People of Penang ; Josephine Choo’s book, part memoir, part guide “Never Forgetting Balik Pulau” captured by Photographer Adrian Cheah

“Buffalos bred for meat.” Adrian Cheah

I LOVE Adrian. I met him 10 years ago when I was on a publishing project for the very first hard-copy of Time Out Penang. Adrian was hand picked for his intimate style of photography of Penang. Something unique and trusting about his demeanour, we were confident that he would guide us with his photography direction and gave him complete autonomy while on the project. I’m very pleased and proud to know this human being, and so happy to receive a copy from the first batch of “Never Forgetting Balik Pulau“. All the photos you see here are behind the scenes shots , or angles by Adrian, that didn’t make it into the book, yet still special to him...which makes this even more meaningful for me to write this.

“…Balik Pulau was my playground and over two decades, my family and I lived in the Roman Catholic Church compound,…I walked or cycled along the main road in mere minutes and …everybody knew your name…” Josephine Choo

You and Josephine started this idea of highlighting Balik Pulau in 2006…why did it
take so long?

There were always more places of interest to add and more interviews to conduct. Photographing through the seasons was time consuming. While it is true that we started the project a long time back, time was our friend. It enabled us to select material carefully to ensure a unified coalesced book. We could then weave out “short-lived” items and highlight vibrant burgeoning developments. Josephine was able to structure the desired contents of the book…Many revisions were made. 2020 offered an ideal period to focus on the book because of the lockdown.

“The Chinese Taiping Rebellion of 1851…Entered in ink by French priests who had come from the city, the details were elaborately handwritten and recorded in Latin …..Thus in the year 1854, this church began in Balik Pulau, then spelt Balek Pelao…” Josephine Choo

There are 168+ pages of memories and photographs, old and new…why did you
choose this size and format (17.2 cm x 17.2) ?

This would make the book a handy size for readers to carry around when referring to suggested routes. 176 pages (including front matters) on 128gms matt art paper provided the ideal thickness for that size. 157gms would have made the book too thick and cumbersome. The flaps were added to strengthen the covers of the book. They also double up as bookmarks to guide a reader. The matt laminated covers provide a protective finishing.

“A lush mangrove reserve in Balik Pulau.” Adrian Cheah

Who do you picture enjoying this book?

This book is ideal for readers who want to know more about Balik Pulau. Tourist and locals who want to explore the village and its surrounding hemlocks. Armchair readers who would like to embark on a visual journey in the comfort of their homes. Readers who grew up in Balik Pulau in the 1950s and 1960s and the future generations who will be able to peak into the yesteryears of Balik Pulau.

” …A huge Russian circus hit town sometime around the mid 50’s, the first of its kind…My friend Mawan Nooraini …reminded me of the exciting parade of huge elephants … along the main road…”

“Never Forgetting Balik Pulau” has a sweet sadness ring to it…do you feel Balik
Pulau will be forgotten?

Yes, as always with time, the past will be forgotten unless well documented. The
future generations will not know the stories of the past if the past generations do not
make an effort to archive their legacies. With the onslaught of development, the dynamics of a village is ever evolving and the tragic reality of realising what we have lost comes with a hefty price. For example, the apartment blocks next to a paddy field in Kampung Terang have altered the skyline of the area forever! Beautiful kampung houses with gossamer-like embellishments are all but gone, mostly replaced by sad-looking brick homes. Google land for sale in Balik Pulau and there is plenty on offer. The hills and orchards in Balik Pulau are rapidly changing.

“A new-born calf, finding it challenging to stand at birth. Its fate is sealed and after
two years or so, it would be sent to the slaughter house.” Adrian Cheah

Were there times you almost gave up on the idea of this memoir and what finally kept
you on the path to complete this project?

No, as I could envisage the book in all its splendour. Good to be an art director! Also, I am always persistent.

“…farmer who volunteered his services at the church had, following an argument with his girlfriend, tied her up in the hills and killed her with a broken glass bottle…”

It was very brave of you to set aside funds to publish this project in the midst of a pandemic when the future is so shaky…what was the ultimate push?

Josephine and I have worked on many projects and I wanted her to have a book under her name. Being an art director and a photographer, I knew I could put together a
brilliant book for her. After designing hundreds of books, this was the first project I
actually took out my own money to co-fund the project. This is something I can do for her and I believe passionately in the project and its success.

“A very patriotic house decorated to the hilt in celebration of Merdeka.” Adrian Cheah

What were your favourite stories from Josephine?

Her growing up years in Balik Pulau and how simple and uncomplicated life was
back then. You did not need money to have a good time, only friends. You could even
owe shopkeepers without blinking an eye.
Many stories, including some on the Japanese occupation did not make it into the
book. By the way, Josephine’s mum learnt enough Japanese to converse and even
sang Nippon songs. More could have been said about the contributions of the French priests, nuns, religious Brothers and early teachers who positively impacted the early villagers,
turning around the lives of many.

“Dato’ Tan Gin Soon, opening a durian with a wooden contraption at his Metta
Lodge orchard in Sungai Pinang.” Adrian Cheah

What makes Balik Pulau different from George Town?

Of course durians, laksa, the rolling hills and the surrounding suburbs. The rustic charms of the village , and paddy fields, fresh air and an unhurried way of life.

Why do you think Balik Pulau has remained this way unlike the faster paced rhythm of George Town?

Good governance echoing the voice of the people that development although necessary would not destroy the rural charm of the village.

At an ostrich farm in 2007, now, no longer operational. Photo by Adrian

What are the best 5 tips you’ve learnt doing this project?

  1. Persevere even if something takes more than a decade to complete.
  2. Josephine is not only a brilliant writer and editor, she is also a patient teacher. I
    believe that my English has improved slightly in the process of working on this book.
  3. Be prepared to go back to the same spot for a better shot when the lighting situation
    improves. Also photograph all seasons of growth (of durians, nutmegs and cloves),
    from flower to fruit.
  4. Be prepared to edit and re-shoot until satisfied.
  5. Enjoy every step of the way.

Penang Local wishes Adrian and his friend Josephine all the success for their first project together. Thank you for your sweet stories, and communicating the love you have for Balik Pulau, its heritage and haunts, colours and smells, and most importantly its people.

The books are available at all major bookshops in Penang and at MPH in Kuala Lumpur , you can also email Adrian Cheah at or Whatsapp +6016 407 1408.

Contact details for Adrain Cheah , Art director, graphic designer, photographer

T +604 281 5289, +6016 407 1408 W: E:

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