Penang’s Hachiko? The tale behind Western Road Cemetery’s dog statue

Pic credit: Timothy Tye

GEORGE TOWN: It is a little strange to think that a place more commonly associated with death could inversely be a place of such peace and tranquility.

Yet, as one walks in the shade of the great trees that preside over Penang’s Western Road Cemetery, the quiet beauty of the scenery is actually a strangely pleasant change from the raucous hustle and bustle of George Town just outside the cemetery’s gates.

Laying at the foot of Penang Hill, the Western Road Cemetery is the final resting place of a great many interesting personalities and holds no small amount of historical value.

The Roman Catholic Brothers and Sisters who contributed much to the development of education in Penang in particular and Malaysia as a whole are interred here as are members of the police force who fell in the line of duty against the Communist insurgency.

Also on the cemetery grounds stands a Soviet-built memorial dedicated to the 82 Russian sailors of the cruiser Zhemchug who lost their lives during the battle of Penang in 1914.

Several graves also act as the silent reminders of the existence of the Armenian community who used to live on the aptly named Armenian Street. One grave that also draws attention belongs to Andrew Duncan, though it is not him in particular that brings in the curious crowd.

Photo credit: Timothy Tye

When glimpsed at from afar, it may appear that a white dog is laying motionless atop the grave, watching over it in an almost pitiful manner. Such a sight will beckon the inquisitive visitor to come closer and discover that it is not an actual dog but rather, a lifelike statue.

Given how well-sculpted it is, it is easy to make that mistake. The thought of a dog watching over its master even after death is one to warm the heart or to bring tears to the eyes.

Who has not heard the tale of Hachiko? The Japanese Akita dog whose daily vigil at the train station his deceased master frequented has become the emblem of undying canine loyalty.

Unfortunately, the truth regarding Andrew’s dog is somewhat less rosy as his widow, Evelyn, revealed when she last visited Penang from her home in Australia in 1974.

The dog had not died there, she clarified. It had been a loyal pet to Andrew when he served as the manager of the Sungpara Estate near Sungai Petani.

When visiting Singapore, Andrew had crossed paths with Evelyn and they subsequently tied the knot when he was aged 43. Unfortunately for the couple, their marriage would be abruptly cut short by Andrew’s passing half a year later on July 7, 1931.

Before leaving for Australia, Evelyn placed an order for the statue of the dog from Italian masons and had it mounted on her deceased husband’s grave for what she called “sentimental reasons”.

Popular legend has it that the statue is capable of supernaturally shifting itself, but given how the statue is not cemented onto the tomb, a more mundane explanation is likelier.

It is hard to say if the living relatives of Andrew Duncan will come to pay their respects at his grave any time soon. Whatever the case though, he will not rest alone, with his pet dog faithfully staying by his side through day and night, rain and shine for the many years to come.