Penang … a doorway to the past

7 01 2010

A few months spent in Penang put me in touch with its streets of old shop houses, street vendors and hawkers that for me, were reminiscent of a long forgotten Singapore. I was transported back to the Singapore that time has erased, the Singapore that I had spent my age of discovery growing up. The images of Singapore etched deep in my memory began to come back to me as if I was looking through old photographs and postcards of a Singapore frozen in time. It was then that I thought of looking into my collection of memories and impressions formed along the journey of life, and seeing what I could discover …

Sunrise over the Southern Channel and the Penang Bridge during my second visit to the island in 2007

I had first travelled to Penang as a school boy – my parents deciding to go beyond Cameron Highlands, the northernmost point on the west coast of Malaysia that we visited on ocassion, to venture further north to Ipoh and Penang. It was a trip that I would remember well, not for the impressions it made on me, but for one, it was the last outing to Malaysia on which my maternal grandmother had accompanied us on, and it was also the trip on which I got quite ill, developing a high fever in Penang, for which I had to visit a doctor on the return journey – for which we had to make an unscheduled stop in Ipoh .

Recollections of the impressions that Penang had made on me after some 30 years were sketchy to say the least, but with the opportunity to wander around the streets that the stint in Penang had given me, I was brought in touch with some of the places I had seen, bringing back a rush of memories of my first trip to Penang. I began to remember … the Towne House Hotel that we had put up at on Penang Road – still looking very much the same as it did all those years back, an icon of sorts at the end of Penang Road – the Hotel Malaysia, the Penang Hill funicular train, the magical Penang Ferry, and how could I forget it … the Esplanade, where on an evening stroll, I had persuaded my parents to buy me a toy from a street vendor on a bicycle – a Whee-Lo, a plastic wheel with a magnetic steel axle that rolls on a bent steel wire rail as it is moved up and down.

The Towne House Hotel on Penang Road where I had stayed at during a holiday to the island as a schoolboy in the 1970s - it still looks the same after all these years!

Hotel Malaysia on Penang Road - I guess you can call it an icon of sorts; one that I remember very well

The Penang Ferry used to be the only link between the mainland and the island until 1985. It is an icon that may soon disappear with the construction of a second bridge

The streets of Penang somehow provided a sense of being back in the Singapore of my childhood … the Singapore that I had very fond memories of but nothing more. It was a Singapore that one could only see mostly in black and white: in books, postcards and photographs, and in films from that era. It was a Singapore that one could see but not touch, one that one could no longer immerse oneself in: the streets of old, the colourful street markets, the hawkers and vendors that were permament features to the streets and back lanes, the shop houses and five-foot ways, the whiff of coffee beans roasting or bread being baked in a neighbourhood bakery … It seemed for a while almost as if I was back to a time I had forgotten about … back to where my heart is … back home …

The streets of Penang are reminscent of the Singapore of old

Streets filled with hawker stalls and street vendors - like being transported back in time to the Singapore of 40 years ago

A street vendor - a common sight on the streets of Singapore once upon a time

Hawkers and Vendors seem to be a part of the street scenery as it was all those years back in Singapore




9 responses

7 01 2010
Lam Chun See

I feel the same way you do whenever I visit my wife’s home town, Ipoh. In fact, I started my nostalgia blog Good Morning Yesterday after a visit to Yangon in 2005 where the streets and buildings reminded me of the Spore I grew up in.

Talking about Penang, want to see the very first colour photo that I took in 1970? I took it on board the ferry bringing me to Penang for the first time. here.

8 01 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments Chun See. I am a follower of you blog and you have an excellent record of life in Singapore in the good old days. Yes, Ipoh certainly evokes memories of the colourful past of Singapore … I was actually in Ipoh for a few hours last week 🙂

The photograph – is that looking towards the mainland? The post is very interesting – the pictures of the cameras remind me of the camera my father had which had provided me with a means to revisit the past … Certainly film and also processing the film and printing photographs were quite expensive back then!

8 01 2010

Did u notice that the street names in Penang are the same as in Singapore?

My last trip to Penang was in 1992 with the family. Back in the early 1970s thru mid-70s I hitch-hiked to Penang to see my gf and her family. They used to stay behind the Penang Free School.

8 01 2010
The wondering wanderer

Yes, Peter, I certainly did … The names of the streets are just so much like Singapore … what is interesting is that there are a lot more “ghauts” in Penang – I always took Dhoby Ghaut here for granted, and it was only when I realised , I decided to get to the bottom of what the term “ghaut” referred to. I imagine there would have been a few more “ghauts” around as well in Singapore.

It is interesting that you hitch-hiked to Penang! It must have been an experience! I do remember hitch-hiking being quite common then. On one of the driving trips with my parents, I remember we picked a hitch-hiker up from Segamat.

Penang Free School – that would be along Green Lane? Green Lane has since been renamed – but it is still referred to as Green Lane by many of the locals.

8 01 2010

I’m having the privilege of living in Penang this past 18 months and *everybody* tells me that Penang is like Singapore… 30 years ago. Probably more like 50 now, since I’m 30. You’re right – quite a few street names are shared in Penang and Singapore, a legacy of the English. Between the two heritage sites (Malacca and Penang), Penang feels more authentic because the streets are stilled lived in. Malacca seems to me to be more… disneyland.

10 01 2010
The wondering wanderer

I share your observation of Malacca. I guess the streets there somehow lack the vibrancy one finds on the streets of Penang that maybe are reminiscent of some of the streets of the Singapore of maybe 40 years ago. Maybe another thing is that Hokkien is still very much used in daily life as it was (albeit another brand of Hokkien) back in old Singapore, where in Malacca, perhaps due to its proximity with Singapore, a lot more Mandarin is used these days.

18 02 2010

Still, even Malacca’s streets are not as bad as those in Kuala Lumpur. City Hall has been persistently renaming street names that are not “Malaysian” enough, choosing to name them after random Malay names, politicians affiliated with the ruling government and sultans. They even renamed EVERY street at the Sungai Besi township to numbered “Jalan Suaru” instead simply because the old names were English, leaving the town appearing more like a housing estate on maps.

It seems more of a blatant attempt to wipe out every trace of KL’s British presence. In fact, some of the new names are unnecessarily longer, (i.e. Jalan Foch/Foch Ave to Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock/Cheng Lock, Jalan Brickfields/Brickfields Rd to Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Jalan Silang/Cross St to Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin, Jalan Weld/Weld Rd to Jalan Raja Chulan, Jalan BatuBatu Rd to Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman), which leads me to believe that neither convenience nor “Malaysianess” are the main drive for the whole exercise.

It’s no surprise this street renaming regime has been conducted in nearly every major town and city in the country with similar heritage. My guess is that Penang (or rather the Georgetown area) was spared due to differing culture and political influence, but even a handful of its streets have been changed. Since when is a 1982 visit of the Sultan of Pahang to the city a solid reason to merit the renaming of Northam Road to Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah? What about Jahudi Road, now officially known as Jalan Zainal Abidin?

Bullocks. Utter bullocks.

10 01 2010

yes! the Hokkien sounds almost melodic… definitely less gruff than the one heard in Singapore! But the dialect is dying out among the younger folk – it’s quite common to hear mandarin in the streets, and it’s usually from the younger adults and teens. Only the older folk (not to mention some of the Malays and Indians!) speak hokkien fluently.

11 01 2010
Lam Chun See

I am sorry I cannot remember which direction I faced when I took that photo. However, it was in the late evening when the sun was setting.

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