Old shops face new realities


Change has been coming to Pulau Tikus, as it has in most other places. A few old businesses survive – and some are even thriving – in the changing landscape.

Pulau Tikus is one of the upmarket districts in Penang. A fair amount of bungalows, colonial buildings and highend condominiums is located in the area, alongside commercial buildings like Burmah House and Belissa Row.

But changes have been coming, as they have everywhere else on the island. Being an old district, Pulau Tikus is home to many old-world small businesses, some of which have existed for well over half a century. Penang Monthly speaks to three such establishments about the history behind their businesses and the realities that they face.

Khoo San Hoe.

1. The local medical hall

Occupying a double-storey shophouse along Jalan Burmah, Ban San Hoe is a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop. It was established in 1950 by Khoo Yun On, a Chinese seafarer who arrived in Penang from southern China in the late 19th century and, knowing that there weren’t many such shops within the district, decided to open one.

The business is now bequeathed to his eldest son, Khoo San Hoe. The 55-year-old is also a traditional Chinese physician. “Our business’s main key to survival, aside from ensuring the efficacy of the herbs, is to establish a good rapport with our customers,” he says. He strongly emphasises the importance of creating and maintaining a good relationship with each of his customers. And it is by putting such a simple philosophy to practice that the business has managed to endure for so long.

However, things aren’t looking too peachy: “Everything is fast-paced now. The generation today tends to avoid TCM as it is a tedious process; they are mostly inclined to take Western medicine when they are feeling unwell as it works a lot faster,” says San Hoe.

And due to further unfavourable circumstances, the medical hall might close its doors for good in the coming months. “If it weren’t for the high rent and the GST, I’d be willing to keep the shop going for a few more years, honestly. I am only 55 years old; I do not want to retire this early,” says San Hoe. “It is also unfortunate that I am unable to find a successor. In this time and age, I feel that TCM is no longer viable.”

But for the time being, it’s business as usual for the medical hall, as customers pop in for their dose of herbs and oils for their aches and ailments.

Biscuits galore. Neoh and his wife packing biscuits for a customer.

2. The trusty biscuit shop

Famed for its wide range of traditional confectioneries, Ban Joo Lee Biscuits has a history stretching back to 1964. Regarded as one of the oldest Chinese biscuit shops in the area, it also doubles as a provision shop.

“My father bought the shophouse for investment purposes actually. We, the children, were the ones who built this business. We are also still living upstairs,” says Neoh Eng Tek, the 65-year-old owner of the establishment.

Neoh Eng Tek.

“Before traditional biscuits, we were actually known for our belacan.” But more than that, they have maintained a strong focus on basic business ethics and proved how honesty is indeed the best policy in fostering corporate longevity. “When it comes to maintaining a business, I believe that it is highly important to stay honest to your customers. Honesty creates trust,” says Neoh.

Despite competition from all the novelties in desserts that are around nowadays, there are still a handful of customers coming in to purchase traditional Chinese confectioneries. “People are still returning to the shop for the biscuits, perhaps out of nostalgia. You rarely see shops selling traditional confectioneries anymore – what more at such a low price,” says Neoh.

But that business isn’t as brisk as before: “You don’t see the young coming to the shop for traditional confectionaries.”

And there’s the problem of a successor. “Not many people are interested. I guess I will just keep the business running for as long as it can. I am advanced in years anyway,” discloses Neoh, who has been in this trade for over 50 years.

The interior of TanMark Book Centre, where revision books of all kinds can be found.

3. A thriving book centre

Many brick-and-mortar retailers have been hit by online retail, and bookshops are no exception. Furthermore, the Internet is radically changing reading habits. But according to Mark Ee Wong, the dedicated owner of TanMark Book Centre, book trading is still feasible in Malaysia.

Founded in 1978, TanMark Book Centre is located along Jalan Burmah. It stocks various academic workbooks and reference books that cater to students at all levels, ranging from primary to tertiary.

“As I was already familiar with book trading, I decided to establish a business I could call my own,” says Mark. “Pulau Tikus was already quite a well-known area, businesses of all sorts were situated here, and there were schools in the area as well. I thought it was a strategic location and decided to set up shop here.”

In spite of the popularity of e-books and the availability of mobile educational applications, the bookshop has managed to keep afloat. “Although there is a slight decline in book sales, we are still surviving. That’s because we serve a niche market and we are always importing more books to keep customers coming back,” says Mark. “Maintain the bookshop and have more varieties of books – that is what I intend to do in the coming years.”

Mark Ee Wong.

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