Penang Racecourse | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Penang Racecourse

Penang Racecourse

[Admin: This was originally posted as 'Happy Valley Racecourse', but gw has identified it as the Penang Racecourse in the comments below.]

any idea when this picture was taken?


Judging by the ladies dresses, I would say before the fire in 1918.

Only a guess -1910??

If anyone knows the date of the building??

If this was Happy Valley Racecourse, just thought that there would be more matshed stands for the racegoers. I think there should also be a building on the hill

As Moddsey says, this doesn't look quite right. Christoph, can you tell us any more about this photo's background, and how sure you are that it is of Happy Valley?

Regards, David

I agree the photo isn’t of Happy Valley.


Firstly, none of the old photos of the racecourse on Gwulo show a building of similar design to the one in the photo.


Secondly, the long shadow of the man in the foreground indicates the photo was taken in either the early morning or the late afternoon. Zooming-in reveals numerous well-dressed people, suggesting this is a race meeting rather than just trials. So, assuming horse racing meetings were held in the afternoons rather than the mornings, the photo was taken in the late afternoon. If so, the sun would be to the south-west or west of Happy Valley, meaning that the photographer would have snapped the shot whilst facing generally north. The harbour is in that general direction, not the large mountain in the photo.


If not Happy Valley, then where?


The only other old race-course I’ve heard of in Hong Kong is the Kwanti Racecourse in the New Territories, but the 1936 photo of it at shows it didn’t have any grandstands.


If not Hong Kong, then where? Let’s look at the people in the photo.


The man in the foreground is sporting a pith helmet with a western style jacket and trousers. Zooming-in on the people in-front of the building shows another man in similar attire and two females wearing formal western dresses with ornate hats. Although their facial features can’t be seen, their formal clothing seems typical of early expat colonials.


The pith helmets suggest a tropical climate or a sub-tropical climate in the warmer months. Three mature palm trees in the middle distance support this idea.


Although their images are blurred, three males appear to be wearing turbans. One is standing in-front of the building on the left of the aforementioned man in the pith helmet. He’s wearing a black turban, white jacket and dark trousers and seems to be holding a tray. Could he be a waiter? A second man also possibly wearing a turban is standing in-front of the second column from the far end of the building. He’s dressed entirely in white and wouldn’t be visible against the white wall if not for his dark facial complexion. Further away, under the trees, a figure stands out from the crowd. Again he’s clad entirely in white, in what appears to be a long white, belted, coat, with matching trousers and turban.  


Walking along the track-rail is a more humbly dressed man in simple coolie style garb. His facial features suggest him to be of South-east, rather than South, Asian origin.


The building in the old photo is quite distinguished with its white arches on the ground floor, open-fronted first floor, smaller open-sided second floor and sloping roofs. It can’t be clearly seen due to the angle from which the photo was taken, but judging by the position of the building relative to the racetrack, and the stepped wooden seats in-front, it’s probably a grandstand for spectators to watch the racing.


By zooming-in you can clearly see that the wall surrounding the first floor consists of sections of open fencing between solid columns. Counting from the far end of the building, there are five columns, and five sections of open fencing, then a section of solid wall until the open fencing resumes. The section of solid wall is directly above the sixth arch from the far end of the building.


To summarize, the people at the race meeting seem to be a mixture of European colonialists, people from the Indian sub-continent and a South-east Asian worker. Where would you expect to find such a combination attending a well established racecourse in a tropical or sub-tropical climate?


Canton or one of the southern Treaty Ports perhaps, but putting their names and “racecourse” through Google Images produced nothing similar to the scene in the old photo. What next? How about British Malaya and the Straits Settlements? Searching “Penang” and “racecourse” in Google Images brings up a page of photos including one entitled “Race Course Penang” on the “Visions of Penang” website;


The white building on the right looks similar to the one in our old photo. The arches are of a similar shape in both buildings, and both have the open fronted first floor with the smaller second storey emerging from the main roof.



Zooming-in clearly shows the alternating sections of open fencing between columns on the first floor, and a central solid section of wall that is five sections of open fencing from the right side of the building, directly above the sixth arch.



Going back to our old photo and zooming-in just to the left of the horse and jockey reveals a low, white structure, possibly a fountain, on the lawn under the large tree.


The “Visions of Penang” webpage has another image of the lawn in-front of the grandstand, but taken from the other end of the grandstand;


It’s entitled “Penang Race Meeting 1905” and captures the fountain, with ladies in formal dresses and a man in a pith helmet beside it.



Lastly, another photo from the same website shows the main straight with a mountain beyond it of roughly similar shape and size to the one in our old photo;


According to the website of the Penang Turf Club, the old Penang Rececourse was established in 1864 at a site in Macalister Road,George Town, where it remained until 1939. The "place" marker needs moving 2,000 plus kms to the south-west!






Good detective work. Another photo here for confirmation.