Pulau Tikus: Where Time Stands Still in Penang

GEORGETOWN, Penang, 15 August 2019: It’s easy to label Pulau Tikus as an affluent district in George Town, looking at the upmarket malls that are fast going up, hipster spots such as Huey & Wah Café which specialises in marshmallows, and Bangkok Lane’s boutique hotels—collectively dedicated to the younger generation of Penangites.

But the truth is, while on their relentless chase towards franchises and global brands, cities are also losing old trades to urbanisation. So, it is indeed heartening to see that a few of Penang’s small, independent businesses at Burmah Road—one of Pulau Tikus’ main commercial arteries—are still holding up. While they may struggle to find successors, the wizened folks hold the future with a loose hand, preferring to take things a day at a time. This may be why Pulau Tikus has happily preserved a variety of traditional businesses dating back to the 1950s, providing not only nostalgic throwbacks but also, important life lessons no books can impart.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception is the second oldest church in the diocese, founded in 1811 by the Thai-Portuguese community.

Church of the Immaculate Conception (CIC Parish)

Lorong Maktab, Pulau Tikus,
10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang

Founded in 1811 by the Thai-Portuguese community who settled in Penang after fleeing from Phuket due to Catholic persecution, Father John Baptist Pasqual led the small congregation and set up a church in what’s now known as the Kelawei Road Catholic Cemetery. In 1819, they built a wooden chapel, which was later replaced with a proper Portuguese-style brick building in 1835—to become what is now the current CIC Parish. You may notice some Gothic architecture as well, a result of renovation works following a collapsed ceiling in 1899, and substantial facelifts in the 1960s. Efforts to conserve this piece of history led to more maintenance work in 2014.

Today, the second oldest church in the diocese consists of people of different races who come together harmoniously to celebrate significant events in the Catholic calendar, worshipping one God. Within, a small museum houses costumes, keepsakes and other antiques depicting the church’s history.

A picture of nostalgia: traditional biscuits in neat rows at Penang’s Ban Joo Lee grocery store.

Ban Joo Lee Grocery Store

No. 298 Burmah Road, Pulau Tikus,
10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang

After hearing our string of orders, Neoh Eng Tek slips on his gloves and grabs a fistful of biscuits into a plastic bag, then drops it directly onto the weighing scale. The reading: a perfect 100 grams. With just three such shops left in Pulau Tikus, the owner of Ban Joo Lee Biscuits is proud to still be in business, since its opening in 1964.

“50 years ago there were at least over 20 shops like us,” Neoh reminisces, sharing how he started helping out at the shop after school when he was aged 10. In its heyday, the shop stocked milk, cashew nuts, cheese, butter and food essentials, but all these have been phased out with the rise of supermarkets. Still, a bright memory remains with the robust 70-year-old: when Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman bought huo-bing (loosely translated as ‘fire biscuits’), and foreigners who’d tasted it came back for more. With over 40 traditional aluminium tins at the front of shop featuring mainstays and unique biscuit flavours, Neoh shares even Malaysians from Kuala Lumpur stop by to stock up before heading home.

Cheow Guan Sundries & General Goods

No. 290 Burmah Road, Pulau Tikus,

10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Just down the street from Ban Joo Lee Biscuits, it came as no surprise when we found out the two shops have a rather tight friendship, beginning from their fathers’ generation. Madam Tan and her sister currently run the shop, readily admitting that supermarkets have stolen their thunder. “To be in this line, we need to withstand long hours, move goods, and, no air-conditioning,” Tan stresses on the lattermost point, stating that “life here is like going back to the 50s”.

Currently, the sundries shop relies on business to hotels and locals who want the convenience of calling ahead and picking up after, without having to queue and park at modern marts. Unlike most traditional businesses who insist on passing the ropes to family, Tan is open to anyone who shows a genuine interest in the trade. Because, beneath the calm demeanour of both sisters, who are in their sixties, lie a deeper unspoken concern—the future of a traditional shop like theirs. “We’ve many workers who have followed us since our dad opened shop [all those years ago]. There are mouths to feed; a responsibility we now carry,” shares Tan.

Fishmonger Mr Lim has been running his stall for over 20 years at PulauTikus Wet Market, home to many other vendors, some who’ve been here for more than 50 years.

Pulau Tikus Wet Market

No 3 Jalan Pasar, Pulau Tikus,
10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang

The sky’s not even lit, but activity is already rife at the 64-year-old wet market, vendors laying out their fresh produce and catch for the day. Mr Lim has been at this routine for over 20 years, together with his wife—whom everyone at the market calls mei-ren-yu (translated as ‘beautiful mermaid’). Her nickname seems apt since the couple runs a fish stall. When we fail at identifying fresh fish, the 48-year-old laughs and gamely shares, “open the gills, is it a fresh red? Do the eyes shine, or are they dull?” Despite there being competitor stalls, the Lims count everyone as a friend. “See that vegetable stall opposite? The uncle and his two sons have opened the shop for over 50 years, and we sometimes go out together after work around 1 pm.”

Round the corner is the only kitchenware shop in this area, right next to the food court. Over 50 years, the nameless stall has evolved from selling just plates to its current niche in baking-related goods. According to the second-generation owner, Tan Lay Leang, who’s a nurse by night, a key differentiating factor from competitors at say, Chowrasta Market, is that they only sell authentic, quality goods, since many Indonesian Chinese who live in the area trust them to do so.

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