Pulau Tikus: Where Time Stands Still in Penang
Pulau Tikus: Where Time Stands Still in Penang
WRITER: Natalie Joy Lee PHOTOS BY: Ryan Loh
Pulau Tikus: Where Time Stands Still in Penang 19. June 2020, by Natalie Joy Lee, Photos by Ryan Loh
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.

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 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.

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

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 aluminum tins at the front of the shop featuring mainstays and unique biscuit flavours, Neoh shares even Malaysians from Kuala Lumpur stop by to stock up before heading home.

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

The traditional biscuit shop is manned by 70-year-old owner Neoh Eng Tek, who’s always happy to share about the shop’s history since opening in 1964.

Mr Neoh shares one of his favourite memories while tending shop: Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman himself purchasing huo-bing (loosely translated as ‘fire biscuits’).

The owners of Cheow Guan sundries & general goods are good friends with Neoh Eng Tek, since Ban Joo Lee is just a couple of shops down the same street.

Don’t miss the poison trail, a small but important section that educates on over 20 common household plants that could even be deadly, such as the money plant.

A traditional money tin is still used here, as a testament and fond memory to the company’s long history.

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 that 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.

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 shop for over 50 years, 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 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.

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

There’s just one kitchenware shop in the entire wet market area, which prides itself on selling authentic, quality goods.

There’s just one kitchenware shop in the entire wet market area, which prides itself on selling authentic, quality goods.

The youthful looking boss of Ban San Hoe Medical Hall is past his 70s, which he credits in part to the herbal tonics he drinks.

It has become increasingly rare to find medical halls who would gather herb packages like these.

Ban San Hoe Medical Hall

No 323 Burmah Road, Pulau Tikus,
10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang

You’d never believe the boss of Ban San Hoe is past his 70s, which he credits in part to the various herbal concoctions he has been taking since young. The second-generation owner is however less optimistic about finding a successor, which he says will not be his 22-year-old son, who has already rejected the idea. “For them, they easily earn up to five thousand ringgit a month, but here, long hours are already a put-off,” Khoo Chean Hoe shares.

He has a different story, learning about herbs and pounding medicinal powders since he was 10. “Today’s generation starts out strong, but once they realise how hard it is, they give up,” Khoo adding that there’re over 1000 herbs, of which he regularly uses about 400 on a weekly basis. While understanding the proper use of herbs to the tedious boiling process is indeed tough, and how Chinese medicine may not work as fast as its Western counterpart, but at least, “there will never be side effects”. Pulling out his traditional medicine boxes, Khoo deftly fishes out the herbs needed for our orders, while affably dishing out tips on how to wash, handle and cook the concoctions. “It’s something books cannot teach.”

Wat Chaiyamangkalaram Thai Buddhist Temple

No 17 Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus,
10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang

The first thing that strikes visitors, is the impressive entrance of the temple, flanked by two gleaming mythical dragons and a standing line of imposing-looking guardians. The sprawling site was built in 1900 after the land was officially granted by Queen Victoria in 1845. Apart from the main shrine, visitors flock to the private pagoda housing the Thai’s revered Four-Faced Buddha, as well as at least five other pavilions encircling Wat Chaiyamangkalaram.

What makes this an iconic religious site is found within the main shrine: housing an 18-foot long gold-plated reclining Buddha, the largest of its kind in the world. Behind the statue, are urns containing ashes of devotees. Around his humongous bed, you’ll find images depicting the Buddha’s various deeds and teachings to his disciples and to the world, exquisitely detailed in gorgeous paintwork and intricate carvings. Entrance is free, and photography (done respectfully) is allowed, the temple accepting visitors and devotees from 8am to 5pm daily.

Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple

No 24 Lorong Burma, Pulau Tikus,
10250 George Town, Pulau Pinang

Directly opposite the Wat Chaiyamangkalaram is theDhammikarama Buddhist Temple, catering to Penang’s Burmese community and one of the few Burmese temples residing outside of Myanmar. Founded in 1803, what’s immediately different from Wat Chaiyamangkalaram are the series of panels with beautiful murals and countless paintings, telling the life story of Prince Siddhartha (donning typical Burmese wear), and his journey towards Nirvana.

In one of the halls, look carefully to the far left corner and you’ll find monks in meditation or prayer, devotees frequently going forward for blessings in the form of holy water sprinkled over their heads. If you wish to do so, token offerings are welcome but not mandatory. Walking past a lovely landscaped garden we catch sight of a young family having fun at a small fish pond capped by a bridge, and learn that the golden bell tower’s third floor balcony extends some pretty good views of the complex. Take time to meander through the various smaller temples around, there’s even a small convenience shop to quench your thirst while touring Dhammikarama’s grounds. Entrance is free and the temple closes at 5pm daily.

The impressive entrance of Wat Chaiyamangkalaram Thai Buddhist Temple.

Located right opposite the Thai Buddhist temple, is the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, one of the few Burmese temples residing outside of Myanmar.

Located right opposite the Thai Buddhist temple, is the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, one of the few Burmese temples residing outside of Myanmar.

Located along Kelawei Road, the Masjid Jamek Al- Munawar serves as the main mosque in this area.

Masjid Jamek Al-Munawar

Jalan Kelawai, Kampung Syed,
10350 George Town, Pulau Pinang

Representing the Muslim community is the Masjid Jamek Al-Munawar, located along Kelawei Road. Until the 1930s, the road was still located along the city’s shoreline, and the Malay settlement who lived there were mostly fishermen. Now one of the busiest roads in Penang, the Eurasian-Asian community— commonly referred to as the Seranis (in colloquial form)—has taken over, though remnants of the original Malay community still live nearby.

The mosque is said to be founded in the early 1800s, and worthy of mention is that the building has been renovated several times, its current architecture thus not an accurate representation of its original look during inception. It currently serves as the main mosque in this area.