Butterworth beckons A bright future awaits East Penang


Butterworth, and the mainland in general, may be Penang's stepchild, but things have changed, and the jigsaw pieces are starting to fall into place, promising a very exciting not-too-distant future. We have quite a few people to thank for that.

It lies just 3km across the North Channel from George Town, but for most islandside Penangites, Butterworth is a world away.

Seemingly limp and lifeless, the mainland side of the state is hardly a draw for tourists and visitors; even most islanders are hard-pressed to remember the last time they set foot in the old town. It may therefore come as a surprise that a massive number of the state's citizens resides on the mainland – many, many more than those living on the island, with Butterworth having twice as many residents as George Town.

Whatever the impressions people currently have and however adamant islanders are in ignoring developments across the waters, it is undeniable that a steady rumble of activity has been building in the old township. From infrastructure to culture, and heritage restorations to newly proposed waterfront developments, Butterworth is priming itself to rise as the next nerve centre of mobility, connectivity and transformation.

Butterworth Baru

It looked a lot different from the first time that she saw it – and not in a good way.

Regardless, it was a homecoming of sorts for MPSP president Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif who, in the first few days on the job in March 2011, asked her driver to bring her to the old Butterworth town.

Aptly named Pekan Lama or literally, “Old Town”, the site was where Maimunah had first experience of the state when she alighted in 1985 from a bus that had brought her from her home state of Negeri Sembilan. Armed with a fresh town planning degree from the UK, Maimunah remembered arriving at the gateway to Penang Island, clueless but optimistic.

“My interview with MPPP was on the island, but this was the first time I had ever been to Penang. I didn’t know where to stay, so I asked around and someone suggested Berlin Hotel, which was near the jetty.

“So, when I became the MPSP president, I asked my driver to bring me back there as well as Taman Selat, where I rented a room for a few months after getting my first job, and Jalan Bagan Luar where I used to frequent all those years ago. After finding a house here to stay, I became like most ‘island-centric’ Penangites and seldom went back.”

The sights that greeted her were less than inspiring. What used to be friendly, lively spaces were now stilled and quiet.

“I told my driver, when I was here all those years ago, it was a happening place! Before the ferry terminal collapsed, there was the old bus terminal here and a shopping complex on top with lots of places to go for a meal.

“Coming back as the mayor, it was nostalgic for me, but I knew right then that we had to do something here.”

With limited funding in MPSP (widely known as the significantly poorer of Penang’s two municipal councils) she gathered together a young team of planners, engineers, architects and administrative officers and formed a special, in-house task force within the council.

There was one small hitch, however: the duties of this team were on top of the members’ normal jobs with no extra remuneration offered.

“It was purely a work of passion. There were eight of them – all living on the mainland – and I couldn’t pay them extra. Everything was on top of their day-to-day work. The thing is, when I suggested this, they were all happy to volunteer because they, too, wanted to see something happen to bring back life in Butterworth.”

The first task of the New Image of Butterworth (now officially known as the Nouveau Butterworth or, in Malay, Butterworth Baru initiative) team was to gather some raw data on the location.

The entire Butterworth area is large – approximately 101ha – but the team embarked on a small, preliminary survey in April 2012 to find out the general land use of the area, along with the people’s concerns and issues.

Using the 40-respondent, one-week sampling survey data, proposals were formulated and presented to Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng for his opinion in the third quarter of that year.

“The proposals amounted to over RM20mil and the state agreed to fund 30% when we came up with comprehensive plans,” Maimunah says.

Despite the generous offer, Maimunah was unsatisfied with the action plan which mainly focused on a fire-fighting method of solving Butterworth’s many woes.

“The main issues brought up were about things like parking and accessibility to pavements but we didn’t want to do an ad hoc, project-oriented initiative. What we wanted was an overall strategic plan with clear goals of what we wanted to achieve year by year,” she explains.

So she held back, but at the same time, dedicated to plucking what she could of the “low-hanging fruits” that addressed the immediate concerns of the community.

Enter Think City

With an eye always out for opportunities to implement greater change in Butterworth, Maimunah jumped at the chance to approach Khazanah Nasional Bhd (Khazanah) subsidiary Think City, a special project vehicle that had been robustly working on heritage conservation and urban regeneration in George Town since 2009. Its grants initiative – the George Town Grants Programme (GTGP) – was winding down in 2013 after a successful four-year run that saw RM17.5mil being dispersed to over 240 heritage projects in the inner city.

In her former capacity as state heritage agency George Town World Heritage Incorporated’s first general manager, Maimunah had worked closely with Think City and knew its potential for effective public-private partnerships. Little did she know that Think City had long been eyeing Butterworth as its new focus as well, according to programme director Murali Ramakrishnan.

“When Khazanah first started in Penang, we always had two components: George Town and Butterworth. But the true catalyst on the Butterworth side is the Penang Sentral project that has finally kicked off. So, we feel the time is right for us to get involved,” Murali says.

Penang Sentral, scheduled for completion in 2017, is to include the largest integrated transport hub in the country’s Northern Corridor Economic Region, servicing Penang, Perlis, Kedah and northern Perak. The over RM2bil project, undertaken by Malaysian Resources Corporation Bhd, will combine rail, taxi, bus, ferry and, if approved, cable car services, making it a one-stop centre for land, sea and air transport.

Murali says with train journeys between KL Sentral and Penang Sentral cut down to three hours and 20 minutes in the future, Butterworth would be essential in improving Penang’s connectivity and mobility.

“In the future, competition for attracting talent will be among cities, not countries. When we talk about this region, we have KL and there is already a lot of work going on there at this very moment to better the infrastructure, rail transit development and culture to make it more attuned to compete with other big, international cities. A country, however, cannot have just one city and in terms of secondary cities, the biggest conurbations are Penang and Johor Bahru.”

Explaining that Think City’s funding came from Khazanah’s corporate social responsibility arm, Yayasan Hasanah, Murali says the main purpose of the subsidiary is to create better cities and improve the country’s competitiveness in attracting investment and talent.

“We feel our work in George Town turned out quite well and now, we’re looking across the channel. If Butterworth proves to be successful, then maybe we can take that model and move it to other secondary cities like Ipoh or Taiping.”

The first step in developing a town is to first understand it. Although the MPSP in-house survey was a good first step, more was needed before the real work

could begin. So, together, MPSP and Think City launched two more detailed studies to map out Butterworth and look seriously into its potential. The first study, Positive Changes for Vibrant Places, took place over a five-month period in early 2014 with a special focus on three locales: Old Town, Perai River and the Butterworth waterfront.

“The study was carried out by the AJM Planning and Urban Design Group but it was not just a study of the area,” says Maimunah. “I didn’t want the consultant to do the job and present it to us. I wanted a transfer of knowledge, so, the consultant was asked to conduct a series of workshops and work together with MPSP staff on the ground. This way, my team would learn how to do it in the future and also feel ownership over the study.”

The second study, a baseline community survey that ran from the end of February this year and concluded in April, was both horizontal and vertical, studying not only land use and business types in the area, but providing full demographics of the 2sqkm centre of Old Town. Murali says the results, which are in the final stages of being compiled and are expected to be released in full later this month, have already revealed some surprising facts.

“The biggest thing that struck us was how many people living in the area - approximately 20,000 compared with just 10,000 in George Town. You can’t even find a decent cinema there; it’s a bit lifeless but it’s full of people! In actual fact, for people who work on the island and don’t have personal ties there, Butterworth has become a cheaper alternative to living on the island,” Murali says, adding that this provides enormous potential in terms of the area’s human capital.

Building a secondary city

Where urban rejuvenation is concerned, Murali says that Butterworth greatly differs from George Town and needs a unique strategy of approach.

“Different places need different interventions. In George Town, there was a lot of heritage movement, and then, the Unesco World Heritage Site listing came in (in 2008). So, the challenge at the time was, how do you preserve culture and cultural essence? That included both physical projects and the repopulation of heritage buildings with the people who were originally there, and that was the focus of the GTGP. Aside from that, we funded talks and the documentation of stories to create interest and awareness into the history and other assets of Penang, which adds to the romance of George Town.”

In Butterworth, however, the challenge is different. “It’s dead and forgotten. Old Town is sort of in ruins now: businesses are not making money, it’s dilapidated and people have forgotten the space.

“The Butterworth scene is a little bit less dynamic than George Town, mainly, I think because people don’t see the potential to invest money there right now,” Murali expounds.

But with the right strategic planning, he feels that Butterworth can fulfil its role as George Town’s essential counterpart in about a decade.

But with the right strategic planning, he feels that Butterworth can fulfil its role as George Town’s essential counterpart in about a decade.

“What we are trying to create is the idea that George Town and Butterworth are part of one core city – the two of them are one. We believe that if we are going to bring Penang forward, the transformation really has to happen in Butterworth.”

To achieve that end, Think City is looking at the future central business district to be built around Penang Sentral, a new proposed waterfront development to leverage the incredible waterside views, the potential of the Perai River and methods to unlock the value of Butterworth real estate that is now primarily being used as a port and logistics area.

In the short term, Murali says a central focus will be about bringing back life to the old town centre through the Think City Grants Programme launched in Butterworth and KL. A sum of RM1mil has been allocated for three cycles of the grant programme in Butterworth this year.

“The first phase closed at the end of January and out of the 25 applications we received, we approved three. The first is the RM100,000 roof restoration of St Mark’s Church that turns 120 years old this year. The second is a project by awardwinning photographer Kenny Loh that will focus on the mapping of existing communities in Seberang Perai. We feel that there has been so much focus in this area on Penang Island but hardly any on the mainland, so we’re contributing RM100,000 there, too,” Murali says.

The third and final successful applicant, receiving an RM36,000 grant, is publisher Areca Books which is concentrating on creating a pictorial history of Seberang Perai.

“We had allocated about RM400,000 for the first round of grants this year and, of course, we would be happier if we had more (successful applicants), but for a start, this is great.”

Murali adds that aside from providing funding for conservation and communitycentred projects in Butterworth, Think City is also launching management initiatives of its own by seeking out interested parties to partner with.

Collaboration with the George Town Festival (GTF) team is one of the first on this list.

Butterworth Fringe Festival

Tangible arts and culture is one of the things severely lacking in Butterworth. So, after the sustained excitement created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic’s George Town murals (after years of adorning inner city walls, visitors still frequently have to stand in line to take pictures with several of them), one can understand why Butterworth’s first mural was welcomed with open arms. The massive painting, measuring 25m x 15m, was initiated by the Hin Bus Depot Art Centre and Woolley Department Sdn Bhd on the wall of a corner shoplot in Taman Perusahaan Raja Uda.

Vertical dance company Retouramont will be staging a performance entitled Cette Immense Intimité during the BFF.

Unveiled and launched by the Chief Minister on March 21, the mural marked the 200th piece of street art completed by Argentinian artist Martin Ron and was done with the help of two friends, one of whom is depicted as the central figure of the artwork.

As proven in George Town, murals indeed attract visitors, but few would harbour hopes that a single, though beautiful and three-dimensional, artistic creation will send tourists flocking to old Butterworth.

With this in mind, Maimunah and Think City formulated a more aggressive idea to bring back life to the area. Approaching GTF festival director Joe Sidek, ideas were thrown about and the Butterworth Fringe Festival (BFF) was born.

Set for the third weekend of August, BFF will be a major component of the sixth month-long GTF that celebrates George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site. With funding from both Think City and the state government, BFF will cover Jalan Jeti Lama, one of the oldest roads in the area.

“It’s like a forgotten street corner and when I first saw it, I thought it was really, really charming and akin to 1960s Malaysia,” Joe says enthusiastically. “There are abandoned buildings and a crossroads, and I thought, how interesting to have the whole place to play around with.”

The programme, he adds, will be a good mix of local and international acts designed to attract visitors from all over the state and beyond.

“The original idea was to showcase Butterworth and Seberang Prai talent,” he adds. “Then, I realised that if I did only that, it may not be enough to lure people from the island across. The objective, really, is to connect George Town and Butterworth rather than just doing a pop-up festival. It’s like Butterworth revisited. How many of us have gone to Butterworth just to go to Butterworth? None of us have a reason to go. So for now, I’m going to concentrate on creating reasons to go,” Joe says.

Among the international acts booked for BFF are Urban Distortion, a project by Brussels-based dance company t.r.a.n.s.i.t.s.c.a.p.e, a vertical dance performance by French company Retouramont, a Bunraku puppet show from Japan and Taiwanese juggling artist Isaac Hou.

On the local front, the National Department for Culture and Arts is scheduled to perform a ground-breaking presentation entitled Kulit (“Skin” in Malay) while Joe and his team are working hard to ensure local comedian Imuda (who coincidentally is from Butterworth) does not fall out of the large gaping hole in an abandoned building he is slated to be in while performing his famous song, “Blues Nasi Kandar”.

On top of that, BookXcess – the company responsible for the hugely popular Big Bad Wolf Book Sale that travels the country – has agreed to set up a mini arts book fair and the Alliance Francaise will also be on site with a comprehensive food, marketplace, arts, crafts and performance initiative called Decouvertes: The French Flavour.

If all goes well, getting to the festival will be an adventure in itself as Joe is currently in discussions with Penang Port Sdn Bhd to borrow two ferries that will be reconditioned to house a pop-up cafe on the lower level and a trendy exhibition space on top.

“Few people take the ferry now, and only when it is a necessity – not because they’re going on a journey. But I remember that when I was a kid, I loved taking the ferries! You wait in excitement to feel the sway of the boat against the port and see the ropes being tied. I thought, let’s recreate this excitement during the festival and give people a reason to jump on the ferry and take a nice 15-minute ride and watch the sunset. And when you get to Butterworth, we plan for there to be bicycles or taxis to get people to where the festival is, which is only 10 minutes away.”

Joe is optimistic that the festival can successfully break away from GTF within a few years.

“For now, BFF is parked under GTF, but in two or three years, especially when Batu Kawan comes up, it can have a life of its own and we can build an identity around it.

“There are 900,000 people in Seberang Perai – even more than the island where we have roughly 700,000 people. And that is not even counting people in neighbouring places like Alor Setar, Kuala Kangsar, Taiping, Sungai Petani and Kulim that are all within easy access of that site. From a business perspective, can you imagine the potential of this kind of crowd?”

On top of the large amount of nearby potential visitors, Joe stresses that BFF is just a starting point for the rejuvenation of culture in Butterworth.

“Just look at all the warehouses at the Butterworth seafront. The potential for them to be turned into art houses or commercial tourist buildings is huge. All over the world – in Yokohama, Sydney and London – you see warehouses and old buildings being turned into art, culture, commercial and tourism spaces, and that’s my long-term vision for Butterworth. Someone’s got to start and BFF can be that starting point.

“All I can say is, watch this space,” he says.

And we will, Joe, we will.

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