Sungai Petani – Kedah

GRAND TOUR – Continued

Sungai Petani was the first town in Kedah state that I reached on my Grand Tour.

Guide books do not devote much space to Sungai Petani since there are no tourist attractions of note in the town.

I wanted to see HSBC’s local branch as I had read that it is probably the most distinctive building of the bank’s Malaysian branches and one of the few that has escaped exterior remodelling or demolition.

HSBC Sungai Petani Branch

It was built in 1929 in Mogul style similar to Kuala Lumpur’s old railway station with a cupola surmounting a turret over the main entrance.

The upper floor used to contain two flats, one for the manager and one for the assistant. When the branch was built there was no air-conditioning. There was an external staircase from the upstairs bathroom leading to the back garden where the gardener used to empty the night-soil bucket in the days before proper plumbing was installed.

Close to the bank is a clock tower built in 1936 as a gift from a Chinese businessman to mark the silver jubilee of King George V.

Sungai Petani clock tower.

The SP Golf Club building dating from 1922 is also supposed to be worth seeing but unfortunately I missed it.

Sungai Petani Bank Street

Postcard from Penang

While in Penang recently I took a few photos of the grand old bank buildings on Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street).

Standard Chartered’s office is probably the oldest one still occupied by its original owners.

Standard Chartered Bank, Penang

The old Mercantile building has been restored but looks a little different from the original.

Restored Mercantile building. Old Mercantile Branch

My favourite of the bunch is probably the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (Netherlands Trading Society) which later became ABN Bank and now is a branch of Royal Bank of Scotland.

Royal Bank of Scotland Penang

Of course there is a branch of HSBC here too. It is a newer building, completed in 1950. There is nothing special about it except that there is a time capsule buried under the foundation stone containing the 4th March 1950 edition of the Penang Gazette, a sweep ticket for that afternoon’s races (too late to collect the winnings I expect), some coins, stamps and photos of the Penang staff.

HSBC Penang

This building occupies the same site as an earlier branch  which had to be demolished due to bomb damage during WWII.  I asked my Dad if he had ever been to Penang. He said  ‘Yes, during the war. We bombed it!’  (he was in the navy). Well I am sure the Royal Navy would never have targeted such a venerable institution as the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank so the damage was more likely inflicted accidentally by one of the USAF’s B-29 high altitude bombing raids on Penang, unless of course the Japanese did it.

Luckily I have an old postcard of the earlier HSBC building to show you what it was like.

HSBC Penang in 1910

What is remarkable about this postcard is that it was obviously written by a member of HSBC staff in 1910 (or perhaps that is not so remarkable – who else would buy a postcard of a bank?).

Why did he write it upside down?

To save you trying to read upside down I shall attempt to decipher the writing:

Between Penang & Singapore 5/5/10

Am still travelling eastwards. Looks now as if I were bound for H/O. Spent a pleasant hour or so at the Penang Club last night. The Devanha will be practically empty tomorrow when we leave Singapore. We had a lot of thunder & lightning & very heavy rain today. Kindest regards, WHS.

The postcard is addressed to his colleague B. Reeves at HSBC, 31 Lombard Street, London which is where, incidentally, the famous author PG Wodehouse worked briefly from 1900-1902 before he realized that he wasn’t cut out for banking. (Some of us took a lot longer to work that out!).

The ‘Devanha’ referred to in the postcard would have been the S.S. Devanha, a passenger and cargo liner owned by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O) which plied the UK to India/China route. This 8092 ton vessel was built by Caird & Co. in Greenock in 1906 so it would have still been quite new and no doubt was a very comfortable and civilized way to travel from UK to Hong Kong, which is where Mr. WHS seems to be bound.

SS Devanha

During the First World War the ship was requisitioned and took part in the Dardanelles campaign, first as a troopship and later as a hospital ship.

HMHS Devanha

The Devanha transported the 12th Battalion of Australian troops to land at what later became known as Anzac Beach. One of her lifeboats which the soldiers used to row ashore is now on display at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.

Devanha lifeboat

The Devanha was scrapped in 1928 in Japan of all places where it could perhaps have been been melted down into war materials to be later used in the invasion of Penang bringing this story full circle.

Ipoh – Heritage Walk. Part 1.

When you step off the train in Ipoh you are already standing in the city’s number one landmark, the magnificent neo-classical Ipoh Railway Station, completed in 1917. This building, which also contains the Majestic Hotel, was designed by that industrious and talented government architect,  A B Hubback who planned many of Malaysia’s other famous old buildings from that era.

Ipoh's Railway Station 

Taking advantage of KTM’s smart new Korean-built electric train service, I completed the 200 km trip from Kuala Lumpur in 2 hours and 17 minutes for a fare of RM30 each way. The train was punctual, the air-conditioning was set at a comfortable temperature, the movie (Cinderella Story) had the volume down low so I had no complaints at all.  And the guy who cleaned the toilets kept them in gleaming condition so he deserves a pat on the back.

The New KL/Ipoh Train

Ipoh is a compact city and I was able to see many of its attractions within walking distance of the station.

I began by taking the ancient caged lift outside the station entrance up to the lobby of the Majestic Hotel which sits above the station. This hotel has seen better days. Once grand, it now offers rooms at just RM75 per night including breakfast. Its colour brochure boasts of a bar with a snooker table but I was told by the receptionist that they do not serve beer any more.  Still, I was able to take in the view from the hotel’s massive verandah and pick up a couple of excellent maps of Ipoh’s Heritage Trail published by Kinta Heritage.

The Majestic's rooms open out onto this enormous verandah.

Just in front of the station is a small park containing an example of the Ipoh tree after which the city was named. The tree, which looks harmless enough, apparently contains a poisonous sap used for making deadly blowpipe arrows.

The Ipoh Tree

Somewhat surprisingly, the 132 year old book mentioned on the plaque, ‘Perak and the Malays’, is still in stock on Amazon’s website in case you want to get hold of a copy.

Right across the street from the station are two other splendid colonial piles, The Town Hall and Old Post Office building and the High Court. The Town Hall was designed by, yes, our old friend A B Hubback. I believe this still serves as the City Hall although there is some renovation going on at present.

Town Hall and Old Post Office

The High Court appears to be one the larger employers in town as every other office seems to belong to a lawyer.

Ipoh's High Court

Just behind the Town hall is a clock tower memorial to J W W Birch, the first British Resident of Perak. By all accounts he was rather lacking in inter-personal skills and his bull-in-a-china-shop approach did not win admirers among his Malay hosts. Eventually he was stabbed to death in a riverside bath-house in 1875.

Birch Memorial and detail from one of the side panels.

A number of the suspected instigators of this assassination were hanged including one of the chiefs, Maharajah Lela. However, the Malaysians have since got their own back by naming a street after him, just down the road from the Birch Memorial.

He went that way.

By this time I was really thirsty from traipsing round in the midday Malaysian heat. There must be somewhere around here to get a drink! Ah, this place looks promising.

Wrong sort of bar!

But no, it’s not that kind of bar. This one is the legal kind.

Pressing on, I passed a slightly unusual tourist attraction – a multi-storey car park. It was the first one to be built in Malaysia, in 1960. It looks rather quaint and I could imagine the little Austin A40s and Morris Oxfords that used to struggle up its narrow ramp. Parking is free.

Malaysia's first multi-storey car park.

Next I passed another of those bastions of colonial life for the British in Asia, the Club. This mock Tudor building occupies a prime spot overlooking the padang. No doubt the Royal Ipoh Club still includes many of the city’s elite among its members but it is open to non-members too and reasonably priced accommodation is available for those looking for an alternative to a hotel.

Ipoh Club

Continuing up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (formerly Club Road) you reach St. John’s Church which dates back to 1912. A fairly plain looking exterior and simple whitewashed interior, you could think you were in England. Only the ceiling fans give a clue that this is the tropics. The church apparently served as a noodle factory for the Japanese occupiers during WWII.

Church of St. John The Divine

Another sweaty five minute walk brought me to the small Darul Ridzuan Museum. Nothing much to right home about. A mixed bag of exhibits covering history, local industries, flora and fauna and so on. Downstairs the showcase explanations were written in Bahasa only so not very informative for foreign visitors. At least entrance was free and the place was air-conditioned and a welcome respite from the blazing heat outside.

Darul Ridzuan Museum

Now I was hungry and thirsty.  I was looking forward to reaching the F.M.S. Bar & Restaurant, said to be the oldest restaurant in Malaysia, housed in a building which makes even KL’s famous old Coliseum Restaurant look modern. Passing the impressive St. Michael’s School on the way, I cut across the grass of the padang only to find that the F.M.S. was undergoing some serious renovation and clearly would not be serving lunch for some time.

St. Michael's Institution & FMS Restaurant

Finding myself in the financial heart of Ipoh, I was pleased to see some grand old bank buildings in fine condition. Top of the pile of course is the imposing Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, built in 1931.


The original banking hall has been substantially altered (vandalized?) to make way for automated banking terminals and such like but I suppose we should be grateful that the exterior has remained intact. The Bank is not known for putting sentimentality about its buildings ahead of shareholders’ returns.

The former HSBC subsidiary, Mercantile Bank’s Ipoh branch building is also in pristine condition although it is now occupied by a beauty products retailer. This building is the same age as HSBC’s but was built in more of an Art Deco style.

Former Mercantile Bank's Ipoh Office

Across the street,  Chartered Bank’s old office building, which was completed in 1924, is still in use by Standard Chartered and looking good.

StanChart's Prestigious Ipoh Building

Facing Stan Chart is the headquarters of the former Straits Trading, built in 1907. This company used to buy up locally mined tin ore and sell it internationally. It was the boom in tin mining that powered Ipoh’s rapid growth and prosperity around the beginning of the 20th century. The Straits Trading Building is now occupied by OCBC Bank.

Straits Trading Building (OCBC)

With all these banks around you would think that the National Union of Bank Employees would be more busy.

No 'uge Bonuses 'ere!

By now I was dying of thirst and hunger. See how I got on in Part 2 of the Heritage Walk.

Malacca’s Hero Banker

Yesterday I took the family for a drive to the historic Malaysian city of Melaka.

Christ Church     

Inside the famous old Dutch-built Christ Church (above left) was a plaque honouring local civilians (all westerners) who fought and died during World War I. Since it was Remembrance Sunday this week I paid more attention than normal and an inscription on the memorial caught my notice: Captain Edward Hampton Moss, H’Kong & Shang. Bank. Malacca.

Memorial inside Christ Church Melaka

As The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation is an organization with which I have had more than a passing association, I thought I would see if I could find out some more information on Captain Moss. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, quite a few details about his life are available.

Edward Hampton Moss was born in 1878 in Yokohama where his father, C.D Moss ,was serving as Chief Clerk and Registrar of ‘the H.B.M. Supreme Court for Japan’. (I am guessing that HBM in this context stands for Her Britannic Majesty and that there was a British-run court in Yokohama at the time to administer justice for the foreign community living in Yokohama’s international settlement.)

Edward Moss attended Cheltenham College until 1895 and perhaps he joined the Bank after school. He would have been familiar with HSBC which opened a branch in Yokohama in 1866. No details of his banking career are readily available from the internet but at the outbreak of WWI he was seemingly working as Agent of HSBC in Melaka.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Caught up in the patriotic fervour of his generation, Moss must have dropped his pen immediately and returned to England by sea. Just a month later, in September 1914, he enlisted into the 18th Battalion (1st Public School) Royal Fusiliers. He was subsequently commissioned into the 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.

Edward Moss

In September 1915, the British government was keen to go on the offensive and urged her reluctant generals to advance on German positions not far from Lens in the north-east corner of France. The British had insufficient artillery to soften up the German trenches. Poor Edward was to pay the ultimate price for this logistical failure. To compensate for the lack of firepower, Britain tried chemical warfare for the first time ever (poisonous chlorine gas). Unfortunately this was only partially effective as a change in wind direction wafted the gas back over British lines.

According to one account, at 6:30am on 25th September it was Captain Edward Moss himself who blew the whistle that launched the infantry’s charge from their jump-off trenches and thus signaled the beginning of what came to be known as the Battle of Loos. No doubt Moss would have led from the front. Like so many others, he died that day. His battalion was decimated by German machine gunfire. 

The battle continued for just 18 days at the end of which Britain had suffered a tragic 50,000 casualties, several times more than the total British casualties in all wars and conflicts since the end of WW2. The battle had gained a miserable 1,500 yards of territory for the allies.

Moss has no known grave but he is commemorated in a number of places. Besides the memorial in Melaka, his name appears on the Cenotaph in Singapore, a memorial in the Foreigner’s Cemetery in Motomachi, Yokohama and, along with 20,000 others with no known grave, he is remembered with honour on the Loos Memorial in France.