The Streets of Pulau Tikus

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Take a walk back in time as Paula Tan strolls the streets of Pulau Tikus, a charming neighbourhood that may have slowly disappeared under high-rise developments, but lives on in the spirit of those who came before.

I GREW UP IN A magical neighbourhood, where trees whispered in the sun and relatives took on animal names, as children, to protect them from deities on the lookout for beautiful human infants. In Pulau Tikus in northeast George Town, a small community of different races has flourished over the decades, creating an eclectic blend of dialects, buildings and food.

European Touch

Unglamorously translated from the Malay language as “rat island,” central Pulau Tikus stretches from Cantonment Road to the Burma Road junction, incorporating Kelawei Road and its links.Taking its name from a small, rocky island two kilometers off the coast which, ironically, cannot be seen from the district, Pulau Tikus is believed to be a reference by Malays to the Portuguese traders who once moored their ships there for fresh supplies. At low tide, they crossed the sand banks, which appeared like the backs of rats leading back to their vessels. Another story states that the name originates from Thai Eurasians who named the area in which they settled after the island where they had fi rst disembarked. Intriguingly, the tiny island continues to house a mysterious grave belonging to an unknown Seyad Mohamed Kuddoos Oliyullah.

From an early age, I learnt that the very ground under my feet had a captivating history. My parents’ pre-war house in College Square – formerly the Eurasian Village, or Kampung Serani was set around a field, in one of two rows built in the pattern of a chess set by a colonial architect in the pre-war era of the late 30s-early 40s. A stone’s throw away, the house in Pulau Tikus village, number 29A, where my father grew up, incorporated mud floors and an address which today, has been bestowed upon an elaborate bungalow in Cantonment Road proper.

Pulau Tikus village is no longer here, but Eurasian families of Portuguese descent who once lived there are represented by their present-day generations. Names like Augustin, Jeremiah, Gregory, and Joseph remain alive and well in the neighbourhood. Other familiar Pulau Tikus titles, such as Jalan Brother James and Leandro’s Lane recall the once thriving Catholic Eurasian community that surrounded the area’s institutions of the Roman Catholic church – the College General, St Joseph’s Novitiate, Convent Pulau Tikus, St Xavier’s Branch School, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

Founded in 1811 by Father John Baptist Pasqual, the stately Church of the Immaculate Conception along Jalan Burma also reflects a rich Eurasian legacy.When the Siamese reasserted their authority in Junk Ceylon (in Phuket), its Thai-Portuguese Catholic community fl ed to Port Queda (Kuala Kedah) when Phya Tak ordered the massacre of all Christians in 1778. From Kedah, their progression toward Penang was a natural one.


This article was written by Paula Tan for Penang International.
Source: Penang International December 2012 -January 2013

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