Three Historical Markets of George Town

loading Campbell Street Market.

Markets may have started out simply as places where traders sell their wares. But each develops its own identity based on its unique qualities. Penang Monthly takes a look at three of George Town’s markets.

This style of simple shed market halls – with minimal ornamentation – was once popular in Malaya.

Alongside amenities such as post offices, town halls, playing fields, schools and hospitals, Malaysian towns always had markets at their heart. Their size and shape often reflected the stature of the town. Studying the surviving market halls in Penang allows us to easily trace the history of its urban development.

There are generally three types of market halls in Penang: the iron-and wood “open shed”, which usually does not have walls but only pillars holding up the roof; the “bazaar”, which is an enclosed marketplace built with bricks, with walls or at least balustrades for walls, and a grand entrance; and the “market complex” which has multiple levels, and offers modern amenities such as loading bays, shop lots and toilets.

Prangin Market: A Once- Thriving Concourse

Prangin Market stands beside one of Penang’s last open canals. Its simple wood and iron shed is the last of such nineteenthcentury market buildings. This design, once found throughout the British Empire, is now a rare gem to spot.

The earliest markets were not even planned; people just decided to bring their wares and products to an easily accessible and wide space to sell. The eponymous Lebuh Pasar was once home to Penang’s largest open-air market. This lasted until the construction of Gat Lebuh Pasar in 1883, after which it became known as George Town’s “Central Market”. A structure shrouded in much mystery, this is a misnomer as it never became as “central” as the town planners intended.

Prangin Market.

Instead, the old Prangin Market on Jalan Prangin became the main pulse of the city’s trade. It was at this nineteenth-century “open shed” structure that the city of George Town sold and bought vegetables, potted meats and dried goods for well over a century.

This style of simple shed market halls – with minimal ornamentation – was once popular in Malaya and still survives in small towns across the country, such as the Great Market of Taiping. The road parallel to the canal also took its name, and was known for over a century as Jalan Prangin. However, over time, the canal was reduced to little more than a ditch filled with refuse. The market eventually closed and moved to Gat Lebuh Macallum, where it has grown into one of Penang’s busiest wholesale markets. Despite the survival of the market, the once-thriving Sia Boey neighbourhood fell into disuse.

Chowrasta Market: Where the Four Roads Meet

Chowrasta Market.

Another market that gained traction in the decades following Penang’s boomtown period was Chowrasta Market. The original market building was a simple wood-andiron shed similar to the dilapidated Prangin Market and was built around the same time.

However, unlike Prangin Market, Chowrasta did not retain its open shed structure for long. Originally within the Indian enclave of George Town, Chowrasta was known by the populace as the “Indian Market”. In the first decade of the twentieth century it was clearly dominated by South Indians, with many Muslim Indian middlemen collecting rent. Their strength in numbers is evident in a newspaper clipping from 1909; a strike by Indian Muslim traders was enough to cripple business.1 It was originally the goto market for spices and groceries specific to the Indian community, but it eventually became more diverse in the wares offered.

As the area around the market was slowly taken over by Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth century, the market lost its Indian exclusivity but retained its original Urdu name, which means “Four Streets” – namely Jalan Penang, Lebuh Chowrasta, Lebuh Tamil and Jalan Kuala Kangsar, which border it2. In 1920 an extension was made on empty land adjacent to Lebuh Tamil and Lebuh Chowrasta. The extension, however, ran alongside Jalan Penang, giving the market a church-like layout in the form of a “T” with a nave and transept, and the grand entrance with the date “1920” fronting Penang Road forming the apse. By the late 1940s, traders comprised of all races.

The popularity of the market and the large number of traders who congregated there soon made Chowrasta unmanageable, and the spillover of unlicensed traders selling on the roads outside the market became a menace to road traffic. The Municipal Council decided to rebuild the market in 1954, to be completed in 1956, but lack of funds and a change in government meant that construction of the new Market Hall did not begin until 1961.

This was in the wake of the Socialist Front winning the George Town local elections in 1956. In the Socialists’ election manifesto, they promised a world-class modern market that would make Penang the envy of the whole of Malaya.

Having scoffed at the 1954 plans, they proceeded to plan a more grandiose structure. Thus, the cost ballooned from the original $100,000 voted towards the cost in 19543, to $500,000 in 1964. The completed market would cost the people of Penang $1,310,000 in total4. It would boast many amenities that even the famed Central Market in KL lacked: escalators, multiple stories, lifts, loading bays, cold rooms and a segregated pork section. Although now very common, the market complex was one of the first of its kind in the country when completed.

But it soon became the subject of controversy. First, there was a tussle over the number of stalls allocated to Malay traders, who felt that they were cheated by the Municipal Council after being given only 51 instead of the promised 100.5 This led to talks about building a new Malayonly market. The Penang Malay Chamber of Commerce, which led the claims, alleged that the Socialist Front that controlled the council was being unfair to Muslims.

The new market complex was initially unpopular with traders, none of whom were willing to occupy stalls on the first and second floors. As a result, the ground floor became overcrowded and spillovers began to form again almost immediately after the new market complex was opened. One of the masterminds of the new market was the second Socialist mayor of George Town, Ooi Thiam Siew, who was reported to have been so annoyed with unlicensed traders outside the new market that he had a very loud public spat with one of them, heard and seen by members of the public and the press6.

Many Alliance politicians, like the Malayan Chinese Association’s Lim Poh Seng, condemned the new market as a white elephant and a waste of time and money7. It was unpopular with hawkers, and stalls were more constricted. The main reason why nobody wanted a stall above the ground floor was that tired housewives already laden with heavy bags of groceries were unlikely to ascend two sweeping flights of stairs to do more shopping.

Then came the bombshell: former Socialist mayor D.S. Ramanathan (the first mayor of George Town when it was elevated to city status in 1956) alleged that Ooi was involved in corruption during the construction of the new market. Ramanathan’s removal from the Labour Party and Socialist Front was seen as a move by Ooi, the Party Whip at the time, to silence him, as he had claimed that $200,000 was found to have been forwarded to the contractors of the market by Ooi long before construction on the market had even begun8. This eventually developed into an inquiry by the judiciary which lasted several months, with Ooi and Ramanathan dragging each other’s careers into the mud. Ooi claimed that Ramanathan was a lazy mayor who slept all day and never bothered answering the phone, and Ramanathan insisted that Ooi was corrupt. In the end, the fiasco saw C.Y. Choy winning the 1964 local elections as mayor, replacing Ooi.

Chowrasta’s woes did not end there. It quickly deteriorated over the coming years. The escalators broke down, followed by the lifts. It fell out of favour very quickly with the public. By the 1990s, a fire on the second floor and infrequent building maintenance made Chowrasta Market dirty and rundown. Since the fish and meat wholesalers remained on the ground floor, most traders chose to stay on the same floor, resulting in the first floor being let out to stalls selling hardware, cheap clothing, used books and bags instead.

Despite this fall from favour, Chowrasta Market is today still one of the busiest markets in Penang, selling almost everything a household needs. The second-hand book stalls, many relocated here from Lebuh Chulia where they were originally found, are near-legendary, and are some of the greatest suppliers to the Malaysian rare book trade.

Campbell Street Market: The Last Great Victorian Market

While Chowrasta Market has taken the form of nearly every historical type of market hall, one market in Penang still retains its Victorian structure and has remained more or less unchanged since the day it was opened: the Campbell Street Market.

It is situated at the junction where Lebuh Carnavon meets Lebuh Campbell – on what was once a burial ground.9 It was bought by the Municipal Council for the construction of a new market, and this was opened in 1900. Being one of the last great Victorian market halls to be found in the country, it is interesting to note that little has been done to modernise or upgrade it, despite its location on prime land in the heart of the city. Many of its counterparts, such as Singapore’s Orchard Road Market, which has been said to resemble it the most in style and role, have since been demolished and replaced with blander structures.

Campbell Street Market, interior and exterior.

Compared to Chowrasta, Campbell Street Market is rather small. Its original brickand- cast iron structure is roughly the size of Prangin’s open shed. However, being a “bazaar” type market, its sides are enclosed by low brick walls to prevent spillovers. Of course, this has not been very effective. Since the building was too small, traders extended their stalls anyway, onto the streets and all the way to Pesara Claimant as well.

Situated in a homogenously Chinese district, the market is almost exclusively a Chinese market, with Chinese altars and idols placed directly inside the market hall. It originally specialised in vegetables: marketing at Campbell Street Market once meant buying vegetables; meat had to be bought separately from Lebuh Sek Chuan, a street of butchers. The working-class Chinese saddled the market with a rather cutthroat reputation and from time to time, violent crimes taking place in and around the market made the news.10

Campbell Street Market’s small size and relatively insignificant location may well be the reason it remains after 116 years the only Victorian-era market found in its original state.

It is impossible to expect all of Penang’s historic markets to survive forever. But due to a heightened sense of conservation, we can now rest assured that these markets will not suffer the fate of Paris’ Les Halles, an 800-year-old market that was demolished in 1971.

Markets are where products meet people. The sights, sounds and scents are irreplaceable; the stories and expertise of its traders can be found in no hypermarket in the country. Markets are a reflection of the people themselves, and need to be preserved to maintain Penang’s sense of authenticity.

1 The Straits Times, 7 January 1909, p.7.
2 Chowrasta:The Market at Crossroads, Dr. Goh Ban Lee, Pulau Pinang, Vol.2 No.4, January 1990, p.20.
3 The Singapore Free Press, 2 October 1954, p. 7.
4 Chowrasta:The Market at Crossroads, Dr. Goh Ban Lee, Pulau Pinang, Vol.2 No.4, January 1990, p.21.
5 A market for Malays only plan in Penang, The Straits Times, 20 February 1965, p. 6.
6 The Straits Times, 28 July 1962, p. 8.
7 The Straits Times, 25 June 1963, p. 5.
8 The Straits Times, 19 October 1966, p. 11.
9 Khoo Salma Nasution, Streets of George Town, Penang: Areca Books 2007, p.58.
10 The Straits Times, 11 January 1971, p.11; The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 1 September 1938,p.12.

Caleb Goh Hern-Ee studied Law at the Multimedia University in Malacca. He recently completed a two month internship at Penang Institute. He hopes to travel around the world some day with his clarinet and an unlimited supply of Zapple.

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