Photo Essay

Air Itam in My Heart

Take a stroll through the lively morning market or among quaint traditional village houses – Air Itam is a slice of Old Penang. Whether you are enjoying local coffee, curry mee, laksa or a soya bean drink by the roadside, hiking up the hills, or wrestling with pedestrians, hawkers, motorists and buses for space in the narrow streets, Air Itam takes you to a world like no other. Flanked by Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si temple on one side, it extends into the Rifle Range Flats and Farlim housing estates.

Air Itam is a place where the old meets the new – the home of labourers and, increasingly, a destination for domestic and foreign tourists.


Presumably established sometime in the nineteenth century, Air Itam (literally "black water" in Malay) derives its name from the murky river. Old-timers will recall The Great Air Itam Fire; the story was passed on to my parents by word of mouth: a fire destroyed dozens, if not hundreds, of homes and buildings in the 1930s. The town today is a reflection of subsequent rebuilding efforts.

Air Itam is occupied by mostly ethnic Chinese, but there are a number of Indians and Malays who brought their own flavours into the village.

The morning market is a merry and harmonious place. Most of this lively lady's customers are ethnic Chinese and they converse in rojak Malay and some Hokkien, which is the lingua franca of the town.

Plenty of Air Itam residents went to the Methodist Kindergarten, located within the Chinese Methodist Church. It remains the nearest pre-school education option for the locals, although nowadays they have more choices and are able to send their kids to study farther from town.

For shopkeepers and hawkers here, business is more than just a transaction. Unlike the city, many locals here know each other by name.

Air Itam has two major tourist attractions: the century-old Kek Lok Si temple and the ever popular Penang Hill.

Since George Town was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Penang has witnessed a boom in the tourism industry. Good Luck Inn, located behind the Air Itam Police Station, is a new (and the only) hotel in town.

Numerous shops are decades old. A local favourite, this kopitiam is a second-generation business located opposite the famous Sisters' Curry Mee. The top three picks here are koay chiap (flat rice noodle sheets served with duck meat and soup), sapo mee (claypot soup noodle) and char koay teow (a hidden gem, really).

Business slows down at night, but there are still several stalls selling hot milk, steamed buns, roti, putu mayam, coffee and Chinese newspapers. My parents once sold newspapers here, shouting "Kwong Wah! Kwong Wah!" as passers-by and motorists stopped by for the Chinese daily.

Situated in the north-east of Air Itam, the low-cost Rifle Range Flats are mostly inhabited by the working class. Built in the 1970s, Rifle Range is one of the oldest low-cost housing projects in the country. Densely populated with thousands of residents squeezed in mostly single-bedroom units, Rifle Range was, to many families, the first home they owned after moving out of their villages.

Locals normally send their kids to three primary schools: SK Sri Aman, SK Seri Indah and SJK (C) Chiao Nan. Unless there is another offer or a request for transfer, by default, graduates from these national and vernacular schools converge at the secondary level in SMK Air Itam.

Back in the old days, each singlebedroom unit was occupied by whole families. My paternal grandparents lived here with a family of eight, the kids sleeping in the living room. Today, smaller families and the exodus of the young and educated have led to quiet corridors.

Farlim itself is undergoing a major facelift, with mixed-use development. Instead of green hills, condominiums and the shopping centre at All Seasons Place now greet motorists as they enter from Lebuhraya Thean Teik.

Air Itam extends southwards into Bandar Baru Air Itam (popularly known as Farlim). The "New Air Itam" was developed in the 1980s-1990s and functions as a residential and commercial site. The first wave of houses in Farlim is affordable housing catered to low or lower-middle income families. Flats such as this are typical of the needs of the times.

Ooi Kok Hin is an INTP who lives to write and writes to live. Follow him at
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