The rich but sordid history of Penang’s Pulau Jerejak

The book entitled,’Jerejak, Penang’s Untold Story’ by Mike Gibby. (Mike Gibby pic)

PETALING JAYA: When people think of Penang, they think of the sandy beaches of Batu Ferringhi, the Unesco Heritage Sites of George Town and the lip-smacking street food one can’t get enough of.

Largely forgotten is Pulau Jerejak, off the coast near Queensbay Mall. A RM20 two-way ferry ride will take you to this 3.62 km parcel of land in 10 minutes, a tiny island that has played multiple roles through the decades.

Besides functioning as a station for immigrants once, Pulau Jerejak was also a famous leprosy centre, and after World War II, used as a camp for refugees and displaced persons. There was also a tuberculosis (TB) isolation hospital built there.

Much later, everyone would speak in hushed tones about how the island housed the country’s most notorious criminals in a maximum-security prison.

The graves of leprosy patients can be found to this day on Pulau Jerejak. (Mike Gibby)

FMT spoke to author and retired teacher, Mike Gibby, who was so fascinated by Pulau Jerejak’s rich history that he dedicated two and a half years to research and write a book on it, titled Jerejak, Penang’s Untold Story.

Gibby said the island was once referred to as “Jerajah” but when the leprosy hospital was established in 1868, the name was changed to Jerejak.

The hospital, which overlooked the sea, was built largely with generous contributions from the Chinese business community.

Patients sitting in a row under the coconut trees at the Leprosy Hospital on Pulau Jerejak. (Mike Gibby pic)

“In its early days, conditions in the hospital were quite good and serious attempts were made to ensure the patients were as comfortable as possible.

“Patients were provided with free food and clothing as well as moderate amounts of opium for personal use.”

There were even small fishing boats that the patients could use to fish or even sail over to Penang to visit friends.

The Boy Scouts troop on Pulau Jerejak – even the scoutmaster was a leprosy patient. (Mike Gibby pic)

However, it did not take long for conditions there to deteriorate. More and more patients were sent to Jerejak and as the numbers grew, it became overcrowded, resulting in somewhat harsh living conditions.

Jerejak accepted only men, so violence was rife, with even the occasional murder having been recorded.

When the Japanese left Malaya after World War II, a camp for refugees and displaced persons was set-up on Jerejak, in addition to a sanatorium to treat the post-war increase in TB patients.

The quarantine camp at Pulau Jerejak. (Mike Gibby pic)

In 1969, the remaining 320 leprosy patients of Pulau Jerejak were transferred to Sungai Buloh in Selangor, and 80 TB patients to Seremban in Negeri Sembilan.

On June 12, 1969, the Jerejak Rehabilitation Centre was set up as a maximum-security prison and gained the name “Alcatraz” from the number of drug gang overlords and other dangerous criminals imprisoned there. This prison was closed for good in August 1993.

Gibby says British colonial records indicate there were more than 9,000 deaths on the island.

About 7,000 were leprosy patients, perhaps 2,000 were migrant workers from India and China who died while in quarantine on the island and there was also a smaller number of deaths of TB patients.

Today, only 200 marked graves remain, some of them more than 100 years old. “Most of the graves date from the 1950s and 1960s. So far as we can tell, these are all the graves of leprosy patients.”

A tombstone. The graves of leprosy patients on Pulau Jerejak date back to the 1950s and 1960s. (Mike Gibby pic)

Unfortunately, most of Jerejak’s rich history has not been included in the country’s school history books, so visitors are lucky there are some remnants of history still left on the island today.

“The most interesting buildings that have survived are the Catholic church, the remains of the barracks of the quarantine camp, which was also used as the prison, and the jail for leprosy patients that was built in 1930 to imprison those who had committed crimes on the island.

The Pulau Jerejak quarantine camp as it stands today. (Mike Gibby pic)

“There is also a large reservoir that supplied water to the quarantine camp,” said Gibby.

Today, Jerejak has another brand new face, this time catering to trendy teenagers looking for a good photo opportunity and families needing a quick break from their humdrum lives.

The island’s dark past has been replaced with a beautifully painted rainbow pier, a white “stairway to heaven”, giant bird nests and large swings, perfect backdrops for the Instagram feed.

There is even a colourful park, the Jerejak Island Resort LED Garden that comes to life at night, with sparkling lights hanging from even the tallest trees to the edges of the pavements, and a resort for families looking to stay the night.

The jetty at Pulau Jerejak today. (Wikipedia pic by Christopher Harriot from Penang, Malaysia)

Those interested in Pulau Jerejak’s history can hire a tour guide and trek to the British prison or even ride a bicycle along the old prison trail.

It is hard to believe this colourful, peaceful island has such a dark history, but it is a place every Malaysian should learn about and visit at least once in their lifetime.