on Jan 4 this year. Compiling them together is the Penang’s History, My Story book, which will be launched tomorrow.
The book zeroes in on street names in George Town as a means of exploring the stories of a particular area, diving into the island’s rich cultural and historical heritage along the way. In fact, it was his passion for history, and disappointment over the way it is usually imparted, that prompted the author to embark on the project.
“I love history, and I’ve always wondered how people can find it boring,” says Wong, a political science and history graduate from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“I blame it on our teachers, because they are bad storytellers. Even the word itself is ‘his story’, you’re supposed to tell a story, but we end up memorising facts, figures and dates. History as it is taught now is all about leaders and politicians, but why should it be so? What about people like us? Why are there no stories about the people, about social history, popular history?”
Wanting to approach and write about history differently, Wong decided to tell Penang’s story in ways that the average person could relate to: through everyday experiences and memories that would strike a chord with the reader.
“Penang is known for its heritage (George Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site), and people take great pride in it, and yet, many aren’t aware that they are living right in the midst of history. I also feel that, over the years, the names of roads, not just in Penang but all over Malaysia, are disappearing, and being replaced by names that don’t have significance. And yet, these street names are living examples of history!” he explains.
He points to Cantonment Road in Penang, which was named after the military cantonment (or camp) established there during the colonial era, as an example.
“Not far from Cantonment Road is Sepoy Lines Road, which is named after the Indian soldier barracks that used to be there, and next to that is Barrack Road. Obviously, there is a connection between these names, and they tell a story about the past,” he says.
(In the 1800s, that entire area – from Macalister Road to Dato Keramat Road – was part of the British military precinct, which included the present Penang Prison and the polo ground; the land now occupied by Penang General Hospital.)
Penang’s History, My Story is the result of five years of research, and Wong is quick to point out that the book wouldn’t have been possible if not for the books and articles written by others, including writer, social historian and heritage advocate Khoo Salma Nasution, and history blogger Timothy Tye.
“Using the street names gave my articles structure, allowing me to talk about both the location and the personality the street was named after. But I also wanted to give life to it. What was missing from existing research was the fun parts, the storytelling element. That is where my book comes in,” says Wong.