Enjoying the book "Never forgetting Balik Pulau"

Book review by Lillian Cheah
12 December 2020

A book was printed yesterday. Straight from the printers, the very first copy was delivered to me so that I could read and critique it.

Titled “Never Forgetting Balik Pulau”, this 176-page book is physically eye-catching, peppered very generously throughout with beautiful photographs many of which almost breathe life.

I was privy to the journey undertaken by the collaborators of the book – Josephine Choo and Adrian Cheah.

Never Forgetting Balik Pulau © Adrian Cheah

From the time Jean Cheah (Adrian’s daughter) was but a mere four-year-old, she had accompanied her father and Josephine on exploratory trips to Balik Pulau and its outlying hamlets; she was introduced to “strange” fruits at roadside stalls, wet her feet in watering spots and sampled various dishes, often Hakka in nature. Even then, a vague yet embryonic intention of writing a book had arisen.

There the story begins. Josephine comes from Balik Pulau, spending her entire youth in the village. A Hakka Roman Catholic, she and her four siblings spent their early years at the church-house (later becoming Sacred Heart School) located next to the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, then immediately behind it at a squatter house.

She tells a few tales about her serene childhood of the 50s and 60s; while not wanting, it was life somewhat circumscribed by the physical, social and educational limits of what rustic living proffered.

On St. Patrick’s Day, two days prior to impending lockdown following Covid 19 – unbeknown to Josephine and Adrian – a fact-checking trip was made to Balik Pulau. I understand it was a hot balmy day. Armed with refreshing coconut water in plastic containers, Josephine and Adrian criss-crossed the main road, one taking notes, the other taking yet more photographs. In fact, during many sobering restrictive mornings, Adrian has been known to have ventured into the village and surrounding areas to refine his photographic repertoire.

All in all, the entire year of 2020 has been dedicated to the fine-tuning of the storyline of Never Forgetting Balik Pulau. Like completing a challenging jigsaw puzzle, randomly scattered pieces were slotted into their “correct” places to bring about a coalesced entity.

Never Forgetting Balik Pulau © Adrian Cheah

The book is pleasant, straightforward reading, divided in essence into four sections. First is background information on the village and outlying areas. Second, the attractions of the village are highlighted, especially cloves and nutmegs, laksa and of course, durians. Next comes a plotting of the four routes of access. These routes offer alternatives to the visitors – first-timers or veterans; along each route, places of interest are delineated to entice them. The proposed cycling route would be but a start to self-discovery as new possibilities open up to the cyclists. The book ends with an overview of the potential of this rustic, rural enclave in the new millennium.

Never Forgetting Balik Pulau © Adrian Cheah

Even the house-bound “arm-chair” travelling enthusiast will be entertained browsing through this book. Among other things, mural-rich walls and container art installations, both in and outside the village centre, will pique your curiosity. Personally, I am enthralled by the stories on durians where two photographs are spectacular. One is at an orchard when their flowers bloom  (page 58) and you almost wonder if a scent is emanating from the photograph. The other (page 81) makes you almost wish you were a bat!

Even as the book is completed, Balik Pulau is evolving. There are new places to seek out, including I am told, yet another “animal” farm. There are new ventures to undertake, especially trekking along several hill trails. There are, naturally, more new eateries to patronise – many of us have recently learned about the reinvented popular flatbread called the “roti canai sarang burung”!

That is the ultimate aim of the book – that deploying and referring to the plotted maps of the four routes of access, the readers can enjoy selected visits to the various spots of interest, be it to ride a horse, eat delectable farm-produced ice cream or shuck an oyster. Or, using the proposed cycling route, soak in the cool country air and the luscious greenery.

For Christmas and the festive seasons ahead, “Never Forgetting Balik Pulau” makes an affordable yet beautiful and refreshing gift.

At one sitting, I read the book; I immediately complimented Adrian and Josephine on their endeavour and placed my order for a few copies. Although slightly biased as Adrian is my brother (and my niece is about to leave school!), I closed the book in deep satisfaction and look forward to my next trip to Balik Pulau. Indeed in better times, whether it is a day’s outing or over a “flash” homestay, a visit to Balik Pulau will be an occasion to savour and to remember.

The possibilities are endless.


Lillian Cheah © Adrian Cheah

Lillian Cheah is an Administration Manager and enjoys reading, travelling and the simple pleasures of life. She is proud to call Penang home and is always ready to share stories about "hidden" treasures on the island.

Book details:
Never forgetting Balik Pulau
by Josephine Choo and photographed by Adrian Cheah
Published by ACEK Creative Solutions, 2020
Softcover. 17.2 cm x 17.2 cm, 176 pages.
Language: English
Illustrated throughout with over 500 photographs
ISBN 978-967-18765-0-3

For more information visit www.adriancheah.com
The book is retailing at major bookshops in Penang at RM55 per copy.


About the author and photographer

Josephine Choo worked as a teacher, administrator and freelance English editor. However, writing short stories and articles was always a fulfilling past-time for her. For 25 years, she and Adrian Cheah have collaborated on various projects.

Adrian Cheah loves to capture the timeless images of life, especially those of Penangites as they evolve, change and grow. Watch out for him as he criss-crosses Penang Island on his motorcycle for his next great shot to grace yet another brochure, magazine, website or coffee-table book. Adrian also runs ACEK Creative Solutions (formerly known as Neo Sentuhan).

Around 2006, Josephine and Adrian mooted the idea of writing a book on Balik Pulau. Numerous trips were made, often with Adrian’s young daughter Jean in tow. Today, Jean has a motorcycle license and is set to leave school. Josephine’s children are married and have flown the coop. Finally, the book is completed – a labour of love but an enjoyable project nevertheless.


Other reviews


The Star, 26 July 2021
By Andrea Filmer

Discover Penang's ‘island behind the hills’ in this memoir and guide

Even with the country in lockdown, Balik Pulau has continued to receive a steady stream of visitors.

Coming in from the long, winding roads that connect the old town with the rest of Penang island, travellers now are not heading for the durian estates or famous laksa stalls.

Rather, most have their attention on their GPS devices, trying to make their way to the mega vaccination centre (PPV) at the Balik Pulau Sports Complex that has been administering hundreds of Covid-19 vaccines daily to those living in the state’s south-west district.

Click here for the full story.


Penang Local, 8 January 2021
By Liliyana Azia

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

Click here for the full story.


Buletin Mutiara, 2 February 2021
By Christopher Tan

The charms of Balik Pulau captured in a book

WHILE many of us know that there are three routes to access Balik Pulau, there is a fourth route that can bring travellers into the lovely township.

This way into Balik Pulau is not for all and it’s a hike over the hills from the Air Itam Dam.

“Minor hill trails were carved out by the farmers who brought their farm produce either to Air Itam or to Balik Pulau. Through regular use by these farmers as well as by hiking enthusiasts, the main trail gathered popularity over time and a hike over the hills became a regular item on the weekend or holiday calendar,” the book entitled ‘Never Forgetting Balik Pulau’ stated.

Click here for the full story.

Click here for the Mandarin version.


"Never Forgetting Balik Pulau" is a little book within whose pages stories that have yet to end are told. If I had to pick a word to define it, it would be "personal." Far more than the skim over tourist guide I expected, it captures not just the town's history and attractions, but also everyday events and people who lived, loved, and became synonymous with Balik Pulau. With a sprinkling of the author's own memoirs, the stories are narrated with love, filled with personal sentiments.

On every page, faces smile up at you, both past & present, events are shared, and a small town becomes far more than just a pass-through on the other side of Penang. It lives, breathes, takes on a life of its own. Through the eyes of those who built it, we see the Balik Pulau of memories, of belonging... of home. And still, it continues to grow, a captivating destination to be explored and experienced today. An informative, enjoyable read that takes you through the streets, hills & paths to the very heart of Balik Pulau. Five stars from me.

– Paula Tan,
Senior Copywriter, Astro
16 March 2021