The Monkeys Of Penang Botanic Gardens

Long-tailed macaque of Penang Botanic Gardens
Long-tailed macaque of Penang Botanic Gardens.

My cousin Ah Huat is a few years older than me. He was a head taller and scrawny, and tanned from running around the kampung under the hot sun most of the time. We lived just a five-minute walk apart, near to the Ayer Itam market and Kek Lok Si Temple.

Ah Huat’s mother is Mum’s second sister. I call her Jee Ee. When Mum’s chores for the day were done, she would take me on the short walk to Jee Ee’s place. While the two ladies chit chatted, I would follow Ah Huat as he went traipsing with the other kids in the neighbourhood looking for adventures to while the day away.

Dad invited him to go with us to Penang Botanic Gardens one day. Dad parked the car at the usual spot opposite the Cactus House. Ah Huat and I scampered all over the slope the moment we got out from the car. Our squeals could be heard across the lush vale as we quickly worked out a sweat with all that running.

Dad and Mum hiked up a short distance to their favourite place under some shady trees and made themselves comfortable. From where they sat, they had a vantage point of the undulating terrain and its surroundings. There were not many people that day. Ah Huat and I had a free run of the entire slope.

A troop of monkeys appeared from out of nowhere. Their noisy chatter broke the serenity and caught our attention. One of them jumped onto the car bonnet and began playing with one of the windscreen wipers. Dad cautiously approached the car and tried to shoo it away.

The monkey stood on fours and bared its fangs. Dad started clapping loudly and then waved his hands to scare the monkey off. We watched in horror as suddenly, without warning, the monkey yanked loose one of the wiper blades and ran off with it. Ah Huat, who was nearest to the car, raced down from the slope and went after the monkey who had by then made its way across the road towards the river.

The rest of the troop scattered upon seeing Ah Huat charging towards them. I was close behind Ah Huat with Dad fast catching up. A few monkeys together with the one with the blade scuttered up a tall tree, away from our reach and raising a ruckus as they peered down at us from the branches they were perching on.

Dad grabbed some broken branches from the ground and hurled them at the monkeys with the hope that the blade would be thrown back at us in retaliation. The monkeys were too high up. They continued to peer down at us, occasionally waving the blade and screeching noisily, seemingly mocking Dad’s futile effort.

After what felt like a very long time with Dad trying everything he could think of to make the monkey throw the wiper blade down, he gave up. My neck was already aching from looking straight up. We walked back to the car, stealing back glances, hoping against hope, that the monkey would somehow throw the blade down.

The windscreen looked odd with the blade missing from the wiper arm. Dad checked the remaining blade to make sure it was properly secured. There was nothing else we could do. The thieving monkey spoilt the day for us. As Dad drove off, I stole a last glance at the monkeys on the tree. The culprit was still holding on to the blade.

The Scent Of Grass

Penang Botanic Gardens
The grassy slope at Penang Botanic Gardens where I used to scamper around as a kid.

The raw smell of grass – not freshly mowed but one that rises up from the trampling of small feet running all over – always reminds me of the Penang Botanic Gardens. I was five or six then. Dad drove all the way in and parked opposite the Cactus House. On the left was a field that gently sloped upwards from the road. An indentation was dug out from the edge of the slope to make it level with the road. A couple of garden benches occupied that space with their backs facing the steep grass wall that rose up to the field behind them.

I loved scampering all over the slope, chasing after or being chased by imaginary friends. Running up needed some effort but running down was the tricky one. I had to pace my little self else I ran too fast and could not stop when I reached the indent and tumbled over. Dad and Mum sat on the grass and watched me from a distance as I slowly wore myself out from all that activity. Sometimes, if we remembered to bring a beach ball, I would be chasing after it as it rolled down the grassy slope.

When I was totally drenched in sweat and breathless from all that running, Mum called out for me to stop. She was mindful to bring an extra pair of tee shirt and a bottle of water and left them in the car. She made me change out of the soggy shirt that stuck limply to my body. Then she made me drink from the glass cordial bottle that she filled with plain water. I sat with them afterwards, still catching my breath and picking out the pesky love grass seeds that had hooked onto my socks.

The sun was already obscured behind the tall trees. Branches swayed under the evening breeze. My nostrils were filled with the green smell of grass. I blew my nose but it still clung fast. Daylight was fading. It was time to leave. Mum ushered me into the car. The moment the car engine sprung to life, the overpowering smell of petrol choked my olfactory senses, killing all traces of grassiness in my nose but not the memory of the few hours of fun I had there that evening.

Paradise Almost Lost

Five years, that was how long I had waited to do make that one journey again. When I was still staying in Penang, when I had moved to Kuala Lumpur and made trips back to Penang, it was always on my mind. But there were errands to run, obligations to fulfil and friends to meet. Most trips back were rushed. There was hardly time to do it at a leisurely pace.

We went up to Penang the week before Christmas after a one-night stopover in Ipoh. I was resolute that we were going make it by hook or by crook this time. We kept one whole afternoon free for that and only slotted a dinner appointment for the evening. That, I estimated, should be sufficient for us to do what we had planned and explore a little more while we were there.

What I missed most about this place was the chilly atmosphere. Dad used to drive Mum and me there in his small car that had an oscillating fan inside. It was a cream coloured Simca. The registration plate was PH 656. Most times, we would just wind the window down to enjoy the breeze on the way there. On warmer days, he would turn the fan on. Cars did not come with air conditioners then.

The moment we passed the playing field with the granite wall, just before Moon Gate, no matter how hot the weather was, the temperature would suddenly drop by a degree to two. That stretch of road up to the car park outside the garden was shaded by tall overhanging tree branches. The fresh and cool air was as refreshing to the skin as it was to the lungs when inhaled.

That was back in the 1970s. In the early-80s, that coolness, although somewhat diminished, was still there. The cicadas were still incessant with their monotonous piercing melodies. After my spinal injury, I did not go back until in the late-90s when I became less ashamed of being seen in public. The tarred roads surrounding the garden made it easy for my wheelchair, as long as I did not venture off to the lawn. I went there a few more times since. The very last time was with Mum and Wuan in 2001 for the Penang International Floral Fest.

So much had already changed by then. The soothing coolness on cloudless afternoons, the sounds of the cicadas, the all-enveloping greenery, they were not like what they used to be anymore. In their place, an unpleasant humidity permeated, making the skin sticky and breathing laborious. The screeching of the cicadas were barely audible. The road had become brighter due to the thinner cover overhead. I thought that was already bad enough.

Nonetheless, I was not prepared for what I saw this trip. The trees – what happened to the trees? That stretch of road that was so familiar to me as a teenager has lost many of the trees that stood on both sides the road. Further in, Coronation Camp with the familiar triangular roofed huts was no longer there. The camp ground used to be hidden from the road by thick undergrowths. Now, I could peer right through all the way to the trees that marked the camp’s perimeter on the other side. I have so many good memories of that place as a Boy Scout with the 13th GTS and then 7th GTN Scout troops.

That was not all. The familiar row of staff quarters and coffee shop just outside the Penang Botanic Gardens entrance were gone too. In their place, construction of some kind was going on. Whatever was being built there, I hope the structure blends into the landscape. As it was, that area already looked obscenely naked without the trees that were chopped down to make way for the garden expansion project.

Penang Botanic Gardens under expansion
Penang Botanic Gardens under expansion – December 20, 2009.
On the background is the fence of the formal gardens.
Photo by Wuan.

(to be continued)