Air Itam: So Busy. So Beguiling.

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Appreciate cluttered charm? Then this should be one of your favourite places.

Like clockwork, it begins.

As the first rays of sunlight hit the roof of Air Itam Market, a steady rumble of activity builds up in the town centre. Old, foldable tables are carried out, roadside stalls are set up, and the sound of hawkers preparing for the day vibrate through the air.

Before long, the narrow roads become unrecognisable. They are now clogged with cars, bicycles, motorcycles, buses and pedestrians. Air Itam Market is now open for business.

Famous for offering some of the best of anything you could want, and more than a few things you didn’t know you wanted, coffee shops and hawker food are two of Air Itam Market’s biggest draws. For many residents, nearly half of whom are above 50 years old, the hustle and bustle is familiar and uplifting.

Way Back When

Growing up a short bus trip away in the Rifle Range Flats, Wong Hon Wai knows Air Itam like the back of his hand. The two-term assemblyman explains that the unique road names – named after fruit – originated from the different plantations that covered the area decades ago. “We actually have about seven roads named after bananas!” Wong says, referring to Jalan Pisang Nangka, Jalan Pisang Nipah and Jalan Pisang Raja, among others. “If you trace things back, you’ll see that many species of bananas were once planted here.”

Air Itam town's main street.


Air Itam was considered fringe territory back then, being relatively far from George Town where trading, administrative, and commercial institutions lay. Wong says the residents mainly consisted of farmers who worked the surrounding land, and consequently, Air Itam Market gained a reputation as a hub for buying and selling produce, from areas as far away as Balik Pulau. “The market was established very early, but was rebuilt after the big fire of the 1930s,” he says.
And unlike newer townships like Batu Maung or Bayan Baru, Air Itam’s ageing population is filled with people with deep roots in the area. “According to the latest figures, approximately 69% are above 40 years old. We have a very established community with residents of second and third generations settled here,” Wong says.

Many of the younger generation have opted to live nearer the city centre or to the industrial hub of Bayan Lepas, leaving the number of residents in the constituency rather stagnant. “Air Itam is quite a small constituency, currently with 18,451 registered voters. From 2008 to 2013, and until today, this number has barely moved, with perhaps a change of just a few hundred people,” Wong says.

Housing Air Itam

Air Itam is quite a small constituency, currently with 18,451 registered voters. From 2008 to 2013, and until today, this number has barely moved, with perhaps a change of just a few hundred people.


When one thinks of housing in Air Itam, the Rifle Range Flats immediately comes to mind. Technically, Rifle Range – the first low-cost, high-rise housing project in the country – is located in neighbouring Kebun Bunga. But Air Itam itself does have its own historical affordable public housing development in Kampung Melayu, which was built shortly after Rifle Range.

Wong says even before both developments were launched in the early 1970s, the availability of housing in the area was more than sufficient. “Whoever wanted to buy a unit in these developments could get a unit. There was ample supply,” he says.

Many Air Itam residents lived and continue to live on large parcels of privately owned land, paying nominal rental sums to landowners. In some areas, Wong adds, landowners have not even bothered to collect rent for years. Some housing clusters, like the Air Itam Estate and Taman Thean Teik, have long since blossomed into large, vibrant communities sporting thousands of homes.

Wong says the arrangement was beneficial to residents as they could use their money to build their dwellings, instead of being saddled with long-term housing loans. “A lot of people have long stayed in these kampung-like houses. When they have money, they renovate. So, if you walk around, you can actually see some very nice houses with very large carparks,” Wong says. He adds that many of these parcels of land are jointly owned by several landowners, which also explains why little of it has been developed over the decades.

Rifle Range flats.

Chung Ling High School.

Additionally, Air Itam also contains the state’s largest concentration of government quarters, with several hundred public dwellings for state and federal employees located near the state mosque.

Over the years, built-up developments have also appeared in the town, though in such small quantities that Wong has no trouble listing them from memory. They are the Kampung Melayu Flats and Desa Mawar (both below 20 storeys), along with Fairy Heights, Desa Timur and the Taman Harmoni apartments (all five to six storeys high). “With the traffic congestion here, people have the impression that Air Itam is a highly populated, high-density area when in fact it is low-density. It is not totally urbanised and remains very kampung style,” Wong says.

He adds that development is taking place on the periphery of Air Itam, around Lebuhraya Thean Teik, with high-rise buildings being built, soaring up to 40 storeys high. “We now have three truly high-rise developments: Shineville Park, BL Garden and Boulevard Condominium.

All these have come up in the last 10 years and sit at the border of Air Itam and Paya Terubong,” he says, adding that the developments are so recent that no official announcement of which constituency it belongs to has been made.

The lack of high-rise buildings in Air Itam proper is hardly a concern to its residents, however, who have grown accustomed to the close proximity to shops, infrastructure, and their neighbours. “Many Air Itam residents who have been here a while just cannot imagine the inconvenience of staying elsewhere. Here, you can get anything you need so easily, be it a bowl of mee or a newspaper. The same cannot be said about areas like Bayan Baru,” Wong explains. “The younger generation may prefer being closer to modern facilities and work, but the older generation here is very happy where they are.”

 

Addressing Traffic Congestion

With the traffic congestion here, people have the impression that Air Itam is a highly populated, highdensity area when in fact it is lowdensity. It is not totally urbanised and remains very kampung style.


“Air Itam is essentially an ‘old town’ area. The roads are narrow because they were planned a long time ago. For example, Chung Ling High School is soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. The road in front of the school is just as old! It is the same setup as 100 years ago, but of course, now you have more cars and vehicles on it,” Wong says.

The one kilometre-odd stretch of road outside the school is notorious for traffic jams at all hours. And it is not the only narrow, jammed up road in the area. From Rumah Seratus to Kampung Melayu Lama to Kampung Pisang, small lanes tend to dominate, making U-turns a feat not for the faint of heart.

The state, however, is working to alleviate the congestion with a new RM13.65mil connection linking two separate stretches of Jalan Zoo. Wong says the new link, launched in August and scheduled for completion in June next year, will join Jalan Zoo off Jalan Air Itam with another stretch in Kampung Pisang. “The main Jalan Air Itam is very congested, especially during Chinese New Year with people going up to Kek Lok Si, and with additional traffic from visitors and tourists. This is an alternative to Jalan Air Itam and allows both locals and visitors heading to Penang Hill or Kek Lok Si to bypass Air Itam Market,” he says.


He adds that alongside the numerous road-widening works carried out in the constituency, two other major projects are taking place. Due for completion in three years’ time is the Paya Terubong Pair Road linking Jalan Bukit Kukus to Bukit Jambul, which will enable Air Itam residents to get to Paya Terubong and Relau more easily.

The second is an Air Itam bypass connecting Jalan Kampung Pisang to the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway – part of a major RM6.3bil transport package the state awarded to Consortium Zenith.

Wong, however, warns that even with measures taken to fight congestion, the iconic standstill jams along Jalan Air Itam will not disappear completely. “School traffic is a main cause of congestion on that road. Chung Ling High School is a top and famous Chinese school. Parents from all over the state will continue to want to send their children there and they come by car,” he says.


Flood Woes

Flood mitigation, however, remains a contentious point in Penang, with the opposition-led state government at odds with the Barisan Nasional federal government over allocations for such projects.


Air Itam Dam is well known to cyclists and joggers, and thanks to the reservoir, residents enjoy a steady supply of clean water.

However, about a month ago, heavy rainfall coincided with high tides, causing the Air Itam River to break its banks. Taman Thean Teik especially was adversely affected by flash flooding that engulfed over 50 homes.

“The area is low-lying and located next to the river. The problem is also that it is surrounded by highrise developments that are built on higher ground. With the more modern, superior drainage of these buildings, Thean Teik becomes something of a valley when water rushes into the area,” Wong says.

He adds, however, that heavy flooding in Air Itam was not a frequent occurrence, and the last major incident happened several years ago. Water from Air Itam River eventually flows down to Sungai Pinang where problems occur, Wong explains. “The choking point is actually Sungai Pinang – the river is narrow and the water can’t get out to sea. The Department of Irrigation and Drainage tells us the Sungai Pinang flood mitigation project, once completed, will resolve many of the flooding problems in the area.”

Flood mitigation, however, remains a contentious point in Penang, with the opposition-led state government at odds with the Barisan Nasional federal government over allocations for such projects. So far, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar has announced a RM150mil allocation for flood mitigation at the Sungai Pinang river basin, with works scheduled to begin next year. Although a far cry from the RM350mil the state requested, any relief for residents in affected areas will be heartily welcomed.

A Place with Personality

Air Itam may seem like a small town stuck in time to most Penangites, but neighbours know one another well, schools are plentiful – with at least 15 in the small constituency – and every major religion has a house of worship. Cycling remains a popular mode of transport for old residents to get anywhere they need, be it to a surau, a temple or the market.

Built-up developments in Air Itam.

Kek Lok Si.

The Lower Station: gateway to Penang Hill.


However, the ageing population, along with aging infrastructure and aged low-cost apartments, is beginning to pose its own set of problems, which Wong says he is keeping a constant eye on.

However, the ageing population, along with aging infrastructure and aged low-cost apartments, is beginning to pose its own set of problems, which Wong says he is keeping a constant eye on.

Modernisation is also an issue, with attempts to redevelop certain areas meeting strong resistance from residents, resulting in eviction notices, court cases and – in the case of a proposed large-scale housing project by contentious federal government-owned 1MDB during the last general election – state intervention.

But on the whole, life is good in old Air Itam.

Crime is not a major issue, and the launch of mixed-development project Sunshine Tower by established retail figure Suiwah Corporation in Bandar Baru Air Itam has caused some excitement. Scheduled to open its doors in 2019 and create 4,000 new jobs, the project may contain a cineplex of 14 movie theatres – a welcome addition for both the young and the old, who miss the days when the old Tiong Nam and Kok Pin cinemas were popular spots to frequent.

“Despite the impression some people have, Air Itam is one of the most liveable areas in Penang. We go cycling and jogging at the dam that provides us with ample clean water. The tourist attractions of Kek Lok Si and Penang Hill support the local traders and local economy. We have our own ‘Street of Harmony’ with many religious establishments. The vibrant Air Itam wet market supplies fresh vegetables, fruit and fish from Balik Pulau. And now, we’re getting cinemas. What more do you want?” Wong asks.

What more, indeed?



 

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.



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