Heels to Hills

EZ goes up the tranquil hills of Balik Pulau in Penang in search of one heritage gem – the Balik Pulau Lodge. A traditional Hakka settlement that is more than 200 years old, today it is a vibrant relaxation spot thanks to one enterprising and history-loving Maggie Fong.

Like the migration stories of many cultures, the story of the Hakka people in Malaysia follows in the same vein. Well before the reign of the British Empire in the Malay Peninsula, the first Hakkas to set foot on this soil arrived during the earlier part of the 18th century. It is said that they first set foot not in the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula, but on the shores of what is known to us today as Balik Pulau, on the island of Penang.

Later on, as the demand for workers in the tin mines grew, the British brought in labourers from the southern provinces of China, many of them being Hakkas. These early Hakka migrants not only brought their language – Hakka – to this new land, but also their own culture, traditions, cuisine and way of living. This wave of migrants made their wealth in tin mining, with the most famous Hakka in Malaysian history rising to prominence and developing Kuala Lumpur as Malaya’s economic and mining centre. Yes, the legendary Chinese Capitan Yap Ah Loy was a Hakka.

Today, almost a quarter of the Malaysian Chinese population is Hakka. Even in Penang, which is better known for its Hokkien community, it is home to a sizeable Hakka community. However, through the centuries, Hakkas have slowly lost their language and the culture is not as visible as the Chinese community at large has adopted Mandarin as their language. But there is an exception to the rule: among the many Hakkas living in Malaysia, is one feisty lady who has taken a bold step in the preservation of a part of the Malaysian Hakka story.

Maggie Fong, a proud Hakka, runs the Balik Pulau Lodge – a Hakka-themed homestay. Setting the Lodge apart from other ‘themed’ homestays and hotels, this place is actually a Hakka settlement that was built by migrants who came to cultivate the hillside of Balik Pulau hundreds of years ago. Right in the middle of the Lodge is what Fong calls the Hakka Big House, around which most of the activities of the homestay are centred.

Built on a rocky slope, the Hakka Big House is a testament to the resilience of the early settlers. As one enters the perimeters of the Lodge and go up the driveway, they will be met by huge boulders lined against the steep cliffs, a barricade of sorts. Not a barricade of the outside forces, but a barricade to contain the hilly slope and to prevent erosion. These acted as terraces for farming, and on which today remains a fruit orchard that produces tropical fruits in the plentiful.

‘The centuries old stone walls with 200 years of history are evidences of the Hakka ancestors who travelled here, leaving their motherland behind. They are also a reminder of how the early Hakka settlers had a hardworking and resilient spirit. Balik Pulau was undeveloped in that period and the valley was too steep, without much flat land for farming and growing crops. They worked together very hard to develop the place, and finally after years of hard work, the Hakka hill farming land was developed,’ quipped Fong.

Fong who grew up in Johor in a typical Hakka home loves to relate stories of her childhood – the stories of her people and the way they live. ‘Hakka people are very hardworking, their food is different and their home is different from the homes of other Chinese communities,’ she said, adding that the typical Hakka home is built on stilts. ‘The first generation of Hakkas lived on the hills, so, to prevent from animals entering their homes, they built their homes a few feet above the ground. So if someone knocks on their door, they could look down to see if it was their friend or enemies.’

‘After 20 years of staying in Penang, I wanted to find a place that I could do up like my kampong in Johor. So I started looking for a piece of land to build a Hakka house like the one in my hometown.’ It was in Balik Pulau that Fong found her piece of heaven. ‘I thought I can have it for my private use, and on Saturdays and Sundays, I could invite my friends to come and eat durian, to have a barbecue, to hold functions and home parties. So I bought the house and the land,’ said Fong of the 12-acre land on which the Hakka Big House stands.

She had purchased the land and the house some years ago, but it was only towards the end of October 2012 that Fong got the idea of opening the place for public. This is how the Lodge came to be established. The inspiration came to her when she went on a safari trip in Africa. Seeing the African tents and how everyone was one with nature sparked the idea to bring this concept to start the Lodge at her Hakka Big House.

‘I just wanted to retain the place’s history, to keep its heritage and to have a green place. I wanted to have a Hakka lodge on the hill, to serve Hakka food and to serve durian,’ said Fong. The Hakka Big House can house up to 30 guests. Next to it is a camp site that is fitted with 10 African-style tents and 20 mobile tents, six mosquito net hammocks, and a field camouflage yurt.

‘We have 12 acres of orchards with durian trees and cardamom trees and 40 local tropical fruits in the Hakka traditional old house. Visitors get to enjoy the cool mountain climate, the air is fresh and surrounded by greeneries, spectacular mountains and sea view,’ she said. And the Hakka Big House, it is the very same house that was lived in by the settlers, giving the visitors more than just a unique experience but also to see a slice of local history.

‘You know, we Penangites, when it come to holidays, there is nowhere to go, only shopping. I wanted a place where they can go to relax, where they can experience the fruit farm. So in October of 2012, I decided to open it to the public. After a few months of preparation, we opened to public in December 2012,’ she explained. The Lodge has been attracting numerous visitors and has been featured in many travel sites.

In the vein of her other business ventures, this one is also a resounding success. Fong, a journalism graduate who briefly flirted with the world of reporting, has always had a passion for business. ‘A business person can attain financial freedom. Even when I was a little girl, I had always wanted to be a businessman. I don’t want to be a worker – a worker has a fixed salary but not fixed expenses. But a business person has fixed expenses but not fixed income, you could have more income in one month if you wanted it,’ said Fong.

Fong is best known for the flyer distribution empire she founded with her late-husband. Flyer King was, and still is, the largest professional flyer distributor in Malaysia. While still managing the flyer distribution business  – Fong is the CEO of Flyer King – and running a stellar tourist and heritage attraction, Fong finds the time to seek adventures around the world as she backpacks to exciting locales off the beaten track. After all, the lady has kicked her heels for the hills.

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