An erstwhile British colony like Penang is left with a wealth of heritage buildings amongst its cultural inheritance. A part of these surviving edifices were built by the early Chinese settlers and are as storied as can be. Many of these buildings have become boutique hotels and it is in one of them that I have had a small episode in 2013.
This particular hotel was a veritable Chinese mansion in its days. It is massive by Penang’s standard and houses more than 10 rooms and a large courtyard. Like many old buildings here, the Peranakan family that owned it initially was massively rich from the good old trading days before losing everything to drugs, gambling and intrigues, fueled by a very Peranakan strain of sexism that renders male heirs such great spoilers of family fortunes. Over the years the building underwent tumultuous transformations; it became a brothel before the Japanese used it for its secret police operations during its occupation of Malaya. The building was left derelict for decades after the war since no one really dared to enter its premises owing to its chilling reputation. A few years before my visit, someone finally bought the building and transformed it into a boutique hotel, bedecking its cavernous interiors with classical antique furnishings that proved rather winsome to Western tourists.
It has been said that till today very few locals are brave enough to spend a night here. What the West deem romantic, locals often treat with consternation. The movie Ghost illustrates this observation perfectly.
When I arrived here one hot afternoon, I was quickly charmed by the elegance of the hotel. Plush opium beds with inlaid pearl details adorn the lobby set with mosaic tiles. Rosewood shelves rich with cultural relics adorn the interiors liberally, of which the richly coloured famille rose urns and plates look most fetching.
The current owner of the property, a Peranankan lad himself, had restored the building with great passion. Many of the cavernous suites he had carved from the building are opulently decorated with antiques he had collected over the years. In my suite which was split level, the bedroom is set in the upper level comprising just an old poster bed and a horse-shoe chair. In lieu of a headboard, there are two decorative frames of 2 identical wedding robes. I had enquired how such a pair was sourced and acquired and the owner told me that he procured them from a dealer who told him they were made for the two wives of one man. In the days of yore, polygamy was common and rich Peranakan men often married many wives simply because they could.
I am not especially fond of tight spaces, nor poster beds, particularly those with a canopy. In the dark of night who knows what might be crawling under those canopies, especially since they all come with such unknown history. And at the very first instance, I already felt a sense of unease when I saw the robes. They didn’t emit a positive energy, to say the least.
A dinner was given for me and some friends from Penang by the owner that evening. Penang was always such a pleasant retreat for me to regress into a bygone era lost in Singapore and I have so many favourite food haunts here, every visit was treasured.
My visit that year coincided with the forest fires of Indonesia which had covered the island in a thick obnoxious smog. The stench of the smog penetrated the hotel substantially. Returning to the room close to midnight after dinner followed by numerous nightcaps, I craved for the comfort of bed. A shower prior to slumber was always mandatory.
Halfway through my shower, tipsy as I was, I began to have a bad feeling. This shower comes with an ornate window that opens to the alley below and even though it was closed, it remains a somewhat sinister portal to all manners of spooky possibilities. Without warning, I heard the sound of a woman talking through the splatter of the shower. Not many would have opened the window at this point to survey the alley, which in bright daylight was already formidably spooky, but I did.
Such things do happen, a passerby probably, I surmised. Patting myself dry, I got dressed for bed and decided to call it a night. At the foot of the stairs leading to bed, I heard very light creaking sounds coming from above. The headlamps had been left on at turn down but that was hardly reassuring. Not wanting to be spooked out of a good night’s rest. I stomped up the stairs and announced loudly that come what may, I was there and intended to claim my bed for the night.
Nothing grotesque greeted me in the bedroom alcove but the space was chilly. ‘Aircon vents’ I thought to myself. At this point I was way past my fatigue cap and was determined to sleep all these peculiarities off. In the land of the living the dead are the intruders, and you should never let them deprive you of your right to bed.
Within minutes, I was out.
Believe me, it is not at all a forgettable matter when you were jolted out of slumber by the feeling of something breathing raspily landing right next to you in the dead of night. That feeling of dread was intensified by the inability to move, even though you were already wide awake.
Alarm and imagination often go in tandem in situations like this. In my mind I began to see a ghastly figure in the grotesquely red wedding robe inching toward my back from the expanse of the bed that I had left vacant. She had a putrid countenance and sockets filled with hate and malice. She must have been murdered or committed suicide and therefore stuck in limbo. There she was, dead-haired and mad as hell, looking for ways to vent her eternal frustrations on this living man who had dared to sleep right under the robe she had killed herself in on the night she was forced into a menage-a-trois with the town’s rich old perv, very likely at the expense of a beau who was murdered by the same perv who would soon sully her with his probably diseased old dick.
She must be out with grand malice in mind. Why else would she announce herself in this unimaginative yet frightful fashion?
As quickly as that dramatic spectre was raised, all was still again and I have regained mastery of my limbs.
Breathing heavily, I jumped right out of bed and fumbled at the lighting controls by the night stands. There was no mad-haired ghoul on the bed, not even imprints. The frames hoisting the robes have remained perfectly still and nothing was shaking or rattling unnaturally.
I picked up my hand phone and saw that it was 615 am, right at the crossing of day and night which is purportedly the darkest moment where unclean things do their worst. Or so they say. Breakfast at the hotel won't be ready for another hour and I was still tired as a warhorse. This time, I switched off all the lights in the alcove and dived back into bed.
Do your worst, bride-ghost bitch! I will still sleep right through it.
Unhappily, I missed breakfast that morning as my eyes opened to greet the mid-day sun. It wasn’t until tea time that I recalled the spooky occurrences that morning and decided to talk to the GM whom I have become pally with about it.
‘Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard feedback on this but I wouldn’t be too alarmed about it. The British guest before you heard crying and sometime back another Australian guest felt something tugging her quilt. I’d say it’s not malevolent. You know, old things come with bits of history and this joint is crammed with many old things.’
His frankness surprised me.
‘Do you think it’s the bridal robes?’ I asked.
‘Who knows?’ he replied. ‘Owner knows about it but he isn’t going to burn anything yet because no real harm done so far. Occupancy is still good and one or two such stories circulating on the net can also be good for business. This is Penang and I think either people expect it or are totally oblivious to it. Would you like me to change your room tonight? One of the smaller rooms is available today.’
What? Move into a smaller room because of some early morning annoyance that wasn’t even capable of manifestation?
Whoever’s heard of such a thing?