Map from Cambridge University Library
Fifty years ago, no one went down to the southeast edge of Penang. There was no reason to. It was far from town and there was nothing to do there—a strip of beach, maybe, but there were other beaches not so out of the way. It was a place for fishermen only, and for the handful of people who actually lived in the area. Had anyone gone and stood at the shore, though, they would have seen Pulau Jerejak, a small island just off the coast, covered in forest.
Today the island is almost the same. From the strip of beach near Queensbay Mall or from one of the glinting highrise apartments, the trees are still visible behind the ferry port on the island’s edge. The ferry goes between Penang and Jerejak several times a day, taking passengers to and from the island’s resort. Standing on Penang’s beach, it’s possible to wave to people on the opposite shore, if they were to turn around and look.
Besides the beach and its spa facilities, the resort offers a chance to hike in the jungle as well as more high-adrenaline activities including a zip-line. What’s harder to find are traces of Jerejak’s past. Jerejak housed a prison and a tuberculosis ward, the remains of which can still be seen in slowly crumbling buildings. One establishment is missing—paved over to make way for the resort.
By the 1830s the idea of using Jerejak as a leper colony had already been proposed. Construction was completed in 1868 and in 1971 the first leprosy sufferers from Penang were sent there. The asylum expanded and from 1880 onwards it began serving patients from all of Great Britain’s colonial holdings in the area. By 1926 the population swelled to 700. After World War II, numbers of patients dwindled and in 1969 the remaining 300 patients were moved to Sungai Buloh Leper Settlement.
At the peak of its activity, Jerjak’s leper colony saw inmates fishing and engaging in light farm work. Located near the western edge of the island, anyone standing on Penang’s coast could have looked across the small strip of water and waved at any patient who happened to be standing on the other side.