Trading Through the Centuries in George Town

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This post was written by Kat Fatland

The bustling atmosphere of George Town is one that seems locked in time, and Kat Fatland delves beneath the surface of the city’s trade to unveil an intriguing heritage that only adds to the city’s allure.

As of July 2013, I have been living in Penang for 18 months, yet even after a year and a half of memories made in and around Penang, my first evening in George Town remains one of my favorites. As I walked among the old colonial façades of Beach Street on that first night, I immediately felt a certain energy emanating from the city just beyond the buildings. Sure enough, once I turned down Chulia, the whole town seemed to erupt with activity.

I spotted a trishaw meandering its way down a side street; I heard orders being shouted from the kitchens of open-air mamak stalls; I smelt, for the first time, the pungent scent of shrimp paste. The old shophouses acted as a beautiful backdrop to the continual commotion. As I peeked inside various storefronts and observed the general goings on of the crowd, I realised that families, individuals, and shops were all working together to form an entire human ecosystem I was only just beginning to grasp. This thriving, active streetlife caught my attention and has never let go since.

Love At First Sight

I’d venture to guess my initial impressions of George Town are similar to many tourists or expats arriving on the island for the first time. The city invokes a strong sense of place; it’s charm is authentic, atmospheric, and unassuming. It exists largely independently of the tourism industry that’s been creeping in over the last few years which, ironically, only adds to the town’s allure.

Initially, I found it rather difficult to explain my immediate love of George Town to my friends and family back home. Descriptions of the city’s architecture or stories of the island’s rich history didn’t do justice to the hard-to-explain affinity I felt. After all, it wasn’t the physical, tangible aspects of the city I loved most – it was the city’s living, breathing, intangible culture that really made an impact. It wasn’t just the plate of delectable noodles I found appealing, it was the lively atmosphere of the hawkers lined up next to one another on the street, creating a sense of community that even I, as an outsider, gladly became a part of.

During my time here, I’ve learned that a few of my favorite bustling locales in the city hold a much greater story than what first met my eye a year and a half ago. Placing the trades I see everyday in a greater historical context has only deepened my appreciation for their longevity in an ever-modernising world.

Carnavon Street

A century ago, when the Prangin Canal was still used by lorries as an inroad from the Malacca Straits into the city, Carnavon Street acted as the next point of transfer for goods coming from the sea to the streets. Wood was one of the more difficult items to transport, so those who required it for their business set up shop on Carnavon Street itself, saving themselves and the lorry workers an extra step.


One of the trades that used the most wood was the city’s coffin industry, whose presence on the street gave rise to its alternate nickname: Kua Char Kay or Coffin Street. As years passed, the canal became less used and the costs of making individual coffins were no longer realistic, yet pieces of Lebuh Carnavon’s history still remain visible today.

Hock Lean Seng is a coffin shop on Carnavon Street owned by a man named Yap Ah Book. He inherited the shop from his grandfather, who opened the business over 100 years ago. In earlier years, the shop made its own coffins according to Taoist tradition. Nowadays, the shop only sells ready-made coffins. Although the handmade coffin remains a thing of the past for the store, they continue to provide other traditional funeral supplies. Yap Ah Book regularly consults his aunt, over 80 years old, for guidance on the many rituals involved in the coffin business. Further down the street, paper goods used in the funerary services are still sold in several shops, a few of which have been in the same place for decades.

Campbell Street

The end of Carnavon Street marks the beginning of Campbell Street, best known these days for its wonderful morning market. In fact, the Campbell Street Market was once known as the Carnavon Street Market because of its close proximity to the latter street. During the first years of the 20th century, the Victorian-style white market building was erected and it now remains as the oldest market building in George Town.

Just a few steps away from the market building visitors can find Bean Guan sundry shop, a small, discreetly marked store overflowing with all sorts of knick knacks and goods, from eggs and breath-mints to utensils. Although it may seem unremarkable at first glance, this shop happens to be one of the rarest in George Town.

Before the advent of all-inclusive supermarkets, every corner of the city had a sundry shop where locals would buy their basic necessities. These shops were an integral part of the city’s day-to-day culture. Now that most people buy these goods outside the city limits, most sundry shops have been run out of business. Bean Guan is one of the rare few still operating. Despite more modern innovations, its owners continue to use traditional bookkeeping methods, making the store a true tribute to the sundry shops of an earlier time.

Pitt Street

Penang’s Pitt Street is surely one of the town’s most diverse streets of commerce. The junction of Pitt Street and Chulia Street sees an especially large amount of activity on a daily basis. Interestingly, this is not a new phenomenon. The Malays have historically called this part of the city Simpang Lelong – Auctioneer’s Junction – due to the many roadside auctions and business transactions that once took place here. Of all of the businesses in the area, money changing remains one of the most longstanding. With over 60 licensed money changers participating, it is also one of the most competitive.

The prevalence of money changers in Penang can be traced back to a fascinating bit of history. Most of the traders are Chettiars, a mercantile class originally from Tamil Nadu, India. When Penang first became a bustling trading port, many Chettiars sailed to Penang hoping to make a profit. Over a third of these men hailed from Tamil Nadu’s Panaikulam district. Mohamed Haniffa was one such settler. After arriving in 1928 to learn the money changing business, he opened up shop on Pitt Street, which his son has since inherited. Besides making up the vast majority of money changers in Penang, the Chettiar population is also responsible for most of the festivities that take place during the Hindu holiday, Thaipusam.

The living heritage of George Town can be felt on every one of its corners. From the trishaw drivers to the barbers, the rattan weavers to the rare traditional Chinese healer; these individuals are what make the city special. But the preservation of a city’s living, intangible heritage can be a challenge, especially in a world that continues to modernise, potentially driving traditional trades out of business altogether.

Luckily, George Town has a few wonderful organisations focused on saving the city’s living heritage before it is too late. George Town World Heritage Incorporated provides information on individual cultural practitioners, many of which have been cited above. Penang Heritage Trust offers visitors and locals daily walking tours of the World Heritage Site, during which many of the trades still alive today are discussed in greater detail. By getting involved in either of these organisations, we can all play a small role in keeping the city vibrant for years to come.



For more information on George Town World Heritage Incorporated, visit, and for more information on the Penang Heritage Trust, visit


Source: The Expat July 2013
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