Kampung Melayu – Preserving Tradition amid Change
History resides in many hidden corners of Penang. You just have to seek them out.
Deep within Air Itam is a community rich with historic and religious significance – Kampung Melayu. The village rose to prominence in the 1870s when Sheikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy settled in the area. Sheikh Omar is remembered for enlightening the Malay community there with the famous Islamic Sufi stream “Tarekat Nashqabandiyyah”. He taught at the Jamek Al-Qadrie mosque, which soon became the centre for religious education for the community.
According to records in the Penang Museum, during the Penang riots of 1867, heads of Malay families were made to swear to Sheikh Omar that they did not support the secret societies then feuding with one another. Sheikh Omar passed away in 1881 and was interned in a majestic mausoleum next to his house in Kampung Melayu. His legacy of religious teaching was continued by his two sons: Sheikh Zakaria, who was appointed the first mufti of Penang; and his elder brother Sheikh Yahya, who became the first kadi in 1888.
“Most young people do not know about the pioneers of Kampung Melayu, such as Sheikh Omar,” says Md Ariffin Abidin, fondly known as Pak Pin, the chairman of Kampung Melayu’s Village Development and Security Committee. According to him, the contributions of Sheikh Omar are still remembered and honoured by the older generations in Kampung Melayu today.
It was in 1945, after the Second World War, that the British gazetted the settlement for the Malay community and the village was thereafter known as Kampung Melayu. Two decades later in 1966 a low-cost housing project was built, known as “Rumah Seratus Kampung Melayu”.
Decades after the housing project was completed, the average income of the Malay community in Kampung Melayu is still low, says Pak Pin. “The question is how the community here benefits from all the development. Indeed, we all need the development; but it must be balanced.
“On top of that, the preservation of culture and history should be taken seriously. Some people glorify money without being concerned about maintaining the cultural and historical identity of Kampung Melayu. The spirit of togetherness is gone,” he laments, citing how previously, residents would seek each other’s help in preparing for an event such as a wedding. Now, they prefer to hire caterers and sub-contractors. “People come only to give money, eat, then leave.” He also feels that the state government could do more to preserve and highlight the historical monuments and cultural identity of Kampung Melayu. Should development be too rapid, the monuments would be overshadowed.
Zainab, a Kampung Melayu inhabitant and wife of the owner of the famed restaurant Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu, thinks differently: “Every year we still hold Hari Raya open house among the flat residents. Kampung Melayu is not much different now. Maybe it’s livelier with all the hawkers, and the scenery has changed from rubber trees to the flats. There is good and bad from all the development: air pollution is getting worse due to the increase in vehicles, but the upside is our business is advancing; people easily know the location of our restaurant.”
Indeed, every morning, Flat Kampung Melayu bursts with activity. People come for breakfast and some shopping; residents mingle with hawkers and visitors in a symphony of interaction. And at the heart of all this is Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu. The eatery, which opened in the 1970s, is an iconic Kampung Melayu landmark, appearing in various articles and television shows such as TV3’s popular “Jalan-Jalan Cari Makan” programme.
The reason behind its popularity?
“The specialities of this restaurant are the freshness of meat, chicken and fish, and the originality of the spice and herb blend,” says Zainab. The love for nasi kandar surpasses race and religion, political beliefs and – according to a Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu regular – even football club affiliations.
The dynamic social relationship among Kampung Melayu residents is part of the unique identity that makes up Penang. While the state develops by leaps and bounds, the village retains its proud sense of heritage – tradition existing alongside modernism.