Putting Pulau Tikus on the map

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This is a diverse community full of history and culture – and full of hope for the future.

Affluent. Cosmopolitan. Convenient. These are words that are often used to describe Pulau Tikus, a township in Penang that is pretty much located in the middle of everything. It connects the north of the island to the centre and the south.

This crucial thoroughfare had sleepier beginnings though. It was first populated by the Thai-Portuguese Catholics who were fleeing religious persecution by the invading Burmese in Phuket, Thailand, in 1810. They made their way south and eventually settled in Penang under the leadership of their parish priest, Father John Baptist Pasqual. This was a suitable destination for them since some of Pasqual’s friends and families had already settled in the area in the 1780s1.

And so Pulau Tikus began as a Eurasian village whose social life revolved around, at first, a tent-church where the Catholic cemetery is located along Jalan Kelawai, and then an attap-roofed wooden chapel that was built in 18192 (the current Church of Immaculate Conception stands on the very spot). It soon grew to house a myriad of different peoples – Siamese, Burmese, Arabs and, eventually, Malays, Chinese and Indians.

The name, though, excites much curiosity. Why did the first settlers of the area name the place “Mouse Island3”?

“The early Eurasians here spoke Malay,” explains Datuk Dr Anthony E. Sibert, a 76-year-old lifelong resident of Pulau Tikus and now one of only a few Eurasians left living in the area. “They settled in Perlis and Kuala Kedah, and some came to Penang. The lingua franca of that time was pidgin Malay, mixed with Portuguese and Thai words. It was only around the time of my mother’s generation that we spoke English at home.”

These early residents of Pulau Tikus arrived on sampans and crossed sand dunes on the beach that looked like a string of mice – hence, Mouse Island.

Church of Immaculate Conception circa 1900.

The beaches are now mud flats crossed by a pedestrian walkway, but the Pulau Tikus of yore was another world: “It was very different then,” recounts Sibert, who comes from an era of openness among races and religions, recalling that he used to invite his Muslim friends over for festive Christmas celebrations at his house (“Pork-free, of course – not out of request, but respect”). He remembers a Pulau Tikus covered with fruit trees (“We Eurasians demarcated our area with mangosteen trees, while the Malays used coconut trees”) and the Eurasian village that has since been overtaken by development. His house was built in the Malay style (high stilts and airy windows) and was situated next to a rambutan plantation.

“We used to walk and cycle everywhere,” he muses.

In spite of the nostalgia, Sibert admits that progress was necessary. “It’s for the better,” he says about the development that has since engulfed Pulau Tikus.

Modern Pulau Tikus

One is hard-pressed to imagine rambutan plantations and an unobstructed seafront at Pulau Tikus today. It now comprises a happy mix of popular shopping malls, chic hotels and high-rise condominiums alongside pre-war shophouses, the surviving Siamese and Arab villages, and houses built in the 1960s art deco style. While it has never been a quiet suburb, it has definitely boomed over the past few decades.

Retail shops are easily accessible in Pulau Tikus. Businesses there tend to be concentrated around Persiaran Gurney and Jalan Kelawai – where the two higher-end shopping malls and independent boutiques are located – as well as Jalan Burmah. “There is a concentration of shops surrounded by residential (houses) in a pretty flat and easily walkable area,” says Yap Soo Huey, state assemblyperson for Pulau Tikus. The intersection of Jalan Burmah and Jalan Cantonment, where there is also a cluster of financial establishments, is the commercial hub of Pulau Tikus.

Yap Soo Huey.

The township has long been perceived as a wealthy one, but it is a tag Yap disagrees with: “I’m not sure about the ‘affluent’ statement anymore because our studies indicate that we have an ageing population here. Generally, when people have retired – they are on their pension or aren’t earning an income anymore – they are more conservative with their spending. They are also less mobile, so the same people who used to walk to shops now may have mobility issues. There is still foot traffic, but it is actually less than before.”

Which brings us to the question: is the ageing population slowing Pulau Tikus’s growth? While age profiles specifically for Pulau Tikus are unavailable at the moment, the community falls within the George Town population of nearly 200,000, and going purely by George Town’s demographic numbers, there is a significantly high percentage of 25 to 29-year-olds residing in the area (an estimated nine per cent to 10%), followed by 20 to 24-year-olds4.

So while people are getting older, there is still a healthy population of young adults there. It is estimated that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 people residing within Pulau Tikus, and 13,000 jobs5. The land use survey from 2014 revealed that there were 1,955 unique businesses as well as education, notfor- profit and government and religious organisations in the area. 17.1% of total jobs were in the finance, legal and banking sector, followed by the food and beverage sector (14.5%), education (11.4%) and fashion, clothing and textiles (9.1%)6.

There are currently two significant property developments under construction in the area: Moulmein Rise, which is scheduled for completion in 2016, and Setia V Residences along Jalan Kelawai. Furthermore, a townhouse development, Y Cantonments, which is just a stone’s throw from the marketplace, is expected to be completed this year. With these developments, the population in Pulau Tikus is expected to grow – something that Yap is very happy about. “We need an injection of new residents – that is important for the survival of any township. I am looking forward for the condominiums that have been built recently to bring in new residents – I think that would help the community. My aim is to prepare the township for these new residents, especially where pedestrian access and improvements to the public infrastructure supporting the shophouses are concerned.”

Persiaran Gurney seafront.

Yap is not worried about the old residents’ ability to integrate with newcomers – be they locals or not. “Pulau Tikus has always been a place that is comfortable with expats. What I would be a bit concerned about is if you go out now and see the people walking on the road, for the most part, I notice they are people who have been around for a while. You don’t really see the presence of the newcomers yet. I would say that it’s because even though there are the condominiums and whatnot, a lot of them are fronting Persiaran Gurney and the residents might not necessarily be people who would shop locally so much.”

Yap is therefore encouraging people, especially “Pulau Tikusians”, to do just that – shop locally, and for good reason. “We have this car and shopping mall dependency. If we don’t recognise this as a problem that is unsustainable, and therefore help the independent shophouses to survive, then Penang will be locked into this dependency,” she says. “It’s just unsustainable; we have 10,000 new cars every month – almost 5,000 newly qualified drivers every month in Penang alone. It is not until we help ensure the sustainability of our local township, therefore removing the need for people to go to shopping malls, that we can reduce the dependency on cars.”

Which brings us to the next question: What can be done about the bad traffic on Jalan Kelawai and Jalan Burmah?

Traffic woes – and solutions

It wasn’t always this congested there. Yap has spent most of her life in the township (“except for 10 years when I was abroad”), and recalls that she used to cycle or walk everywhere when she was growing up – just like Sibert. “At that time there weren’t so many cars; there were a lot of trishaw pullers as well. After school you could go cycling with your friends from the neighbourhood, and people seemed to be okay to walk to places.”

And while Yap says that she’s not looking at bringing back trishaw pullers anytime soon, she does put stress on walking – not only to improve traffic, but to help the shophouses on the main thoroughfare as well. “I have been pushing the city council to improve the walking infrastructure. Walkability in the area is also very important for the survival of small businesses along the road.”

Taking a stroll down Jalan Kelawai or Jalan Cantonment today, one immediately notices the neat pedestrian walkway along these stretches. It has a uniform gray colour with tactile paving for the visually impaired and is wide enough for wheelchair access.

All that began last year. In 2014 the city council spent about RM1.2mil to upgrade the sidewalks on the island – with the majority of the upgrading taking place in Pulau Tikus. “We started with Pulau Tikus because there was more space for us to play with; the road shoulder is wider compared to other areas,” says Cheah Chin Kooi, senior engineer in the Engineering Department of MBPP.

A total of 3.09km of sidewalks throughout the island were affected by the upgrade, and MBPP was killing two birds with one stone: “Part of (why we are carrying out the upgrading) is because we are also doing drainage upgrading work. We used to only cater to the general public, but this time we are also adding in guided tiles for the visually impaired. This conforms to the Malaysian standards of Universal Design and Accessibility in the Built Environment (MS 1184:2014),” says Cheah.

“In the 1990s, a lot of interlocking tiles were used,” adds Addnan Mohd Razali, engineering director of MBPP. “Now we use concrete, which is friendly for all. This is (the type of infrastructure) we aim to give, moving forward.”

Besides providing a walkway that is accessible to all, another interesting feature is incorporated as well: “Under the guidelines set by the federal government, known as the ‘Safe City’ strategy, we need to separate pedestrians and the traffic. So we try to put the walkways further from the road to avoid snatch thieves and accidents,” says Cheah. Using natural elements such as roadside trees – and railings when trees and space are not available – a buffer zone is created between the road and the walkway.

Moving forward, a further 3.9km of walkway upgrading at certain parts of the island, worth RM3.12mil, is set to kick off this month. “We’ll finish whatever we couldn’t last year at Jalan Kelawai, roughly from the junction of Bagan Jermal to Medan Lim Cheng Teik,” says Cheah. Upgrading will be done at Lorong Leandros and from Lorong Bangkok to Jalan Pangkor as well.

Double lines and no stopping signs do not deter errant motorists and motorcyclists from parking along Jalan Burmah.

However, cars parking on the pavements, thus blocking accessibility, are a major problem. “That is what the bollards are for,” says Addnan. “Even so, it doesn’t stop motorcyclists from riding on the walkways. They pose a hazard to pedestrians.” It is hoped that with public education, motorcyclists will stick to the roads. Also, cars parked on both sides of Jalan Burmah cause congestion, especially during meal times when, despite the many signs signalling that the stretch is a clamping zone, people stop to eat or buy their meals – regardless of the irritation they cause. While enforcement is necessary to counter this, people’s mindsets also need to change: “There are a lot of parking areas around Pulau Tikus, really,” says Cheah. “People just need to walk a bit.” With the friendlier pavements, it is hoped that they will.

On top of that, it’s now easier to get around Pulau Tikus, thanks to the free shuttle bus operated by Rapid Penang.

For many living in the area, this is a convenient way to travel. A survey done by Penang Institute revealed that there are relatively more senior citizens – those going to the market or running their errands – using the bus in the mornings. Tan Kak Kee, 65, a pensioner who takes the bus once or twice a week, finds this to be very convenient; he was on his way to the bank when we talked to him.

In the afternoons, there are more students and employees. Marie Teoh, 25, works in sales at Gurney Plaza and was on her way home. She takes the bus three to four times a week, and while she too finds this convenient, she would like to see the current route extended – which might actually become a reality; Yap mentions a survey started in early July to collect suggestions for bus routes and improvements.

And while the upgraded pavements and free shuttle bus certainly help people living in Pulau Tikus to move around – therefore reducing car use – there is still the problem of Jalan Kelawai turning into a chokehold during rush hour. To alleviate this problem, a one-way system was implemented in July 2013. “We had a trial period of three months,” says Addnan, “and it seemed to work well. Now it’s even better, with some road widening and the creation of traffic lights at the crossroads of Jalan Macalister and Lebuhraya Codrington. We’ve done some fine-tuning, for example reversing the flow on service roads such as the one in front of Bellisa Row.

“The one-way system has increased road capacity; previously, (on Jalan Kelawai) there was only one lane for motorists to use to head towards Tanjung Tokong. Now there are more lanes for cars. We cannot widen roads anymore because of the trees, which on Jalan Kelawai itself are taking up two lanes.”

The future looks even better. “There is a plan (to create dedicated bicycle lanes) from Tanjung Bungah going to the airport within the next five years or so. We will connect Pulau Tikus to Komtar,” says Addnan.

It’s not just about the hard infrastructure – it’s also about getting people to cycle. “We have got a bicycle programme coming up where we’re going to conduct classes for women who haven’t been cycling for many years but are interested in getting on the bike again,” says Yap. “The classes are aimed at helping them get comfortable on a bike, maybe matching them with a right bike, guiding them on what to look out for on the road and safe cycling ethics.”

Pocket park at Lengkok Burmah. According to Yap, there is emphasis on reintroducing the community to the concept of public spaces.

Pedestrian walkway along Jalan Kelawai, equipped with tactile paving.

A holistic township

More infrastructures for walking and cycling – on top of the availability of nearby parks and recreation areas – will most certainly boost the health of the populace. And with round-the-clock food and retail services easily available, technically one does not really need to leave Pulau Tikus at all; education is covered from primary to tertiary level, and there are as many as six hospitals in the area with a handful of clinics, from general practitioners to skin specialists. There is also a number of popular pharmacies – Wellings and Guardian – and several health and beauty spas.

“We have it all!” says Yap, with a hint of pride. “Pulau Tikus has benefited historically because it was an affluent community – with the expats and everything else. The best schools are here, from St Christopher’s International Primary School to Penang Chinese Girls’ High School and St George’s Girls’ School. And then you have the hospitals… Whether you want to go shopping at a mall or at your local shop, go for some recreational activities at Youth Park or the Botanic Gardens, or just sit by the water at Persiaran Gurney and relax, it is all here.”

Despite its easily accessible amenities, there is one thing Yap would like to have more of, and that is to see more communal activities in the township. It all begins with reoccupying public spaces: “There is emphasis on reintroducing the community to the concept of public spaces – identifying pockets in the township where we can have activities and where people can hang out,” she explains.

And Yap is going to give Pulau Tikusians a reason to come out and gather, by arranging events at public spaces all around the township. First up is the Pulau Tikus Heritage Hunt, which will take place in the third week of September. “It’s more an effort to highlight to the public, whether local or international, the heritage and culture that is present in Pulau Tikus.”

Next up is the Pulau Tikus Festival, slotted for November, which will be held in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Pulau Tikus market. Yap has already tried her hand at organising festivities for the community, with the Pulau Tikus Night of Celebration to mark Chinese New Year earlier this year as one good example. “Things like the Pulau Tikus Festival and the other activities that we had in public spaces is to get people to come back and do things, take part in their public spaces and be in the open and in the community.”

Apart from festivities, it’s about public amenities and the desirability of the space as well. “We have a few other plans coming up, such as installing benches and identifying public spaces that can be livened up and made more attractive with art installations and such. These would be new concepts to the community, so we will start with baby steps and put in temporary installations and see the public’s reaction later this year.”

Yap helping a child with his safety helmet during the Pulau Tikus Bicycle Training programme, where children receive a bicycle of their choice and learn to ride bicycles safely on the roads.

Come vacation time, school holiday programmes are available for the children in the community. “For the last two years we have successfully been running school holiday programmes. We had an English club where the focus was about helping kids be comfortable with English; they were just singing, playing and reciting poetry and nursery rhymes in English,” says Yap. “We also had a robotics club, a mad scientist programme… I think it’s about working out what kids are interested in now and catering to that need.”

The programmes are held at the Pulau Tikus community halls in Kampung Herriot and Jalan Cantonment, where other activities, such as line dancing classes, also take place. The community hall at Kampung Herriot also doubles as a free medical clinic that runs every Wednesday afternoon from 4.30pm- 6.30pm, during which two general physicians and two physiotherapists are on hand to treat the public. “Commonly used medications are there, and we also offer free transport to get to the clinic and back,” says Yap, who wants to popularise the use of the halls by organising more activities there.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Besides reviving the use of public spaces, there are other forms of changes taking place in Pulau Tikus – changes that perhaps can’t be controlled by any one individual.

“The biggest impact probably in Pulau Tikus is the skyline, with some of the new condominiums coming up. Also, the repeal of the rent control act has affected the shophouses that used to be the heart of the township – businesses there are struggling with increasing rental,” Yap admits.

Pulau Tikus Market scene.

And there are other things beyond her control as well: “The culture in Penang has changed – it’s not just about going to kopitiams anymore, it’s about cafes. It’s a Penang-wide culture that has affected the local businesses here. How people move has changed as well; again, this is Penang-wide – in the past there were trishaws, and more people walked and took the bus. How people shop has changed too; people used to go to sundry shops to buy their cooking oil – now they go to hypermarkets. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a bad thing – we just need to continue evolving. And I see that Pulau Tikus is evolving.”

Yap has made concentrated efforts to preserve the shophouses in Pulau Tikus. While not all will survive the changes – on top of the onslaught of GST implementation and rising rent – perhaps a few just might. “I’m in constant communication with the businesses here. Helping them promote their businesses and organising the Pulau Tikus Festival are partly to attract more attention to Pulau Tikus and to bring back customers,” says Yap.

If the idea is to raise awareness of the availability of these shops, then Yap has just the method for that: “We have published the Pulau Tikus map – the first ever map that shows where all the bus stops are, where the bus routes go and where all the eateries and services are in the area. This map is placed in all the hotels in Penang and at the airport. This is to help visitors to Penang; they’ll not only know how to get to George Town, they’ll also know how to come to Pulau Tikus.”

And while clearly not all is peachy in the township – the Siamese village, the last of its kind in Penang, faces demolition to make way for a hotel – it is perhaps the strong community bond that will keep it intact, as it has for many, many years. It is something that should be treasured and cultivated – be it through the use of public spaces or better walkability. “A lot of the people who still live here and have their businesses here know each other,” says Yap.

“The community ties in Pulau Tikus are strong.”

 

1 Church of the Immaculate Conception Pulau Tikus, Penang: Bicentennial Celebration 1811- 2011, Penang: Parish Council of the Church of Immaculate Conception, 2011.
2 Ibid.
3 Pulau Tikus is literally translated as “Mouse Island” from Malay to English.
4 Geografica, and Penang Heritage Trust, Pulau Tikus Revitalisation Plan: Spatial Planning Framework, 2014, Penang.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.

The writer would like to specially thank Chang Jia Ying, who diligently did the survey on the Pulau Tikus free shuttle bus loop.



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