Saturday, December 3

The isle where love is cast in stone

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PENANG is indisputably a paradise for food lovers. The listing of George Town as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site makes it an even more attractive destination for tourists looking for tastes and sights of old world charms that stretch as far back as 1786 when Captain Francis Light first landed on Penang.

On top of that, the white sandy beaches and lush greenery make this an ideal getaway for romance to bloom and be sealed as evident by it being a popular honeymoon choice for newlyweds. However unbeknownst to many, Penang is also the setting of two tragic love stories that are as unusual as they are unbelievable.

There are two versions to the first story. It happened near what is now the town of Air Itam, nestled on the fertile foothill in the heart of the island. Legend has it that two rocks, one male and the other female, located just a short distance away from each other, used to get together to mate. How they moved was never explained but moved and mated they did according to the stories. There was also no account if they ever produced baby rocks.

Those living nearby knew about the happenings but their superstitions and beliefs taught them such supernatural occurrences were better left undisturbed lest they suffer the wrath of the spirits of the rocks. When the British arrived in the late-18th century and discovered the goings-on, they built a road between the two rocks with the sole purpose of breaking the magic. The rocks have been permanently separated since then.

Another version is that British soldiers on patrol chanced upon the rocks going through their rituals. The male rock was shot and lay mortally wounded by the side of the road, unable to get back to its original resting place. The female rock was unscathed. Since then, neither the female nor male rock have been seen moving again. To add insult to injury, houses have been built around both stones, blocking their view of each other.

Whether either version really happened or not, it will never be known for sure. But what is certain is that there are indeed two rocks near Air Itam that are known to the local community as the male and female rocks. Their legend was further immortalised when two side roads were named after them. Jalan Batu Perempuan is on the right and Jalan Batu Jantan on the left of the main road leading to the town.

The second story is also about stones but they are stone lions to be more precise. This particular pair of male and female lions have been standing guard outside the Goddess of Mercy Temple in George Town for the past two centuries. The male lion with his front paw resting on a ball stands on the left while the female with her paw on a lion cub stands on the right.

The temple, believed to be the oldest in Penang, was built in the 1800s by Chinese settlers on a plot of land donated by the East India Company. It was constructed according to the auspicious principles of feng shui. The idols on the main altar inside the temple commanded an unimpeded view all the way to the sea which was considered favourable.

During the night when all was quiet and the town was asleep, the stone lions were said to come alive. They loved to frolic at the seaside nearby, only returning to their respective posts at the temple compound just before sunrise.

The Chinese at that time believed the good feng shui, the Gods and Goddesses and the antics of the lions were contributing factors to the prosperity of the community. The British, wanting to break the stranglehold of Chinese traders and exert their own authority over commerce in the area, built a clock tower to block the Gods’ and Goddesses’ sea view. As a result, the feng shui of the temple was irreversibly ruined together with the supernatural powers that animated the lions every night. They became just another pair of lifeless statues.

Till this day, the story of this purported act of sabotage is still making its rounds, mostly passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. With each relay, the stories get changed a little here and embellished a little there. I heard both stories from my parents, elderly relatives and friends. The versions differ slightly from one person to another.

The issue of whether it really diminished the influence of Chinese traders is open for debate. A steady stream of worshippers still throng the temple during major Taoist festivals and Penang is the place where many immigrant Chinese made their fortune long after that. Perhaps, one can argue that had the good feng shui gone undisturbed, the Chinese could have been even more prosperous but that we will never know.

The complicity of the British in the two stories could also be a reflection of those times. Superstitions and suspicions would have abounded, brought about by the differences in cultures, beliefs and political agendas of the respective communities fighting for dominance over the economy and control of an important seaport of that era.

Truth or mere folklore, unusual narratives like this make for compelling stories that appeal to our sense of romanticism. The heartrending portrayal of love found and lost, even when they are of mystical creatures of rocks and stones, are sure to tug at the heartstrings and add to the character and charm of an already interesting island. The stories have survived two centuries. They certainly will continue to be related in one form or another for the next two centuries.