TRAVELING THURSDAYS

Crag Hotel, Penang Hill, Malaysia

“Penang Hill”by jorge.cancela is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Perched atop Penang Hill, commanding panoramic views of Penang Island, stands the Crag Hotel. The Crag Hotel is one of the many hotels the Sarkies Brothers founded, owned and managed. Born in Iran and of Armenian ethnicity, hoteliers Martin, Tigran, Aviet, and Arshak are best known for founding a chain of luxury hotels all throughout Southeast Asia. But in 1932, close to fifty years later, a major bankruptcy case against one of the hotels, the Raffles Hotel, resulted in the Sarkies family losing control of their hotels.

The Crag Hotel continued operations until the Second World War when the Japanese occupied Penang and seconded the building. After the war, the building was unoccupied for a decade before being leased in 1955 to the Uplands School or International School of Penang, which operated as a primary boarding school. When the school found a new location in 1977, the hotel once again found itself vacant. In 1992, the location saw brief action during the filming of Indochine, but continued to be abandoned until 2015 when it became a filming location once again, for Indian Summers, a British TV series.

Indian Summers, set in 1932, in the Indian town of Shimla, is based on the British Raj period when the British instituted a system of governance on the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947. During that time, the British built the town of Shimla as a representation of their own image; one of a summer’s retreat and a steamy social life. While the Indian coolies, laborers, rickshaw pullers and maids lived in the Lower Bazaar, the wealthy, distinguished residents on top of the hill competed with one another socially; in cocktail parties, horse races, archery, cricket tournaments, polo, golf, gymkhanas, dog shows, and debauchery.

The Royal Simla Club was the central place for the British administration to refresh, socialize, and indulge during the summers. It was a center of power as well as of pleasure. There were several other clubs in Simla that helped the Europeans pass their time away pleasantly. Each club restricted membership of certain groups of people; the Royal Simla Club restricted dogs and Indians.   

So, when producer Charlie Pattinson of Indian Summers scouted filming locations intensively in India, Sri Lanka, Johor Baharu, Kuala Lumpur, Fraser’s Hill and Cameron Highlands, he came up short. Recalls Pattinson, “On literally the last day of my location scouting, having considered Sri Lanka and travelled around a lot of India, Singapore and Malaysia, I went up Penang Hill and breathed a sigh of relief. These properties were in a time warp: they absolutely summed up the idea of the British transporting their identity to a foreign land.”

During the filming of Indian Summers, the locals all came together in a communal effort to prepare the location for filming. It was a time of great pride and real joy of their work. Unfortunately, after filming concluded, the hotel resumed being a victim to decay once more.

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