A heritage trail of nostalgia (and food)

loading View from the top: the shady avenue of Jalan Kelawai.

Pulau Tikus is inseparable from its rich heritage and delicious hawker fare.

Growing up in one place and walking past the same things every day, you tend not to notice the beauty and uniqueness that are there right in front of you. And so it was with me growing up in the Pulau Tikus township.

I spent the first years of my life in Kampung Sirih. After that, my family moved to Jalan Edgecumbe, where I stayed till I left Penang for KL to pursue a short-lived career in journalism before moving to Singapore. I knew the neighbourhood well; I would go to the market regularly with my mum and visit friends in the area. We walked a lot in those days; there wasn’t much traffic then.

But I don’t think I ever appreciated the history of the precinct.

And so it was with a sense of nostalgia that I went on the Pulau Tikus Heritage Trail earlier in July. It was a trail curated by the state assemblyperson of Pulau Tikus, Yap Soo Huey; she felt more people should know about the history of this unique township.

Yap led the tour for participants from Singapore and Thailand. We met at Huey & Wah, a cafe that is part of the new story of Pulau Tikus being written by the younger generation. It’s quirky and contemporary with a lot of creative touches, great coffee and speciality marshmallows.

Church of the Immaculate Conception.

The early morning downpour had just stopped, leaving a coolness in the air that was perfect for our two-hour walk. The first stop was the Church of the Immaculate Conception; although I’d seen it countless times, I didn’t know that it was founded in the 1810s by the Thai- Portuguese Catholic community who fled Phuket to avoid religious persecution.

Next was another one of Pulau Tikus’s old communities. Growing up, I had been aware of the Thai and Burmese influences in the area; in an 1828 census, a total of 1,117 Siamese and Burmese were recorded on Penang Island, the majority living in Pulau Tikus. I had Thai classmates in school; we knew of Kampung Siam and, of course, the two famous Thai and Burmese temples whose names were unpronounceable to us (and still are).

But I never visited Kampung Siam, which is tucked away behind the temples. It is the last Siamese village in Penang, and currently the residents are being threatened with eviction. There is an ongoing dispute for the land; the residents claim the land was awarded to them in perpetuity by Queen Victoria, while the developers who bought the land want to build a hotel there.

Many villages are disappearing or have disappeared throughout the state, but in Pulau Tikus there are still a few hold-outs here and there. Kampung Serani on Solok Leandros is a pale shade of its former self, with just a few houses left – and most of them dilapidated. Most of the area has been redeveloped; Bellisa Row and Bellisa Court stand in its place.

Then, there’s Kampung Syed, an Arab- Muslim community. An oasis amid the hustle and bustle of Pulau Tikus, the houses are well-maintained and the gardens well-kept – you can tell this is a house-proud community that respects traditions.

A decorated alley in Kampung Sirih.

But the most nostalgic stop for me was Kampung Sirih, where I grew up but have very little memory of. I was amazed by how well-kept and intact this Chinese village remains. Named after the sirih (betel nut) plantation in the early 20th century, the village, I am told, has shrunk to half its original size due to the development of a modern housing estate. Yap tells us that many of the remaining families have been staying there for nearly a century. There is also a well that has never run dry in 100 years.

On the trail, I was pleased to see many of the old trades still being carried out. In an age of franchises and global brands, it’s refreshing to see that these small, independent businesses are surviving. I had such joy revisiting the shops that I remember from my childhood. There’s Ban Joo Lee, a grocer – it sells my favourite biscuits.

There’s Lay Seng Bicycle Shop, and Uncle Ah Kow, 81, is still there fixing bicycles. He tells me that when bicycles went out of fashion, he learned how to repair motorcycles, but now bicycles have come back in vogue. The difference is these new bikes only last one or two years. “The old ones, they lasted years and years,” he says.

And there’s Kwong Heng Long, where my mum still buys her soy sauces which I still pack to take with me when I return to Singapore.

Lorong Bangkok's row of pre-war houses, built in 1928 by Cheah Leong Kah.

Then of course there’s Lorong Bangkok, all gentrified these days with a boutique hotel and new businesses that have moved into the 41 double-storey shophouses built in 1928 by the late Cheah Leong Keah for his future generations. What this lane is more well-known for, though, is its street food – specifically its mee goreng.

It was a major challenge to actually complete the tour in two hours; there were just too many food distractions. The Pulau Tikus heritage is as associated with its hawker food as with its stories, which was why it was such a good idea to end the trail at Pulau Tikus Market, a haven for hawker food in Penang.

Last month, the market turned 60. My mum knows it like the back of her hand; this was where she bought food to put on our tables, where I tagged along behind her as she bargained for our fish, meat and vegetables.

As I walked through the market, the whiff of fresh roasted beans from the coffee stall brought back poignant memories of when Pulau Tikus was my home, my sweet home, and after having done this heritage trail, I have an even deeper appreciation for what that really means.

Penang-born Yeoh Siew Hoon is the founder of WIT, a media and events company specialising in online travel. She loves to write and she loves to travel; but as much as she has travelled, she still calls Penang home.

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