It’s said to be the largest war museum in Southeast Asia: a privately-owned heritage site in Penang that covers an area of some 8 hectares.
Penang’s war museum in Bukit Batu Maung, on the road to Teluk Kumbar on Penang’s southern coast (around 16km from the centre of George Town), is today a mysterious site that for decades after WWII would be forgotten under thick tropical vegetation after the withdrawal of Japanese forces from the area. Locals feared to visit the area after stories of the atrocities that took place there grew increasingly horrific with each telling, and rumours that the place was haunted were rife, to the point that the site became known as Ghost Hill.
It wasn’t until 1993 when a businessman from the northern Kedah state of Malaysia, Johari Shafie, came across the site and launched a project to restore the Fort. In March 2002, his proposal was approved by the Penang State Government.
The jungle was stripped back, buildings were restored and many exhibition items were shipped in from collections elsewhere. It was reported that the old fort was “exorcised to remove the spirits”; and at the end of 2002, the Penang War Museum opened its gates for the first time.
“British Malaya” existed from 1909-1946 as a collection of British-ruled states on the Malay Peninsula. The military fort on Bukit Batu Maung was created during the 1930s. Designed by Royal British Engineers, the project was officially designated the “South Channel Gun Emplacement”. The fort was designed to protect British shipping routes around the Malayan Peninsula – as well as providing military defence for the Royal Air Force base at Butterworth, situated just across the Penang Channel. Its staff were British & Punjabi Indian soldiers. The fort was composed of a network of many pillboxes, search light batteries, 6-inch gun batteries, underground tunnels and shelters and barracks.
The Japanese invasion of Malaya began on 8th December 1941, and when the Japanese Imperial Army landed at Penang on 12th December 1941, they found the fort abandoned and seized the island without suffering casualties.
During a series of ethnic killings known as the “Sook Ching”, the Japanese forces occupying Singapore and Malaya killed thousands of innocent victims. Primarily they targeted ethnic Chinese populations, the perceived enemies of Japanese rule.
During the Japanese occupation, the fort is said to have been used by the Japanese as internment camp for Prisoners of War. Torture and ceremonial beheadings reportedly became a daily event, with prisoners particularly fearing a sadistic Japanese executioner named Tadashi Suzuki. According to the stories, after each kill Suzuki would wash his samurai sword in a bottle of whiskey. Some say he drank the whiskey afterwards.
Tadashi Suzuki died in April 1945, according to the Malaysian historian Andrew Hwang: “killed en route back to Japan … on the HS Awa Maru, a hospital ship, which was deliberately torpedoed by the USS Sword Fish, an American submarine.”
Exploring the Grounds
Eight hectares is a large space – and exploring the Penang War Museum could take one all day. One can visit the canon-firing bay, anti-aircraft firing bays, sleeping quarters for soldiers, the cookhouse, lockup and command centre. Much of what one can see today is in the same condition as when it was built, as most of the buildings and structures have stood the test of time. One is able to obtain an idea how the solders lived in these conditions.
The barracks are designed according to rank. One set for British officers, others for British other ranks, Indians and Malays. The museum houses historical artefacts and also features military tunnels and ammunition bunkers which are located nine metres underground. Some of the tunnels lead all the way to the sea as they once served as access routes to get to submarines. Navigating through the passageways sometimes forces the visitor to walk or even crawl through very narrow, confined spaces.
Those interested in “ghost tourism” find this site particularly interesting. Indeed, the site was even listed among the top ten most haunted sites in Asia.