A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
31 May 2017
“Do you believe in ghosts?” asked Simon, our Uber driver, as we took the turn-off at Batu Maung and began to climb the hill to the Penang War Museum. The museum complex sits at the southern tip of Penang Island, inside an old military fort on Bukit Hantu: a name that means ‘Ghost Hill,’ in Malay.
“Why’s that?” I said to Simon, playing naive. Of course I came here for the ghost stories.
“Just watch out here, alright?” he said… before telling us about the time his friend saw the ghost of a long-dead Japanese executioner in one of the tunnels at the sprawling museum complex.
Since the museum opened its gates as a dark tourism attraction, countless others have made similar claims. In 2013 a National Geographic documentary was filmed in the museum grounds, and it called the Penang War Museum one of the 10 most haunted places in Asia. To say the place had a reputation would be an understatement.
Simon dropped us at the entrance, and then he was gone. The palm trees closed over the dusty road as the car disappeared, a wall of jungle at our back that pressed us onward through the gates and into the Penang War Museum.
The Museum on Ghost Hill
For a place so steeped in urban myths, the Penang War Museum was more welcoming than one might predict. We bought tickets at the counter, from a cheerful girl in a hijab. There was no mention of ghosts as she passed us our ticket stubs and a map. I scanned the plan of the base: barracks, cookhouses, pillboxes and anti-aircraft guns, an infirmary, store houses, and cannon bays. This place was massive, I quickly realised. In fact, they say it’s the largest war museum in Southeast Asia; a privately owned heritage site that covers an area of some 20 acres.
At the entrance, a polished wooden skull – looking more like a dragon than anything else – looms down over visiting tourists. There’s a Japanese suicide vest, complete with replica sticks of dynamite, and a sign that invites visitors to have their photo taken wearing a mock WWII uniform. Nearby, a cow’s skull pinned to a fence (a real skull this time) has been captioned with the words, “I Hate War.”
I had been expecting something a little gloomier… but the Penang War Museum is both kitsch and colourful.
We followed the path to the southeast corner of the museum – the southeast tip of Penang Island – where only a fence and some rubbery trees stood between us and the hillside tumbling down to the water. In the distance, traffic moved slowly down the long white bridge that joins Penang to the mainland; but all I could hear was the hum of jungle insects.
In this far corner of the former fort, a ring of concrete marked the place where a British six-inch gun had overlooked the Malacca Strait. There were munitions stores nearby, and a winch that dangled over the shaft of a subterranean explosives dump. Not far from here was the tunnel where Simon’s friend had spotted his Japanese ghost.
According to a plaque beside the entrance, the tunnel had served as the British Army’s underground command centre. It was built with reinforced cement and steel walls one metre thick, to defend against enemy bombs. In case of gas attacks, the bunker could be sealed off entirely to survive on its own recycled air supply.
Beneath the information, a caption read: “All the above information are gathered from the research carried out by the proprietor of the War Museum Malaysia.”
On entering the tunnel, the temperature dropped immediately – it was cool inside, and the air felt thinner than the humid jungle climate just outside. The main chamber was decorated with relics from the days of British Malaya: broken machinery, old photographs, and dummies dressed in the uniforms of soldiers and engineers. It was tempting to imagine how this place had functioned, to think that these same stale cellars had once been full of life and activity.
From the entry corridor a smaller, unlit passage split off deeper into the hillside. I followed it, ducking down behind a flashlight as I half walked, half crawled through the twists and turns of the concrete shaft. Eventually the passage looped around, turned back on itself and I emerged just across the corridor from where I had entered.
I checked every corner of that bunker, every inch of tunnel, but the ghosts of Penang War Museum were yet to reveal themselves.
Ghosts, however, are a product of history… and in this case I believe the hauntings on Bukit Hantu – Ghost Hill – can be better seen for what they are, when one considers the strange and difficult history of the fort that preceded the war museum.
History of the Penang War Museum
Batu Maung Fort: British Command
‘British Malaya’ existed from 1909-1946, as a collection of British-ruled states on the Malay Peninsula. This region included some of the most profitable territories in the Empire.
The military fort on Bukit Batu Maung (or ‘Batu Maung Hill’) was created during the 1930s. Designed by Royal British Engineers, the project was officially designated the ‘South Channel Gun Emplacement’ and was constructed by a team of labourers from South Africa, India, Nepal, Gibraltar and beyond. Some were employees of the Empire; others, prisoners of war.
Batu Maung 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 latter had a particularly fearsome reputation amongst the locals, so that during those early years the place earned the nickname of ‘Punjab Hill.’ Once completed, however, the fortress would see only five years of British use.
The Japanese began their invasion of Malaya on 8th December 1941. On December 10th, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, general officer of the British High Command in Malaya, issued a stern order:
“In this hour of trial the General Officer Commanding calls upon all ranks Malaya Command for a determined and sustained effort to safeguard Malaya and the adjoining British territories. The eyes of the Empire are upon us. Our whole position in the Far East is at stake.”
His warning would prove futile.
The fortress on Penang had been designed to anticipate attacks coming in from the sea. Two six-inch batteries faced out to the water, while the fort’s anti-aircraft defences remained unfinished. Added to that, much of Britain’s power in the Pacific had been concentrated around Singapore, so that when the Imperial Japanese Army launched a surprise airborne attack on Penang Island, the British were caught critically unprepared.
Brigadier C.A. Lyon, commander of the garrison at Batu Maung Fort, was given the order to evacuate without a fight. By 15th December 1941, most of the Penang garrison of British and Commonwealth troops had left, surrendering the island to the Japanese.
Batu Maung Fort: Japanese Command
The Japanese Occupation of Penang lasted from 17th December 1941, until their eventual surrender in September 1945… and it’s at this point in the history of Batu Maung Fort where stories begin to differ.
According to some historians, the Japanese Imperial Army used the Penang Fort in much the same way that the British had. The fort had been damaged during the British retreat – both six-inch guns had been destroyed, to prevent the Japanese from using them – but nevertheless it was put back to use, this time protecting Japanese shipping routes. According to this version of events the fort defended Penang Island up until the end of the war, at which point it was simply left abandoned.
However, the self-researched narrative provided by the Penang War Museum is quite different.
Shortly after the Japanese took the fort, they say, it was converted into a prisoner of war camp. Torture and ceremonial beheadings became a daily event, and the prisoners were ruled over by a particularly 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.
Both accounts agree however, that the Penang fort was abandoned after the Japanese Emperor surrendered in 1945. Any remaining Japanese prisoners were shipped to Singapore, or to Kanchanaburi (where the Japanese had built their ‘Death Railway‘ on the Thailand-Burma border), and the fort itself was left to the jungle’s mercy.
Creation of the Penang War Museum
For decades the fort on Bukit Batu Maung would be forgotten. The thick green vegetation spilled back in, waxy leaves and creepers burying old steel and concrete; whilst the humid, salty air sped the decay of rusting gun placements and damp woodwork.
Locals rarely dared to visit the place – the stories about what had happened there grew more horrific with each retelling. The place was declared to be haunted, and within time Bukit Batu Maung would become known as Bukit Hantu, or ‘Ghost Hill.’
It wasn’t until 1993 when Johari Shafie, a businessman from the northern Kedah state of Malaysia, came across the site. After visiting various war museums overseas, he launched a project to restore the Batu Maung Fort; and in March 2002 his proposal was approved by the Penang State Government.
The next six months were spent clearing the grounds. The jungle was stripped back, buildings were restored and many exhibition items were shipped in from collections elsewhere. The now defunct Brunei Times reported how the old fort was “exorcised to remove the spirits”; and later that year, the Penang War Museum was finally opened to the public.
Dark Tourism in Malaysia
Twenty acres is a large space – and exploring the Penang War Museum could take all day. We spent most of a day there, sometimes wandering aimlessly on unpeopled jungle paths, other times stopping in at bunkers and barracks to read the information on display. More often than not, that information was accompanied by garish and grotesque displays of plastic corpses, ghosts and execution tools.
It was late afternoon when we found the paintball arena: an overgrown clearing spilling down the side of a hill, where tree trunks and pillars of paint-splattered tyres rose into a maze of makeshift cover. A gallows had been erected at the top of the arena, where it met the territory of the museum.
The gallows was a replica, a copy of the device that ended the life of General Yamashita: commander of the 25th Japanese Imperial Army in Malaya and Singapore. He was widely celebrated for his victories against the British in the Pacific – but after Japan’s surrender the general was put on trial for war crimes, and finally met the noose in the Philippines, in 1946.
It felt like a stretch, putting up the gallows here – as if the museum was reaching far and wide to bring as many macabre elements as possible into its own story. But the gallows was nothing compared to what I’d find around the corner.
The courtyard lay between buildings at a place where paths through the jungle crossed into one communal area. Presiding over it, stood on the roof of an outhouse and glowering down from the trees with supernatural menace, was the wood-crafted figure of some giant demon. It wasn’t alone, either. On top of another building (this one labelled the “Torture Chamber”) loomed a finger-pointing wraith, formed of rags and wire. In the other direction, a ghostly figure hung from a noose in the trees.
A sign pinned up nearby called these the “Giant Effigies,” and it explained: “This figures appeared at night during the restoration of this site into making the war museum 2002 witnessed by our workers.” (For clarification it adds: “Illustration only.”)
These manifestations are part of a rich tapestry of sightings at the museum. Some visitors claim to see ghosts, wraiths, shadows or demons. For others it’s the executioner, Tadashi Suzuki, who stalks these paths at night (as it was for my driver’s friend). It gets harder to find reports of ghosts from before the creation of the museum, though; before this hill was marketed as a dark tourism destination.
We followed a quiet path from there, that wound down between the old buildings. The jungle hissed a tropical ambiance around us, and a sign pinned up to a waxy trunk read: “Beware of Wild Animal (snakes, centipedes, scorpions, bats, wildcats, eagle, etc.).”
I laughed it off, then almost walked face-first into a web that hung between the trees. At its centre, just inches from my eyes, dangled a spider the size of my hand.
The buildings at this end of the complex had largely served as barracks. These were sorted according to rank and race: one for British officers, a separate barracks for other British ranks; and then further barracks for Indian soldiers, with respective cookhouses catering to the diets of different religions.
There were two very different histories being told here. I passed a British infirmary, where mannequins sat with bandaged limbs and plaques detailed the medical facilities available at the fort; then around the corner, I found the block where the POWs had allegedly had their heads cut clean from their shoulders.
A sign labelled “Guillotine” hung from the tree, illustrated with faded red blood drops. Nearby, a panel explained that on this spot, “a famous Japanese executioner by the name of Suzuki beheaded the POWs.”
The Penang War Museum works very hard to play up to its ‘haunted’ reputation. The plastic ghosts, the homemade gallows, the skeletons painted on walls… near the entrance, they’d even quoted the National Geographic program that called this one of the 10 most haunted places in Asia. Those words appeared in large print, their proudest recommendation.
For my taste, however, these attempts at horror were far too forced to hit their mark; and moreover, it got me worrying about how much real history was being obscured by this persistent focus on ghost stories.
The Real Ghosts of Penang
By the time I left the Penang War Museum, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had seen. Certainly, I didn’t meet any ghosts there – but more than that, I wondered how much of the information provided constituted genuine history, and how much, rather, was entertainment for its own sake. At times, it had felt rather like a parody of itself. A Japanese Occupation-themed haunted house ride.
Even the Penang page on WikiTravel seems to agree. On the subject of the museum, it comments: “Historical accuracy should not be the prime motivation for visitors, with the attraction being quite kitschy and generous with self-researched ‘facts.’”
That’s not to say that such massacres didn’t happen; the Japanese Occupation of Malaya was a period of unimaginable atrocities.
During a series of ethnic killings known as the ‘Sook Ching’ (roughly translating to ‘purge through cleansing’), the Japanese forces occupying Singapore and Malaya killed many thousands of innocent victims. Primarily they targeted ethnic Chinese populations, the perceived enemies of Japanese rule. Between February and July 1942, as many as 70,000 victims fell to the Sook Ching (although Japanese historians offer a more conservative figure of 5,000).
There were also massacres committed against prisoners of war. In January that same year, Japanese forces in the southern Johor state captured an estimated 150 retreating Allied soldiers. In an event that would become known as the Parit Sulong Massacre, the Japanese beat, burned and drove trucks over their tied-up victims.
On Penang, reports suggest as many as 5,000 people were massacred by the Japanese. Mostly though, these mass murders were committed at the police headquarters on Penang Road in Georgetown. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support the claim of massacres on the site of the current Penang War Museum.
One local survivor of the Japanese occupation, James Jeremiah, was interviewed in 2016 by the Malaysian news site R.AGE “I used to see people being arrested,” he told them. “I don’t know how, but they were ‘interrogated.’ I used to hear screams, cries…”
Jeremiah mentioned the feared executioner, Tadashi Suzuki, as well – though never in connection to the fort at Batu Maung. In fact, other sources place Suzuki on the other side of the water, at the mainland town of Butterworth. There he had served as police chief, and had a reputation for ruthlessly beheading his prisoners. “The name Suzuki was enough to create much fear among the local people back then,” says another survivor.
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.”
Hwang argues that Suzuki had no business on Penang Island; let alone serving as executioner at the Batu Maung Fort. More than that though, the historian challenges the notion that the Japanese ever used the Penang Fort at all.
Writing elsewhere, Hwang says: “We interviewed the local residents and there were no stories of massacres … the gun emplacement was abandoned and blown up by the British even before the Japanese arrived in Penang. The Japanese never used it as it was ruined and did not fit into their strategy of using a swiftly deploying naval and air defence force. Static defences were useless in WWII. The site was also too far from the population centres and the Sook Ching processing centres … the Japanese would not have wasted time and fuel sending people such a long way just to murder them!”
There seems to be little actual evidence that the Japanese ever used the Batu Maung Fort. Even the Penang War Museum is unable to offer artefacts from that period; visitors get to explore the real tunnels, barracks and bunkers used by the British, but stories about the Japanese occupation are told using replica gallows, replica guillotines, and great big supernatural effigies.
The Problem with ‘Ghost Tourism’…
Malaysia’s Penang War Museum illustrates one of the key problems associated with the rising popularity of ‘ghost tourism.’ In trying to make the past more sensational, more exciting, it’s in danger of burying true history beneath fiction and superstition.
Beatriz Rodriguez Garcia, a tourism consultant in Madrid, warns how ghost tourism can damage authenticity. “There is no mechanism in place that would make sure that interpretations … are ‘correct’ and ethical,” she explains. “The very nature of talking about ghosts or paranormal trivialises the facts.”
But while the Penang War Museum may present a confused version of historical events (one that prioritises shock value over evidence), in doing so perhaps it manages to offer something else of value. In Haunted Heritage: The Cultural Politics of Ghost Tourism, Populism and the Past, Michele Hanks argues that “the ghost has a special role to play in making history.”
History is written by the victors, as they say… but ghost stories offer a voice to otherwise disenfranchised groups. The modern folklore of Penang constitutes a version of history built not from records – from dates, names and numbers – but rather, one that is infused with cultural memory and common fears.
According to Andrew Hwang, “Suzuki was the popular children’s bogeyman of the wartime years. Mothers used to frighten naughty children by threatening to ask Suzuki to come and punish them.”
Maybe Suzuki never actually visited the fort on Penang Island. Perhaps the Japanese Imperial Army didn’t so much as set foot there. But for all its inaccuracies the Penang War Museum is still valuable in its own way. It serves as a physical symbol for the Japanese occupation of Malaya; a semi-imaginary place where past nightmares are re-examined through a synthesis of fact and fantasy.