The Changing Harbour Front

loading The Weld Quay buildings, designed in Anglo-Indian style, features a continuous five-footway arcade.

It was inevitable that George Town should evolve beyond its role as a harbour and centre of maritime trade. The historic port, which once greeted the ancestors of Penang’s cosmopolitan settlers, is something unfamiliar to young locals. Many have never heard the creaks and groans of sailing ships and the stirring cries of stevedores; nor have they seen the quickening flurry of commercial activity on the sea-wharves as the dawn breaks. 

The buildings fronting Weld Quay, which used to house the European trading companies, formerly gave a distinctive first impression to visitors arriving by ship; nowadays they present an aged and dilapidated facade by the sea. The erosion of the city’s port status, caused by the relocation of facilities to the industrial area on the mainland, has been quietly taking place over the last two decades.

Beach Street, now called Lebuh Pantai, still boasts [being the location for] the city’s main financial institutions and established professional firms, but suffers from erratic traffic – especially around lunch-hour when its pavement is taken over by street-peddlers of every variety.

Offices and retail establishments have shifted to the new centre of George Town, leaving behind musty shops and vacant premises. Godowns with leaking roofs have long been abandoned, while access roads and loading yards are being used for vehicle parking. Food hawkers and street cobblers have set up shop in unkempt passages.

After office hours, this commercial quarter is virtually deserted, but for the cooing pigeons which have come down to roost under the eaves of rundown buildings.

The wharves and godowns, like the waterfront characters who have remained, now occupy the fringes of an industrialised society. Yet, like certain antiquated signboards which no one has bothered to remove, they survive by default as silent witnesses to the thriving port city that George Town once was.

A Burmese coastal boat.

Pinang Harbour

Penang Island provided a natural harbour – capacious, well-sheltered and surrounded by deep waters, ideally located at the Northern entry to the Straits of Malacca. Opened by the English East India Company in 1786, Penang was an important outpost controlling the profitable trade of exotic spices like pepper and gambier, nutmeg, betel nut, bird’s nest, copra, Arabic gum, teak wood and tapioca from Malaya and the Sumatran coasts.

Although Penang was one of the earliest British settlements in the Far East, it enjoyed only several decades of prominence before Singapore came on the scene in 1823, offering a more strategic location for Straits trading. Merchants based in Penang protested against the unfair competition that arose as a result of the free trade system in Singapore’s harbour, and clamoured for custom duties to be imposed in the younger sister port. The mercantile jealousies were finally resolved by Penang being granted free port status in 1827. By this time Penang had slipped into a secondary role, and her surrounding waters were plagued with piracy.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Straits Settlements enjoyed a rapid increase in trade between Europe and the Far East as the result of the introduction of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal. Commodities like copra, rubber and tin grew in importance.

In particular, Penang benefitted from the development of Malaya’s northern states. A railway system was laid, connecting the productive hinterland to the distribution centre at Penang’s harbour. Consequently, Penang served as the port of immigration for petty entrepreneurs and indentured labourers who came by the thousands from South India and South China to work in the plantations and tin mines on the mainland.

Malaya’s economic boom at the turn of the century owed much to two Western developments. First of all, the popularity of the new mass-produced motorcar, with its pneumatic tyres, stimulated the rubber industry. Secondly, the invention of modern food-canning created an unprecedented demand for tin.

As a matter of course, transnational merchant companies would establish themselves in Singapore and subsequently set up a branch in Penang as they expanded. Around the turn of the century, the offices and godowns of European merchants like Boustead, Behn Meyer and Paterson Simons were sited along Weld Quay, facing the sea.

Early photographs show the waterfront along Weld Quay bustling with maritime activity. Ocean liners and coastal steamers docked at Swettenham Pier or anchored in the Channel. Lighters moored alongside the merchant vessels for the purpose of loading and unloading cargo. These launches flitted to and fro from Victoria Jetty, which jutted from the end of Downing Street. Passengers were ferried over to the mainland from the Penang Railway jetty, while ferry steamers for cars embarked from Church Street Pier.

During the Second World War, many of George Town’s best monuments, including the administrative complex at Beach Street and Downing Street, were destroyed. The Victoria Jetty and Railway Pier were also devastated. Since then, the whole waterfront area has been restructured, with concern for security and utility but not for the historical character of its buildings nor for the original vistas of the coastline.

Penang declined as a port as conditions and policies changed. Barter trade was discontinued, and then Penang finally lost its free port status in [1967]. In recent years, the port services, including cargo handling and wholesale trading activities, have been gradually relocated to the Butterworth wharves and the Bulk Cargo Terminal at Prai for direct links with mainland transportation.

Today the port area on the island, sequestered behind a security fence, is somewhat under-utilised. Swettenham Pier caters for infrequent berthing of large passenger and cargo ships, while the wharf area handles a modest number of lighters and coastal vessels. The regular passenger services are ferries which depart to Pulau Belawan in North Sumatra or the Pulau Langkawi island resort twice a week. Some godowns have been leased out to Taiwanese fishing companies as cold storage, while others remain vacant.

Swettenham Pier attracts local attention only when an ocean liner, one serving as a floating library or making nostalgic cruises such as the Queen Elizabeth II, occasionally steams by. The location shooting of the movie Keys to Freedom in one of the godowns probably counted as last year’s highlight event. The Church Street jetty still serves as a public jetty, and is used as an embarking point for lighters which take the stevedores out to the ships each morning.

Of the port operations on the island, the Pengkalan Raja Tun Uda ferry terminus is the most active, serving as an entry point for passengers and vehicles crossing over from the mainland. The scenic ride by ferry is one of Penang’s main tourist attractions. Yet the scenery along Weld Quay and Victoria Street, which greets visitors emerging from the terminus, is currently one of dereliction and decay.

Renewal

Waterfront renewal is a recent trend of inner city redevelopment in cities like London, New Orleans, Yokohama and Singapore. Over the last eight years, the historic waterfront on the River Thames has been transformed from an abandoned warehouse area into an urban showcase. Indeed, the Docklands revitalisation project has proved to be a success beyond the dreams of those developers who invested in London’s declining East End.

Perhaps inspired by this example, Penang’s Municipal Council has planned the transformation of the historic port into an attractive ground for recreation and tourist activities. Behind this proposal is the recognition that the Beach Street area is in need of economic revitalisation, and that existing facilities, presently under-utilised, can and should be taken advantage of to this end.

The progressive concept-plan acknowledges not only the existing historical and architectural assets, but also the aesthetic role of a waterfront in an urban environment. The renewed waterfront will serve as an attractive landing point for visitors arriving by ferry, with a promenade connecting the ferry terminus to the Esplanade, and better walking and transportation links to the urban centre. A pedestrianisation plan has been drawn up with the help of designers from Yokohama, a city which has gone through a similar transition from port city to a regional centre.

Some of Penang’s finest examples of old commercial architecture are to be found in the Beach Street quarter. The character of the historic precinct would be enhanced by conserving the unique buildings and the historic street profiles, while creating a modern working and recreational environment. Certain godown buildings could be rehabilitated for commercial and tourism purposes such as shop lots, cafes, restaurants, markets, hawkers’ bazaar, a cultural complex and a handicraft centre.

No. 3 Weld Quay.

Finally, an uninterrupted vista would provide the visitor with a memorable viewof the waterfront, one recalling its age-old significance as a harbour area.

Although implementation is given little priority at the moment, the potential for urban renewal can be visualised during a leisurely stroll through the quarter. One can sense the distant winds of change – by isolated signs here and there – that steps are already being taken to save these small chunks of a larger history.

Conservation

At the turn of the century [into the twentieth], No. 3 Weld Quay was the address of Messrs. Behn, Meyer & Co., German shipping agents, general importers and tin refiners, as well as exporters of tin, copra, raw sugar, rubber, tapioca, cloves and pepper. Having passed through several ownerships and occupancies, No. 3 looked as weatherbeaten and ramshackle as its immediate neighbours until last year. Now with a new coat of paint and a handsome new name board, it stands as an example of a recent conservation effort undertaken by private developers.

Weld Quay Properties bought a lot situated between Beach Street and Weld Quay in 1983. They demolished the old building facing Beach Street and turned it into a car park, and moved the tenants over into the vacant Weld Quay building. Their original intention was to demolish all the existing buildings to construct high-rise office blocks. However, their plans, when submitted to the building authorities that year, received no response for two years.

In 1987, the Municipal Council published their conservation policies in the form of a booklet for building and planning for professionals called “Design Guidelines”. The Council’s policy was now to promote building preservation and conservation by allowing transfer of redevelopment rights and adaptive re-use of buildings.

For the block of Weld Quay buildings, which includes No. 3, property owners were required to conserve the front buildings on their lots in exchange for rights to develop the back sections up to 40 metres in height. The key concept here is a proposed service road from Church Street Ghaut, which would create additional access frontages for the potential high-rise buildings. While the technical details have yet to be worked out, involving the cost of road construction, most of the building owners have agreed to the proposal – at least in principle.

The landlords of adjacent properties, being veterans owners of rent-controlled premises, appeared to be in no hurry to improve their existing properties or rebuild. As newcomers to the area, Weld Quay Properties had bought their property at a high market price and were under commercial pressure to develop their land.

Pending approval for the proposed high-rise, the owners of Weld Quay Properties felt it was more economical to fulfil the conditions imposed by the Municipal Council than to delay development any longer. They accepted the proposed concessions, and in close consultation with a local architect, went ahead with conservation work on No. 3 Weld Quay.

The building’s original materials, such as granite slab pavement and the wooden ceiling beams, were left in place. The old tiled roof was repaired and partially relaid. Missing tiles were replaced with tiles from second-hand dealers in building materials. New balusters were purchased to complete the balustrade. The facade was stripped, then replastered and repainted with weatherproof paint. Wooden window frames needed only a coat of paint, while the old doors were replaced with modern doors in a compatible style. The whole internal electrical system was rewired and the interior refurbished.

Although the work carried out did not involve detailed architectural restoration, the building had been generally repaired and rehabilitated. It was commended as “a good effort with encouraging implications” by a visiting conservationist form Germany, who suggests that the same thing should be undertaken for the whole block.

The private developers are naturally proud of their accomplishment. “We went all the way to do a proper job, even to the extent of overspending the Budget,” said the director of the Weld Quay Properties. “The project proves that we’re serious developers, willing to undertake alternative development strategies which respect the historical value of the building and take the environment’s character into account.”

A local architect pointed out, “The same developers who were originally intent on doing away with the old building have instead taken up the challenge to conserve and maintain it. In the process of doing conservation work, they have gained experience and become informed on the subject. This shows it is worthwhile to try and persuade private builders to see things from a conservation point of view, or at least to understand that conservation does not necessarily mean anti-development.”

Street vendors operating outside the India House on Beach Street.

The Weld Quay proposal is the first project to be carried out in an area affected by the Design Guidelines, and will serve as a test case for the implementation of the Municipal Council’s conservation policies. Many other cases, each requiring detailed study and individual consideration, will arise from the building slump of recent years.

The public authorities, while not generally in a position to finance conservation, can nevertheless encourage private developers with certain incentives – not the least being the speedy processing of building plans once they agree to carry out conservation work.

Beach Street

All roads used to lead to the water’s edge, and the long views used to penetrate to the blue seas beyond. The historical landing point at Fort Cornwallis was the original tip of the island’s north-eastern cape, and two coastal roads – Light Street and Beach Street along the east – radiate from this point.

While the northern coastal road accommodated the stately civic buildings along Light Street and institutions along Farquhar Street, and plush suburban villas along Northam Road, the eastern coastline welcomed the great ships with their weary sailors, the precious cargo and the flotsam.

At a tangent from upper Beach Street is Downing Street, formerly the handsome address of Penang’s administrative offices. As a trading post, the administration of George Town was very closely tied to its chief industry, the harbour.

Beach Street, as the name suggests, used to run along the shore. Land reclamation, begun in the 1880s, extended the Beach Street area outwards as the sea receded naturally. Hence the original buildings facing the sea were generally built earlier than those facing inland. The later buildings were built in a haphazard fashion, resulting in the uneven building lines still seen today.

Beach Street grew as a natural extension of the port area and its trading activities. The occupations of [residents on] lower Beach Street range from forwarding agents, traders and market-sellers to transport workers, cargo handlers, packers, metalsmiths and shipyard workers. The local Chinese have different place names for the various sections of the long street, which map out its diverse historical uses.

The northernmost section, dominated by European companies is called “Commercial District” or sometimes the “European Commercial Pier” (ang mo tho ko kay). Immediately south is the “River Pier” (kang ngar khau) referring to the point where a large conduit spilled out to the sea. This conduit existed in early times, serving to drain a nearby swamp.

The original Beach Street extended until the cross-section with Chulia Street. The lower sections of Beach Street emerged rapidly out of swampy ground during the boom period. Here the Chinese entrepreneurs constructed their shops and houses in an unregulated manner. Today “Main Street” (tiong kay) refers to the section just south of Chulia Street, where you can still find a concentration of Chinese wholesalers.

South of Armenian Street is “New Textile Street” (thuan lo sin kay) which was the domain of haberdasheries and textile shops selling Chinese silk. This is contrasted with the shops in the next section specialising in metalwork, called “Iron Smith Street” (pak theek kay).

The bottom section of Beach Street approaching the Prangin Canal was called “End of the Neighbourhood” (sia boey). Its junction with Malay Street is also called “Outside the Cow-Slaughtering Yard” (thai gu au gua khau). The next section, in the vicinity of Prangin Lane and Fish Lane, sometimes takes the general area name of “Salted Fish Precinct” (kiam hu thnia), from the sight and stench of salted fish that used to be dried openly.

Beach Street ends at its junction with Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leong, which used to be the Prangin Canal. The last section of sia boey forms part of the Prangin Road wholesale market area.

The exploration of Beach Street and its environs should be done on foot, as the main street traverses many characteristic roads and narrow lanes to the courtyards of old clan houses.

This article is reproduced with kind permission from Pulau Pinang, vol. 1, no. 2, published by Georgetown Printers in 1989.



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