A walk on the Cheapside


Located in the heart of the George Town World Heritage Site, Lorong Cheapside is both a tightly knit innercity community and a place to buy hardware. As the city continues to evolve, Cheapside residents and traders are trying to negotiate change in this historic neighbourhood.

Blink and you’ll miss it. Locksmiths and hardware shops obscure the entrance to a narrow alley just off the bustling Lebuh Chulia. Taking its name from a market street in London, Cheapside is George Town’s hardware lane1. While the one in London has its origins in the Middle Ages, Penang’s Cheapside got its name in the 1920s2.

For decades, this has been the go-to place to get keys cut, locks changed and knives sharpened, or to buy just about anything one might need for home repairs. Behind the stalls, a row of shophouses accommodates local traders and their warehouses. Each doorway offers glimpses of life on this lane: yellowing labels peel off drawers stocked with drill bits; a young woman waves joss sticks before an altar on the five-footway; faded wedding photographs hang on a lintel; a child’s height is marked in pencil on a rough plaster wall.

In the day, the lane hums with the sound of machinery. Thousands of keys and metal parts glint in the noonday sun. At night, hawkers descend on the mouth of Cheapside, plying passers-by with piping hot bowls of curry mee and glasses of fresh fruit juice. Bazaar-like and vigorously mercantile, Cheapside is a deliciously tangible reminder of an older George Town: a working – and unapologetically working class – town.

Loh Eng Khoon is a second generation Cheapside locksmith. He grew up on Cheapside and learned the trade from his father. His family has lived at No. 11 for 80 years.

Loh Eng Khoon cuts keys from a stall set up right on the edge of Lebuh Chulia, unfazed by the endless traffic roaring by. Across the road, backpackers and young locals sip lattes on the five-footway, gazing out onto the street. Loh smiles as he cuts a key, reshaping the metal with sharp, elegant strokes while a customer watches from the sidelines.

Loh learned the trade from his father, who was also a locksmith. His family has been a Cheapside institution for the better part of a century, having lived and worked on that spot for 80 years. Though he barely speaks any English, Loh manages to communicate with his diverse clientele. As he works, it is clear that he is in his element; his many years’ experience are evident in the way he is able to chat with all and sundry while deftly cutting keys.

Loh, who lives at No. 11, has recently been given an eviction notice . So have the tenants of Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 – all of which are on the same title. According to Loh, the owner intends to sell. While he is currently trying to extend his lease, he says he is likely to be gone by mid-year.

“Where will you go?” I ask, “Who will you stay with?” He laughs. “I have no family, nowhere to go,” he replies, his manner disarmingly laid-back given the circumstances. Still smiling, he goes back to cutting keys, his hands dancing nimbly to the soundtrack of Lebuh Chulia’s traffic. I thank him for his time before moving on. He smiles again and waves. Against the hulking mass of a bus that rushes past, he seems very small.

I walk down to the end of the lane. On the way, I pass Lean Seng Electrical, whose owner, Quah, has also been served an eviction notice. Just before the row of houses, I reach Syarikat Chooi Tee, one of Cheapside’s larger hardware shops that seem to swell into the lane through ramshackle extensions. The shop belongs to the Yeoh family, who uses No. 1 Cheapside as a warehouse and lives at No. 7. The family is very much the backbone of the neighbourhood, and they are concerned about its future.

Quah, owner of Lean Seng Electrical, rents No. 9 Lorong Cheapside. He has recently received an eviction letter.

I duck into their shop to speak to them. Chooi Tee is a study in organised chaos. Packed shelves draw your eyes up to the ceiling; a shaft of light cuts through the darkness of the shop at an angle. The space is more Aladdin’s cave than hardware store. Madame Khoo – a relative of the proprietors – sits at the table counting money and chatting with the neighbours. Her throaty laughter holds its own against the ever-present whirr of machinery. Yeoh Ah Phong, the shop’s owner, barks an order in Hokkien; a worker acknowledges a delivery in Tamil. Here is George Town’s quotidian multiculturalism as a living, breathing thing.

“We live here,” says Yeoh. His daily commute comprises just a few short steps from No. 7. “We’ll have to drive in if we move,” he says. He is not looking forward to the traffic. They are particularly worried about what a move will mean for his elderly mother – the family matriarch – who enjoys her proximity to the shop, her friends and her neighbours. It is for her sake that they are keen to stay in Cheapside for as long as possible.

A jumble of wires, keys and electrical goods, Lean Seng Electrical is one of a number of shops that gives Cheapside its distinctive character.

Heights marked on the wall at No. 7 Lorong Cheapside. The neighbourhood holds a wealth of both tangible and intangible heritage.

As the city reorients itself towards new industries – and tourism in particular – patterns of property use are changing dramatically. Shops supplying practical sundry items and basic necessities are giving way to food and beverage outlets, gift shops and entertainment venues. You can easily buy fair trade coffee and works of art in inner city George Town, but it is increasingly hard to find a pharmacy or a light bulb.

As longer-term residents give way to a transient population of tourists and sojourning workers, the viability of more mundane, practical businesses decreases. But as daily necessities become harder to come by, living in the city becomes more inconvenient, and the suburbs start to look like a more attractive place to live – particularly for young families and the elderly. Left unchecked, the squeeze on what remains of the inner city’s residential population will continue.

Things are being done to counter this trend. Following public outcry over a spate of recent evictions , Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced his commitment to refurbish six shophouses on Lebuh Kimberley owned by the city council for housing traditional traders 3. Proposed as a joint venture between the Penang state government, Penang Island City Council (MBPP), George Town World Heritage Incorporated, Think City and the Penang Heritage Trust, the project potentially marks a new milestone in cooperation between city, state and civil society4. If done right, with sufficient consultation and engagement with local residents and stakeholders, the plan is a step in the right direction.

Time seems to stand still at No. 7 Lorong Cheapside, but change is coming.

However, unless more is done to relieve the pressure on inner-city housing, then the population will continue to dwindle. New approaches to social housing in the inner city must be considered. Until recently, commercial ventures have seemed to take priority in redeveloping dilapidated properties, but it is clear there is now a worrying deficit of affordable inner city housing. The question is how to make such measures viable in the long run for both the state and its citizens.

Heritage guidelines can help. When finally gazetted, the Special Area Plan (SAP) – a document required by Unesco as part of the city’s World Heritage Listing – could potentially be a powerful tool for authorities to manage the direction to be taken. Earlier this year, Penang state executive councillor in charge of local government Chow Kon Yeow highlighted the SAP’s potential use in sensitively managing development:

Any particular activity will have to conform to the plan, which will also ensure that there will not be too many of the same activity going on. The control the state can exercise to try to balance progress and heritage conservation in the heritage city is at the planning and development stages, using the SAP 5.

A worker speaks to a customer at Syarikat Chooi Tee. The street is a hub of lively commercial activity – a living, working community.

Inside the Syarikat Chooi Tee office and warehouse at No. 1 Lorong Cheapside.

Residential overlays, which are part of the draft SAP, could help protect the city’s remaining residential neighbourhoods – and residents. If they are to be effective, however, these residential overlays will require strong enforcement.

For all its shabbiness, Cheapside, whose residents live and work here, is a model of the city as it should be – a living community. How long it remains one is another matter. The Yeohs assure me that Syarikat Chooi Tee will continue trading for now, even if they are forced to live further out. Loh, however, says he is unlikely to return. After 80 years, his family’s role in the neighbourhood looks set to end with him.

Residential overlays, which are part of the draft SAP, could help protect the city’s remaining residential neighbourhoods – and residents.

For the time being, Cheapside continues to provide George Town’s residents with hardware supplies. It may be a number of years yet before inner city residents have to turn to the supersized hardware stores of Penang’s suburban malls.


1 Wong Chun Wai, “Streets named after places in England remind the British of home”, The Star, April 27, 2013 (URL: www.thestar.com.my/ Story/?file=/2013/4/27/central/13020431).
2 Khoo Salma Nasution (2014), The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786–1957, Penang: Areca Books, 281, 288.</p>
3 “Renovation plan to breathe new life into six shophouses”, The Star, February 9, 2015 (URL: http:// www.thestar.com.my/Metro/Community/2015/02/09/Restoring-vintage-charm-Renovation-plan-tobreathe- new-life-into-six-shophouses/
4 Ibid.
5 “Penang’s cooling measure on properties has limited effect, says exco”, The Malaysian Insider, January 28, 2015 (URL: www. themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/ penangs-cooling-measure-on-properties-haslimited- effect-says-exco#sthash.14IHqZyo. dpuf). Chow has continued to highlight the SAP’s potential to act as “another form of development control”, stating that “the council will have to look at the SAP on top of other guidelines when it processes (planning) applications.” The Star, March 12, 2015, p. 10.

Soon-Tzu Speechley studied History and Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is now an editor and research assistant at Areca Books, a member of the Penang Heritage Trust and a shaper at the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community George Town Hub.

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