Penang Monthly

Brought to you by

PENANG INSTITUTE

An indulgent treat at 'sor-b t\.

Feature

The Common Ice Cream Goes Upmarket

Frozen desserts are so popular and so mainstream that they often go unnoticed. Penang Monthly takes a look at some of the ice cream joints in Penang and at the cool factor they carry.

Penang may be famous for its hot food, but let us not forget its fabulous desserts. Its ice kacang and cendol are often included in top ten lists of all sorts. But most interestingly, the dear old ice cream is being rediscovered – and definitely evolving.

Kek Seng Cafe: A Taste that Remains the Same

Established in 1906 and still sporting the sturdy wooden booths and tiles of its inception, Kek Seng Cafe started welcoming hawkers into its premises from the mid-1960s, eventually becoming one of the best and most well-known spots for hawker fare in town.

Kek Seng Cafe owner Cheow Sow Lei, 50, at the coffee shop on Jalan Penang.

“I’m not exactly sure when the coffee shop started making ice cream, but during my grandfather-in-law’s time here in the 1950s, they were already selling it,” says cafe owner Cheow Sow Lei. “During that time, there were no hawker stalls in the shop. They were just offering ice cream, cake and maybe ais kacang, so people would come at tea time. We had durian ice cream, corn, chocolate and rose. These are the four flavours we still have today,” Cheow adds.

The ice cream was first made by hand, and then with an electrical contraption that was a mess of gears and motors. “That machine was used here for more than 30 years. It was only two years ago that I bought the current modern machine,” she says. The RM20,000 contraption now cranks out a seven litre tub of the creamy dessert in just 25 minutes, after which the ice cream sets in the freezer for at least two hours.

Set atop of a dish of ais kacang or ordered a la carte at RM3.20 for two scoops, the smooth texture and taste of its ice cream has made Kek Seng Cafe renowned beyond Penang’s borders. “My recipe comes from my moyang (forefathers); perhaps it’s different from other recipes. It may be the temperature; it’s important for it to be very cool when the ice cream spins. We use only natural ingredients – no chemicals except for the rose essence in our rose ice cream. We don’t store the ice cream for long because that can make the texture very rough,” she says.
 
 

Kek Seng Cafe's famous durian ice cream goes hand-in-hand with its homemade jelly and ais kacang.

Cheow goes on to say that the coffee shop sells 50 to 60 bowls of ais kacang on good days – impressive by current standards but a far cry from the cafe’s heydays in the 1980s when over 100 bowls were served daily. Facing stiff competition from the other eateries in George Town nowadays, Cheow says the future of Kek Seng Cafe is unclear. One of her daughters, who recently started university, has learned the ropes (and the durian ice cream secrets) and the choice of taking over the business in the future is hers to make.

As for Cheow, the long hours at the coffee shop (Kek Seng Cafe is open from 8.30am to 5.30pm daily) have become an established routine and she finds joy in being able to carry on her family’s tradition. “People come for the ice cream and after tasting it, say it is just like how they remember it 20 years ago. That’s what makes me very happy – to do things as well as my ancestors did.”

Maxim’s Cake: Making the Grade

Just over a decade ago, Maxim Yaw Ming Keng, who is now 63 years old, and his eldest son took a study tour to Italy. The cake business in Penang was proving competitive and the head of Maxim’s Cakes knew he needed something different in order to maintain an edge over his competitors.

Maxim, who once sold safes to goldsmiths, pawn shops and hotels all across Penang and Taiping, has never been one to shy away from change. After observing coffee houses in hotels while attending companysponsored courses and seminars, Maxim dove head first into the cake business in 1979 after sales in the security line could no longer pay the bills.

His wife and two sons gradually joined him in the business, investing in ice cream machines and making their own products. “There were a lot of mistakes. We were eating the same ice cream every day! We had no broad knowledge about our own product. On top of that, we could hardly get the ingredients we needed in Penang, so we had to search in KL and Singapore. We finally found one supplier who could offer us ice cream flavours from Italy and he connected us with a factory in Bologna,” Maxim says.

Maxim Yaw (right) and his eldest son Jason at Maxim's Cake's Upper Penang Road branch.

Maxim's Cakes also offers a line of handmade Gelato Stecco.

 
 
 
 

His son, Jason Yaw Terng Hoe, 34, says the main purpose of their two-week trip was to confirm that their methods were correct. “We started trying to make ice cream around 2003 and in 2005, we went to Italy to make sure we were doing everything right. What we learned was that we were doing everything wrong!” he says with a good-natured laugh.

The duo learned the A-to-Z of ice cream making, tweaked the recipes to suit local flavours and rolled out new products. “We started very, very slowly and the first thing we did was to change all the ice cream in our cakes to gelato,” Jason says.

The idea worked and with hard work and constant experimentation with bold flavours like After Eight mint chocolates, Snickers, Kit Kat, Milo and D24 durians along with an array of fruit, Maxim’s cake gelato has become a household name in Penang. Now, each of the cake house’s three outlets at Jalan Penang, Upper Penang Road and Jalan Van Praagh boasts at least 15 different gelato flavours along with a selection of Gelato Stecco.

“Anybody can make ice cream, but to maintain it is the hardest part and that was the secret we learned in Italy,” Maxim says.

'sor-b t\: Thirst-quenching Indulgences

The recent renewal of George Town has opened up bright new possibilities for young entrepreneurs. One of them is 32-year-old William Gooi, who stumbled across the idea of a sorbet business while planning a dinner party at home: “One of our guests was lactose intolerant and we thought that sorbet would be pretty nice as a dessert. One thing led to another and we made the decision to turn it into a full-fledged business,” William says.

That was how 'sor-bət\ was born. This was in the middle of last year. “One of the challenges we had in the beginning was setting up the foundations for the business itself; for example, getting the suppliers and distributors. Luckily, we have great friends and family who helped us connect with some key contacts and we were able to grow from there,” the former advisory services manager says.

'sor-bət\ now supplies its tangy sweet treats to a small handful of cafes in Penang and KL, and caters to individual orders and events through their website www.sor-bet.com. “We have two ranges: Quench and Indulge. The first is generally fruit-based while the second is infused with alcohol in addition to the fruit base. We try to put a Malaysian twist to the flavours we create and go through a fair bit of experimentation in creating our recipes. For example, our most popular flavour so far is Asian Lemonade, which is made with barley and lime,” William says.

'sor-bət\ is essentially a family business, with William’s sister Melissa Gooi and his partner Heng Charng Yee making up the rest of the team. Melissa is the creative brain taking care of most of the promotional material, logos and designs. Heng, who works full-time in the semiconductor industry, is the business heart and taste tester-in-chief while William does the bulk of production work, handling much of the finances and pretty much “everything else”.

Maxim's Cakes also offers a line of handmade Gelato Stecco.

“What’s great about starting something of our own is that we have a free hand in most, if not all, of the decisions surrounding the business. There is an immense sense of satisfaction from building a brand of our own,” William says.

 
 
 

The Safe Room: Sub-zero Delights

On Lebuh Campbell, inside a goldsmith shop that once served locals and visitors, there is a small room with a thick reinforced door where jewelled ornaments and gilded masterpieces were once kept secure.

Advertisement

Maxim's Cakes also offers a line of handmade Gelato Stecco.

Maxim's Cakes also offers a line of handmade Gelato Stecco.

Syed Aidid bin Datuk Syed Mohamad expounds on the heritage value of the site where he now operates a unique dessert cafe. “Our premises used to be those of a proud goldsmith for a century before we converted it into a cafe. The name “The Safe Room” derives from an actual safe room used to store jewellery in the premise. It would have been a pity to destroy such a remarkable heritage space; therefore, we left the safe room intact – including its original armoured door – and decided to design the cafe around it,” says Syed Aidid, who co-owns the space with his partner Candy Ang Pei Shan.

What makes The Safe Room stand out is its nitrogen ice cream. Be it dragonfruit, jackfruit, kiwi or the other fresh, seasonal flavours on offer, patrons delight in the preparation of the freezing treats almost as much as in their consumption.

“As liquid nitrogen is -196 degrees Celsius, any liquid that comes in contact with it will instantly freeze. The uniqueness is that the ice cream does not crystallise. This is what delivers the right consistency and preserves the natural vitamins of the fruits in the ice cream.

“We also wanted to harness the abundance of fresh fruits that we could source from the local fruit wholesaler located a few doorsteps away. Every one of our fruit ice creams is cut and blended to order and even the coffee and chocolate ones are freshly blended or brewed right before being made into ice cream. We wanted to market the Safe Room as the freshest ice cream that you can find,” Syed Aidid says.

New flavours and products are introduced roughly every two months, but the cafe’s bedrock of coconut ice cream remains Syed Aidid’s personal favourite. “We try to capture the spirit of Penang with this ice cream by serving it in its original coconut shell. This ice cream is truly Penang – rough around the edges, but fresh and wholesome,” he says.

Mulgogi Dessert: A Korean-Inspired Creation

In Seberang Jaya, Shirlyn and Su, the dynamic duo behind Mulgogi Dessert, have staked their claim in the busy Sunway Carnival Mall. “There are a lot of ice cream choices in George Town. Perai is less competitive and we wanted to give people on the mainland something that is not available anywhere else in Penang,” says the duo.

They explain that the idea of the distinct fish-shapeddelights came after a trip to South Korea. “We were amazed by the variety of desserts available there. Bungeoppang, one of the most popular desserts in Korea, caught our attention. The conventional bungeoppang is a crispy waffle-like snack in a fish shape, with sweet red bean filling. Bungeoppang then evolved into fish-shaped waffles stuffed with ice cream and a variety of fillings,” Su and Shirlyn say.

Mulgogi Dessert's creations are an interesting twist on Japanese-inspired soft serve desserts.

After talking to several dessert houses in Korea, the pair learned the basic skills of how to make the treats. With an arsenal of secret ingredients and up-to-date ideas, Mulgogi Dessert opened for business just before the start of the year.

“‘Mulgogi’ means fish in Korea. Since we specialise in making fish-shaped desserts, this name was definitely the best choice and it is easy for Malaysians to pronounce,” the pair say. They add that soft serve, which is generally made by introducing air during the freezing process, is smoother and lighter than traditional ice cream.

Mulgogi Dessert’s menu seems clear cut with three main offerings, though each contains quite a list of added treasures. “Mulgogi Ice Cream”, for example, is soft serve in a hot and crispy fish-shaped waffle but also contains a sweet filling, a Pepero cookie stick and either a popcorn or cream cookie topping.

As for flavours, this kiosk goes back to basics with just two choices. “We have chocolate and green tea. Green tea is good for the health and you can hardly find green tea soft serve ice cream in Penang. Chocolate increases the production of ‘happy’ hormones in our body much like laughing does,” say Shirlyn and Su.

If the blossoming ice cream scene in Penang is anything to go by, there’s a lot for everyone to be happy about.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Perspectives

Malaysia’s music industry – Let’s make it real

The art industry can be developed into a job creator. All it needs is for us to imagine ways of doing it – together

I have always thought of our national economy as an apple crumble – it looks nice and solid on the outside, but is in fact soft and gooey on the inside. And there is the overwhelming sense that it is probably somewhat nutty. I've felt for the longest time that our economy seems geared towards making some very few people extremely rich and making a lot more people work long hours for very little pay under the constant crack of credit debt whips.

Advertisement

Now, that makes no sense to me. Is it not a better idea to have more people with more disposable income to spend on local businesses in their community than to have a few people with a lot of disposable income doing their shopping overseas? You won’t see as many Bentleys in Bukit Bintang, but it would help build economic security, social mobility and solid local businesses.

The reason I am bringing this up is because this seems to be the overarching pattern shaping the many industries in our economy, including the Art Industry.

The Art Industry is an umbrella term that covers an array of different disciplines. A while ago, the term was used to describe art objects produced through industrial methods, for example a mass-produced but eye-catching coffee table. You might even be familiar with visual arts and theatre. In recent times, it has come to denote the businesses providing products and services based on artistic disciplines, such as the music industry, interior design industry, etc. These businesses can be large or small, as long as their goal is to sell products (such as music albums) or provide services (such as home interior design).

You may or may not be too familiar with the local art industry, but if your general impression is that things are not good, you would be quite right. To be honest, most of my own experience comes from the music industry; from businesses concerned with the creation, distribution, marketing and sales of music-related products and services. Now, when the music industry is mentioned, most people immediately think of multinational labels such as EMI or BMG, but the music industry also involves a host of smaller local businesses, owned and operated by Malaysians.

The artist and the economy

Let’s focus on the art of music, since most of my work and observations are primarily from this area. Let's start by calling a spade a spade. Do you need music to breathe? No. Will it improve your credit rating with the World Bank? Not unless the US President is a big fan.

How then has music survived natural selection? Why does humanity as a species, regardless of geography or economic and social background, continue to make music? Why do we spend our hard-earned cash to buy music or concert tickets?

Kelvyn Yeang of local fusion band Ocean of Fire playing during IndiePG 2013, a platform for musicians outside mainstream venues. Perhaps the local music industry needs more platforms like this for musicians to prove themselves. Kelvyn Yeang of local fusion band Ocean of Fire playing during IndiePG 2013, a platform for musicians outside mainstream venues. Perhaps the local music industry needs more platforms like this for musicians to prove themselves.
 

The answer is simple: music does have a profound purpose. We all know that life is much more than simply breathing, eating, working and dying. We yearn for meaning and purpose. Music supplies that for many people. It is surprisingly prevalent – people listen to music all the time, almost during every single daily activity. I'm sure you're familiar with the basic economic idea of supply and demand. We know that there is a demand. Let's talk about the supply.

Imagine a situation where our demand for music is met by a supply of gifted, intellectual, influential and financially successful Malaysian musicians who do not only act as taste-makers, but culture creators. Imagine a Malaysian musical identity that is unique to us, and not copied from the US Billboard Top 40. Imagine exporting our talent overseas, becoming an influential cultural beacon in our region much like Taiwan, Japan, Korea and the US.

As mentioned earlier, the music industry is not just large multinationals, but also small businesses that together make up the entire value chain from pre-production to product delivery. Every musician needs an army of support staff to get their music from idea into physical or digital product, so just imagine the number of managers, promoters, photographers, visual media artists, videographers, producers, accountants, and other individuals and small business owners that would benefit from one successful musician. And the more successful the musician, the more people there are in employment and the better paid they are. The possibility of an industry that would gainfully employ thousands, even tens of thousands of Malaysians, the advantages of being a culture exporter, a robust and evolving identity. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Now let’s take a long hard look at the dismal state of our current affairs.

Forget about support staff; musicians can hardly make a decent living for themselves. Censorship is rampant and seemingly on a hair-pin trigger. We don't export culture – we import and re-write over our own. For example, a Malaysian artist of note is Yuna, but she had to finance her own way into the US market. Malaysian society largely does not know or care about its own musicians and music scene.

What went wrong?

To put it simply, we're not investing in our own potential. We seem content to pay premium prices for sub-par bubblegum pop imported from the US, but remain hesitant to invest in our local industry. But that is not the fault of the consumer completely. Our local music products are hampered not just by financial constraints, but intense scrutiny and censorship from politicians, among other things.

Abandon all hope? Not necessarily. I think it is possible for our music industry to thrive, but it will take some doing.

Malaysian artist Yuna. Malaysian artist Yuna.
 

Pathfinder

It is possible for the artist and musician not only to survive, but to thrive and flourish. And we will all reap the benefit from it. But how? I can unabashedly declare to you that I haven't the faintest idea, but I'm trying to figure it out. I'm making mistakes, but I'm also making some progress – slow, arduous and valuable progress. I mean to share the lessons I've learned and the observations I've made along the way, with hope that it will not only provide a better-worn path for those who come after me, but also inspire those who would walk that new and dangerous path with me.

I hope that this meditation has introduced you to my thought process and shone a tentative light on what solutions may be hiding under the bushes. I hope you will participate in the discussion. Then perhaps, together, we will beat a path to an undiscovered land few even dreamed existed.

But for now, I'd like some apple crumble.

Ksatriya is an eclectic poet and songwriter based in Penang. His debut album RED has received rave reviews, and he currently makes time between music and managing community arts and performance events on the island.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Feature

Canvassing nebulous memories

Memories, especially childhood ones, are elusive, and allowing an object from the past to reappear evokes complex feelings. Abstract artist Kate Hunt takes inspiration from this to paint a nostalgic, beautiful collection

In 2009, British artist Kate Hunt found herself producing paintings that featured a herringbone pattern as part of her collection named Uncover.

Sometime later, she was having an all too familiar parent-child quarrel with her daughter. She was complaining that her children were being unappreciative after all that they had been given, considering how much less their parents had during their own childhood. Her daughter pointed out that that was not quite true; her mother did indeed have a few important possessions from her childhood, including a beautiful heavy blanket. It was only then that Hunt realised that the old childhood blanket also featured a herringbone pattern.

For Hunt, this was remarkable. Her paintings, then, were attempts to bring childhood memories to the forefront of her consciousness. The blanket is one of the very few physical items that Hunt has managed to hold on to despite her and her family moving all around the world. It represented stability, a connection to her past. Perhaps her subconscious had already begun to set in motion a decision to return to her birthplace.

Hunt was born in Penang in 1951, the daughter of a chaplain in the British Royal Air Force. After spending the first two years of her life in Butterworth, her family moved to Sri Lanka and subsequently lived in the UK, Germany and the Middle East.

In November 2011, Hunt and her husband came back to Penang, armed with only a handful of old black and white photographs, to locate her former home and the hospital where she was born. Before the trip, Hunt’s memories of Penang were few and unsubstantial, and were often a blur of different places and different times: a product of having lived in so many homes and countries.

pic 34

People told her that if she went back to Penang, she wouldn’t find what she was looking for because it had changed so much over the years. But upon arrival, Hunt experienced déjà vu. She sensed familiarity and even recognised the area where her home had once stood although it had been knocked down some time ago to make way for railway tracks.

Along with her photos, blanket and other trinkets, Hunt now possessed what were previously submerged memories and, in her own words, “lost sensations of light, colour, touch and scent, new shapes and structures.”

Advertisement

Upon her return to the UK and between 2011 and 2013, Hunt began what she described to me as a purge of her memories and emotions, and in particular, the feeling of loss. The result was a new collection entitled …and in the pale light of the shadow, which was exhibited at China House’s Art Space throughout March. The collection, which consisted of 40 pieces, was the result of Hunt uncovering these childhood memories and emotions and her attempt to hold on to them for good.

Hunt uses the canvas as a meeting place between herself and the past. As she says, she “lets the painting reveal itself” and does not necessarily direct the outcome.

Hunt uses the canvas as a meeting place between herself and the past. As she says, she “lets the painting reveal itself” and does not necessarily direct the outcome. The pieces are abstract, but they often have a nod to the real, such as in Uncover II which features a staircase hiding within the layers of paint. Hunt has always been fascinated by dollhouses and has rationalised this as her way of creating a home in a life where she has moved to and from so many times. Similarly, she explains that in many pieces in the collection, she found herself creating borders, perhaps in an attempt to box in and contain the memories and emotions expressed in the centre of the piece.

The title for the exhibition comes from Junichiro Tanizaki, a popular Japanese author who wrote about Japanese architecture and aesthetics in the essay In Praise of Shadows, published in 1933. In Praise of Shadows discusses the importance of all things delicate and nuanced, things that are softened by shadows. He also wrote about his own ambitious project of building a home for himself, including the lengths he went to (such as custom-building a front door) to create just the right lighting and atmosphere, since he believed that this had a direct impact on his emotions, moods and wellbeing. He described, “Wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires an inexplicable power to calm and soothe.” What Tanizaki was saying, for me, is the importance of the home as a base and a nest in the most basic sense. Creating a nest in such meticulous detail as Tanizaki did, was important to him to gain a sense of peace.

When someone lives their life without a fixed nest, as Hunt has done, they can feel lost and disconnected. For me, this was the key message behind Hunt’s …and in the pale light of the shadow, and her paintings were a way of getting her memories down in a more tangible form.

pic 35

Hunt was also inspired by Marcel Proust, who described “finding a memory... (as) a creative act.” The past, for Proust, is “hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not…”

Perhaps, then, if Hunt had not kept that blanket, it may not have ignited a desire to reawaken her childhood memories and make her return to Penang. I, for one, am glad she did. Her work and her story were touching and thought provoking, and I am sure I am not alone in feeling this.

Maxine Carr is a research analyst at the Penang Institute.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Feature

Ballet illuminated!

pic 1

Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) is set to hit Penang on May 16 to perform classical to contemporary pieces. We caught up with SDT’s passionate senior artist and lifelong dancer, Chihiro Uchida, for a chat.

How early did you start dancing? Who or what inspired you to put on your dancing shoes?

I started taking ballet lessons when I was two-and-a-half years old. From the moment I could walk, I would dance in front of the TV with any music that was playing, so my mum thought of letting me put on my dancing shoes and attend class. I ended up loving it and have been doing it ever since.

You have been with the SDT for about nine years. Can you reveal the workings of SDT's artistic team?

Our company has dancers from all over the world. We normally work from 10am to 5.30pm five days a week. Once a month on Saturdays, we have studio showings for the public, and when we have performances, we are on stage Saturdays and Sundays as well. We rehearse for upcoming performances every day. It can be quite intensive, especially when we have to rehearse five to six different ballets in one day or rehearse for a full length ballet, but no matter how hard it may seem, it is always a joy to dance.

You are one of SDT's principal dancers, taking on various roles such as Odette/ Odile in Swan Lake and Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. How did you get to be here?

I am very lucky and grateful to have all my ballet coaches, senior dancers, dancing partners and colleagues, who have taught me so much. And of course, my family's support is vital. I am thankful for all the opportunities that have been given to me from both the directors I have worked with, Ms Goh Soo Khim and Mr Janek Schergen. These experiences helped me grow as a dancer.

Lambarena. Lambarena.

I like to go with the flow. Take it one day at a time, keep working hard and simply find joy in dancing every day. And hopefully one day in the future, I will be able to teach and inspire students who want to become professional dancers.

Becoming a successful ballerina takes lots of hard work and practice. What are the qualities required to be in this profession?

Ballerinas are artistes but also athletes. I think staying healthy is important for us in order to last through the tough practices we have every day, and we definitely have to be mentally strong to cope with the pressures and expectations and to stay determined and confident to perform on stage. But at the end of the day, we must enjoy what we do, no matter what. The love for dance is essential to be in this industry!

Advertisement

SDT performs six seasons annually, with three full ballet performances on the stage of Singapore's Esplanade Theatre. Having such a busy schedule, how do you balance between dancing and leisure?

I have learned to have a healthier dancing and work-leisure balance over the years. My life pretty much revolves around dancing, but I try to draw a line between work and leisure. Once I'm outside the studio I can usually switch off from work. When performances are just around the corner, I tend to focus more on work than leisure, but I think that's necessary. I enjoy working hard, but I also like to spend time on relaxing activities like massages, shopping, cooking, eating good food and watching movies after hours and during weekends. We don't get many holidays during the year, but when we do have one, I love to travel and unwind.

You won the Idemitsu Kousan Scholarship at the 8th Asian Pacific International Ballet Competition in Tokyo, and were later accepted into The Australian Ballet School. How was it different dancing in Japan and Australia, and later on in Singapore and other cities?

The Australian Ballet School is a fulltime ballet school, and it was my first experience with dancing and learning ballet throughout the entire day. Their curriculum comprises not just classical ballet, but also contemporary ballet and character dance, which I never actually studied when I was in Japan.

I've travelled to Malaysia, China, Korea and France with SDT, and I feel that different cities give me different vibes. I still feel most comfortable dancing in Singapore, which I think is because I've been with the company for a while now and some of the audiences know me. It’s my home for now.

Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet.

Tell us a bit about Ballet Illuminations. What can we expect?

It has a very good line-up – we'll be showing classical to contemporary pieces, and each piece has its own unique style that differs from the others, so it'll be very exciting for the audience to watch!

Ballet Illuminations is definitely something special for us, especially because we are given the opportunity to perform outside Singapore and to have new audiences. I think Don Quixote grand pas de deux is something that will excite the audiences as it is a great spectacle! Also, Lambarena, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, which has an African flavour fused with classical ballet, will be a unique one to look out for!

Are you nervous about performing in Penang?

I'm not nervous now, but I will probably get a little nervous before the show, especially because I'll be performing some challenging ballet this time in Penang as well as in KL. I just hope that you will enjoy watching us and remember us until we come back to perform again in the future.

Absence of Story. Absence of Story.

Chihiro Uchida will be performing SDT’s Ballet Illuminations at the Penangpac on May 16 and 17. For more information, call +604 899 1722 or +604 899 2722, or visit the Penangpac website at www.penangpac.org.

Julia Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She usually has two left feet and has recently found a love for reading Terry Pratchett.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Editorial

Funeral for a true son of Penang

The morning was soft and cloudy – but only for a while. By 10am, the sun was blazing and having its usual relentless way with Penangites. Perhaps as many as 20,000 of us were already gathered outside Dewan Sri Pinang, where the body of one of Penang’s most beloved sons had been lying in state since 8am that Sunday, April 20, 2014.

Karpal Singh – respected lawyer, fiery MP for Bukit Gelugor and foe of countless bigots is no more. He was killed in a traffic accident on the North- South Highway in the first hour of April 17.

Huge throngs of people three days later lined the streets around the State Assembly Hall, the courts and St Xavier’s Institution to wave goodbye and to shout “Karpal Singh” one last time, following thousands of others who had, over the two nights before the funeral, visited his family home on Jalan Utama to pay their respects. The many who made the trip from as far away as Johor to join fellow countrymen and countrywomen to publicly bemoan Karpal felt that this was the least they could do for a man whose fighting spirit had always been inspirational.

We should certainly pause and ponder why so many Malaysians and Penangites felt such a strong need to come together. I am sure that there is a whole range of reasons, but chief among these has to be the iconic status achieved by the man. He had simply come to symbolise the stand against bigotry and abuse of the law which the country has been suffering from for so long.

His belief that respect for the law is the necessary foundation for a just society and the protection of human rights was something that has had immediate appeal to people of all classes. His bravery in speaking back to arrogant power and the directness of his words carried immediate appeal in a society given to hushed compromise and feudal diffidence.

These values, held so strongly in him, certainly resonated well in Penang, whose population struggles to consider themselves liberal and modern. In all ways, Karpal was indeed a true son of Penang – he represented Penang values with great ease. In fact, he amplified them louder than anyone else.

In that way, perhaps his persona as an activist lawyer was what endeared him to common folk more than his role as a bold politician. But once that is said, it does seem trivial to even try to separate the different parts of the man. He was in the thick of so many battles over the decades, and he was in the consciousness of Malaysians for such a long time that he was in truth simply “Karpal Singh”, the one and only, irreplaceable and unique.

He will be sorely missed. Looking back, we find solace in the fact that his sturdy example inspired so many that we know for sure Malaysia would have been a worse place if not for him.

The Tiger of Jelutong may roar no more, but I certainly hear the roll of that thunder amplified in countless hearts. Whether that echo will grow in volume depends on new champions of the values he represented so excellently.

Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

The Lego Woman from the Art Is Rubbish/ Rubbish Is Art exhibition by Ernest Zacharevic at Hin Bus Depot.

Penang Palette

Art space expands in Penang

In many ways, a reliable measure of the growing “coolness” of Penang is the Art Scene. The joy of creativity seems to have caught the imagination, not only of artists, but of gallerists and even the state authorities.

The squat Art Decor facade that only seven years ago hid grease, grime and smoke, with behemoth stage buses trundling in and out, has undergone an unexpected makeover. Not much has changed, though – it is only presumably much cleaner with all the heavy machinery contraptions removed.

Known as the Hin Bus Depot along busy Brick Kiln Road (now Jalan Gurdwara), the depot’s days were numbered when RapidPenang entered the market in a big way at the end of 2007, with the foundering of at least four more bus companies.

Advertisement

Works by Renny Cheng and Tan Kai Sheuan. Works by Renny Cheng and Tan Kai Sheuan.

It was given a new lease on life in January as an alternative art space by a Murobond paint entrepreneur who saw its potential as an arts hub. The space is to “encourage community development, and the use of public space for heritage, culture and arts.”

The first show there, street-art sensation Ernest Zacharevic’s solo, Art Is Rubbish/ Rubbish Is Art, hit it off like a house on fire. From January 17 to February 14, it attracted art lovers, the curious and, what is perhaps most important, ordinary folks with probably their first baptism of viewing art in an art space.

A work by British artist Thomas Powell. A work by British artist Thomas Powell.

Lithuanian native Zacharevic, who is as Penang as char koay teow, has transformed the streets of Penang’s Unesco heritage precincts into pilgrimage sites for hordes of tourists with his simple yet meaningful wall murals.

Following the resounding success of Zacharevic’s debut solo was the group exhibition Think About It from March to April, showcasing works of the “Taiwan Twins” Renny Cheng and Tan Kai Sheuan, Low Chee Peng, Bibichun (Khor Zew Wey), Kangblabla (alias Julias Raja Manickam), Penang-based British artist Thomas Powell (who stayed on after his artist residency at the now-defunct Malihom four years ago) and filmmaker Gabriel Marques.

Graffiti at the back of the Hin Bus Depot art space. Graffiti at the back of the Hin Bus Depot art space.
 

The works were slanted towards contemporary art, based or rooted on socio-political-environmental issues and current concerns, and without slavish adherence to medium or style.

Hin Bus Depot lies in the heart of town, just opposite the Continental Hotel and a short walk from the Gama shopping centre. With a small single-storey indoor space display, it boasts a large tract of open space which holds potential for a devil’s workshop rather than just a derelict “wasteland”.

The Art Deco’s unusual facade also draws attention to a plethora of such architectural stylistic totems dotting the island: Rock World (former Sun Cinema), The Garage, Hong Kong Bank Building (Lebuh Pantai), Tamilrasa mini market, Asia Heritage Hotel, Odeon Cinema, Penang Police Headquarters, Little Sisters of the Poor, the Kuantan Road Market and Datuk Keramat Market, just to mention a few.

Low Chee Peng's rakish straited rod male sculptures, like sentinels at the Hin Bus Depot art space. Low Chee Peng's rakish straited rod male sculptures, like sentinels at the Hin Bus Depot art space.
 

The alternative art space seems an aberrant in a place which does not yet have a credible pool of art collectors for the “red-dots” so vital to sustaining it. Yet, more and more art spaces, including commercial galleries, are opening – a serendipity of inspired private initiatives doing, creating and contributing towards making an exciting place a liveable global city.

The streets have become a blank canvas after approval from the authorities. Apart from Zacharevic’s murals, there are also the 101 Lost Kittens murals and sculptures by Tang Yeok Khang, Louise “The Bra Shark bra-rtist” Low and Thailand’s Nattatong Muangkliang; and Simon Tan’s reconstructed Ah Kong and Ah Ma (Grandpa and Grandma) at the Chew Jetty front. Then, there are also the numerous “wired” background capsules of street names by the ScuptureAtWork company.

The front of the Run Amok Gallery, off Jalan Hutton. The front of the Run Amok Gallery, off Jalan Hutton.
 

Most of the Think About It artists were Rescube artists who were exposed in lawyer-collector Lee Khai’s dilapidated colonial building at The Space @ 212 Beach Street, dubbed “The Warehouse”. Lee Khai allowed cutting-edge exhibitions to “break in” into his house (actually 212-216 Beach Street), which was once the abode of China’s Qing Dynasty Vice- Consul in Penang before it was left to fall into disrepair.

E.H Chee was the first, with his Rehab, My Foot! exhibition in September 2001, depicting the deterioration of the Chinese community. The Rescube artists included Zacharevic, Renny Cheng, Kai Sheuan, Louise Low Seok Loo, Chee Peng and Ee Yan Chuah, who is now the Hin Bus Depot manager. London-based photographer Ian Teh had his solo, Traces: Dark Clouds, while others such as T.C. Liew (Liew Ting Chuang), Anabelle Ng, Yeok Khang, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean and Bibichun had group exhibitions.

The ceramic duo, Li Leng Wong and James Seet, at the Daydream exhibition in China House. The ceramic duo, Li Leng Wong and James Seet, at the Daydream exhibition in China House.
 

Although it’s regrettable that the Malihom artist’s residency programme in Balik Pulau (2007-December 2011) has stopped, a new artist-run space, Run Amok Gallery, has taken up the cudgel, recently sponsoring filmmaker Azharr Rudin for its first residency. The residency was marked by the screening of Punggok Rindukan Bulan, besides Dancing Kites, Meeting Amber and Rumah Tok.

Dedicated to fringe art works that can be multi and trans-disciplinary, Run Amok Gallery is a modest two-storey house at 151 Jalan Hutton. The space is to “produce art and cultural events with a focus on the format of visual art exhibition supported by collateral programmes. Run Amok collaborates with local/regional art and cultural practitioners to revision the histories by responding to the current socio-political conditions through a language that is relevant to contemporary locality and everyday experiences.”

James Seet's three-in-one ceramic sculpture, Embryonic II. James Seet's three-in-one ceramic sculpture, Embryonic II.
 

Previously, it hosted workshops by Singaporean photographer and researcher-archivist Zhuang WuBin, and another workshop called “All’s Well, End Well” by Wu Ma and He En Ning. It also staged Liew Kwai Fei’s Kami Bukan Hantu: Ah Pull & Ah Door, his sixth solo since Fei at Rumah Air Panas, KL in 2003. There was also the Eating Wind group exhibition featuring, among others, Annabelle Ng, Bibichun, Chi Too, Darrel Chia, Daniel Chong and Hoo Fan Chon.

For more upscale fine dining and entertainment, China House, which “fronts” both Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Victoria, is the place to be at. It has a bifurcated upstairs gallery with more display spaces on the ground floor. In April, it hosted the exciting ceramic duo James Seet and Li Leng Wong in the Daydream exhibition, besides the cominghome solo of Penang-born British artist Kate Hunt. China House is part of the Bon Ton Resort chain helmed by Narelle McMurtrie, who also runs the Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary (LASSie).

Penang Art Museum's 57 Jalan Macalister outlet. Penang Art Museum's 57 Jalan Macalister outlet.
 

Seet was among 56 participants from 15 countries in the 5th SELSIUS-USM International Ceramic Festival organised by USM, Penang in April, after a five-year hiatus. It was held at the Muzium dan Galeri Tuanku Fauziah, which was also the venue of the first festival in 2005. In 2006 and 2007, it was held in Putrajaya and the National Art Gallery respectively, before it returned to the Penang State Art Gallery in 2009.

Other accomplished Malaysian exponents include Dr Shamsu Mohamad (USM senior lecturer, who was the point man), Mohd Omar Bidin, Salwa Ayob, Tan Vooi Yam and Cheah Yeow Seng. They joined potters from South Korea, Thailand, the US, Turkey, Australia, China, Indonesia, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Japan and Switzerland during the heady week of exhibitions, workshops, seminars and exchanges of ideas and techniques.

The Penang State Art Museum’s Jalan Macalister “barracks” is another alternative space, although it cannot rival Singapore’s Gillman Barracks. It was formerly the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, the country’s first maternity hospital (1915-1955), before it became the offices of several NGOs until 1980.

The Art Trio exhibition at Acheh Art Row. The Art Trio exhibition at Acheh Art Row.
 

Often considered a spooky place, the “hospital” was recreated in April when staff members play-acted as doctors and nurses in A Nite at the No. 57 Macalister, and an encore is planned for August. The place is ideal for fringe art activities apart from alternative exhibitions to complement the gallery’s low-ceiling and somewhat claustrophobic main space at the Dewan Sri Pinang on Lebuh Farquhar.

It is also where the Penang State Art Gallery’s main administration was relocated after it was leased to the Penang State Art Gallery in September 2010, and its proximity to amenities coupled with ample parking space gave it an edge over its Lebuh Farquhar half.

Another new space, the Acheh Art Row, the first of several proposed art galleries, opened on March 22 with the Art Trio exhibition of Eric Quah, Chan Thien Chie and Soon Lai Wai until April 22.

Such peripheral art spaces are essential in moving Penang up the value chain in the creative industry, despite its lack of worldclass arts infrastructures and amenities.

Contact Run Amok Gallery at +6010 461 7311 or access the website at www. runamok.my.

Contact China House at +604 263 7299 or email info@chinahouse.com.my.

 

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 30 years.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Cover Story

Karpal Singh: Will for justice

The funeral rites for Karpal Singh ended with family members scattering his ashes in the sea off Green Hall, Penang, but the national soul-searching to understand his legacy and to commemorate it has just begun.

The massive outpouring of grief, especially at the funeral on April 20, 2014, for a statesman who had actually never held executive power was indeed unprecedented. Karpal’s legacies as a human rights lawyer and a staunch defender of constitutional democracy, and his leadership in DAP will be remembered, studied and perhaps critiqued.

The cruel attempt that was ongoing when Karpal died, to disqualify him as MP and even to jail him, will continue to haunt the ruling party with his image as victim and martyr “sealed” with his demise. Karpal’s perseverance against physical disability will also continue to inspire many, and hopefully his tragic accident on the highway will help the push for better transportation.

pic 55

Shocking death

 

It was one of those end-of-era deaths the news of which imprints itself so strongly into our memory that we will forever remember how and when we first heard it.

At 2.33am on April 17, 2014, an MP asked a private messaging group of DAP federal elected representatives whether it was true that Karpal had met with an accident, to which Gobind Singh Deo, Karpal’s second son and MP for Puchong, replied at 2.48am: “With regret I inform you that it is true.”

In a separate message minutes later, Gobind wrote: “Just been informed Mr Karpal and Michael (Karpal's aide) passed away.”

No words can describe the acute pain we all felt on receiving that sad confirmation.

There were many dignitaries at the wake, no doubt, but the number of ordinary Malaysians who thronged the family house at Jalan Utama from April 17 to 19 was overwhelming and was testimony to how many hearts Karpal touched.

This giant of a man was always expected to fight tirelessly and endlessly, and news of his demise could only come in one way – as an emotional shock. Having just been convicted and fined RM4,000 (which would disqualify him as an MP) for sedition on March 11, 2014, he was expected to battle it out and appeal to the higher courts – and all the while, the government appealed for heftier penalties.

pic 58

 

Curiously, of his own volition, he resigned on March 29, 2014 as DAP chairman citing provisions in the Societies Act which disallowed a convicted person from holding public office.

Outpouring of grief

The outpouring of grief by Malaysians at the wake and the funeral was massive and caught many off guard. The funeral organisers had expected a couple of thousand at the funeral but were faced instead with a crowd multiple times bigger. At Karpal’s wake, Kerk Kim Hock, former DAP secretary-general who retired from politics in 2004, told me that it was unimaginable just a decade ago that the passing of a DAP figure could generate such an immense show of public emotions.

There were many dignitaries at the wake, no doubt, but the number of ordinary Malaysians who thronged the family house at Jalan Utama from April 17 to 19 was overwhelming and was testimony to how many hearts Karpal touched.

On April 20, Penang witnessed what was probably its largest funeral ever. True to Karpal’s folk hero image, the send-off was akin to a street parade, complete with placards, big bikes and cyclists. The day was notable also for being exactly a year since nomination day for the 2013 General Election. Tens of thousands of mourners from all over Malaysia lined the streets of Penang to have a last glimpse of Karpal’s casket, shouting “Karpal Singh! Karpal Singh!” as if it was a nomination procession. Many were frustrated at not being able to enter Dewan Sri Pinang to pay their last respects.

pic 59

After leaving the state hall where the state-honour funeral ceremonies were held, Karpal’s body stopped at places important to his life – Penang State Assembly, Penang High Court and St Xavier’s Institution – before heading to the Batu Gantung crematorium.

Tens of thousands of mourners from all over Malaysia lined the streets of Penang to have a last glimpse of Karpal’s casket, shouting “Karpal Singh! Karpal Singh!”

The original plan included a stop at Green Hall, where Karpal’s legal office is, but that was not carried out due to the crowd size and lack of time. Most news reports missed the significance of Green Hall. It was not just where his office is located. According to Tim Donoghue’s Karpal Singh – Tiger of Jelutong, after being born at the Penang Maternity Hospital on Jalan Macalister on June 28, 1940, Karpal was first brought up at 23 Green Hall, a house that was soon damaged in the bombings of World War II.

His life story

Karpal’s story is fascinating and dramatic indeed. Born to a Penang City Council guard, he went on to become one of Penang’s and Malaysia’s most famous and respected lawyers and statesmen.

Advertisement

pic 60

 

One day in December 2010 at Parliament, Karpal asked me to meet him at his Pudu office. We met at his library, and were joined by the New Zealand journalist, Tim Donoghue. Karpal and Donoghue asked me for publishing advice as my team had published a photo book on Karpal in three languages for his 70th birthday in June 2010 (Karpal Singh: True Malaysian by Malaissa Loovi; Malay: Karpal Singh – Pantang Undur; Chinese:卡巴星-真正的马来 西亚人).

I had previously heard of a mysterious unpublished memoir of Karpal and had in fact been given a draft by Karpal in mid-2010. But it was a pleasant surprise to meet the author and be told that the project already started in 1988, that someone then had deemed it worthy to make Karpal’s life story a lifelong pursuit.

Karpal's faithful aide, Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, also perished in the accident. Karpal's faithful aide, Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, also perished in the accident.

 

Donoghue met Karpal in 1987 when Karpal acted for New Zealanders Loraine Cohen and Aaron Cohen in a drugrelated death penalty case and saved them from the hangman’s noose. Karpal was already a well-known international name after the failed attempt to save Australians Kevin Barlow and Geoffrey Chambers, who were hanged in 1986.

Donoghue’s book was finally published by Marshall Cavendish and launched in KL in September 2013, 25 years after it was first commissioned. The intervening years saw many ups and downs in Karpal’s life. He was detained under the Internal Security Act in 1987-1989. In the 1995 General Election, he was reelected in Jelutong, scrapping through with the slimmest of margins. Then in 1999, both Karpal and Lim Kit Siang were not returned to Parliament for the first time in their political careers.

Karpal through the years. Karpal through the years.

 

Karpal took public office for the first time in the Kedah State Assembly in 1974 and in Parliament and the Penang State Assembly in 1978. Kit Siang was first voted into Parliament in 1969. Both Karpal and Kit Siang were re-elected back into Parliament in the March 2004 General Election.

In January 2005, Karpal was involved in a car accident and was paralysed from the waist down. Indeed, his father Ram was killed in 1974 in a road accident in Amritsar, India.

Perhaps it was only after the 2008 General Election that swept DAP and its allies into power in five states, in the process breaking the two-thirds majority stranglehold that BN had had in Parliament, that the memoir of the “Tiger of Jelutong” was befittingly published, as it was only then that Karpal felt he had politically recovered.

In January 2005, Karpal was involved in a car accident and was paralysed from the waist down. Indeed, his father Ram was killed in 1974 in a road accident in Amritsar, India.

pic 62

Legacies

 

Karpal’s international reputation comes from his championing of human rights and his struggle against the death penalty and other cruel punishments such as judicial canning. Domestically, it was his steadfast belief in a constitutional democracy that earned him the respect of friends – and of foes. In November 2013, Rasah MP Teo Kok Seong and I visited Karpal to discuss some political matters. Those matters were concluded within five minutes, and he gave us another hour of his precious time – at least 10 clients were waiting outside his room – to discuss the efforts to save people from the hangman. Many of these stories are recorded in Donoghue’s book. I remember asking Karpal whether he knew how many lives he had saved. He said “a couple of dozens”. I vaguely remember that there was talk of a “Karpal’s list of survivors” listed somewhere.

If there is none, one should be compiled. In an “Ubah” truck ceramah in Perlis in November 2012, while Karpal was speaking, I remember a man walking up to me and asking for an opportunity to thank Karpal for having saved his life.

Karpal with Guan Eng. The two had been close since the latter entered politics in the mid-1980s. Karpal with Guan Eng. The two had been close since the latter entered politics in the mid-1980s.

 

Indeed, the inherent – and inspiring – humanism of this great man is most clearly seen in how he so willingly used his considerable wits to represent death row inmates – people with no one left to turn to.

In June 2011, with the help of Nazri Aziz, who was the Law Minister then, Gobind and I managed to organise a parliamentary roundtable that resolved to call for a moratorium on executions, pending a thorough review of the death penalty. Our hope is that, in the short term at least, with the removal of the mandatory death sentence, the discretion to pass judgment would be returned to the judges. In the long run, we still hope that the death penalty will be abolished.

pic 63

 

I have reason to believe that the parliamentary roundtable we held in June 2011 had some bearing on the Singapore government’s decision to amend its equally tough drug laws to allow for drug mules or couriers to escape the death penalty. Sabahan Yong Vui Kong was spared the death sentence as a result. Unfortunately, the Malaysian government did not move an inch from its original position over the past three years.

Nevertheless, it is for us to continue the human rights legacy of Karpal and to be guided by his deep humanism.

In an “Ubah” truck ceramah in Perlis in November 2012, while Karpal was speaking, I remember a man walking up to me and asking for an opportunity to thank Karpal for having saved his life.

Constitutional democracy

Much had been said about Karpal’s opposition to the hudud laws. But those who highlight his concern should note that he was opposed to hudud from the point of his steadfast belief in Malaysia as a constitutional democracy. I had several fairly long private discussions with Karpal about hudud and political Islam. I am of the view that the most viable route to defeat BN at the polls is for both DAP and PAS to move to the political middle ground and bring their supporters to vote for each other.

The hudud issue does not allow for any middle ground and in fact threatens most seriously to divide the Opposition. From my conversations with Karpal, it was evident that he was fully aware that while his statements on hudud was often misconstrued as anti-Islam, he was seeing it from a constitutional point of view – that hudud was simply not constitutional.

pic 64

 

By extension, his comments on the role of monarchs should be read in the same light. The Court of Appeal overturned the judgment of the High Court and fined Karpal RM4,000 on March 11, 2014 for his remarks during the Perak constitutional crisis in February 2009, which saw the removal of the Pakatan state government. Karpal’s various run-ins with royalty throughout the past three decades should not be misconstrued as anti-Malay but as the work of one who attempted to ensure that everyone – royalty included – followed the laws of a constitutional democracy.

In the last decade and a half, Karpal also represented Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim at the latter’s various cases on a pro bono basis, including the Sodomy II trials. Now, Karpal was probably not one of Anwar’s biggest fans especially during Anwar’s 16 years on the government bench. It was based on this same wish to effectuate genuine constitutional democracy that Karpal tirelessly fought for Anwar in court.

Advertisement

Karpal with Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of PAS and former Menteri Besar of Kelantan. Karpal with Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of PAS and former Menteri Besar of Kelantan.

 

Leading the DAP

For Malaysians, Karpal was best known for decades as a top DAP leader. Karpal became national party chairman in September 2004, following Kit Siang’s stint in that position (1999-2004). Lim Guan Eng was elected the secretarygeneral at the same time. While the chairmanship may not have been the number one position in DAP, Karpal nevertheless brought much stature with him.

In Kit Siang’s tribute to his old brotherin- arms, he said that with Karpal’s passing, a light had gone out in Malaysia. The two of them had been a political pair since the 1980s, and at the three-day wake for Karpal, one could see how the press attempted to capture every expression they could on Kit Siang’s face.

For DAP secretary-general and Chief Minister of Penang Guan Eng, Karpal’s demise left a huge void. In private, Guan Eng considers himself the political son of Karpal. They had been close since the much younger man entered politics in the mid-1980s.

pic 65 A young Karpal and Kit Siang.

 

In the period following the 2008 General Election when DAP first got to taste some power, Karpal was keen to ensure that the party lived up to public expectations. He was against serving DAP representatives receiving honorific titles, a view shared by many Malaysians who had been complaining about the proliferation of such titles. He was also against representatives holding both parliamentary and state seats at once. Fielding leaders for seats at both levels before the 2008 election had been done out of necessity as the pool of electable candidates back then was very small.

He was justified in pushing to minimise such arrangements after 2008 because DAP’s talent pool had significantly expanded since then.

Karpal was not shy of controversies within his own party. His “Godfather versus Warlord” spat with Dr P. Ramasamy, Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang, as well as his public call to Jeff Ooi, MP for Jelutong, to withdraw the latter’s alleged derogatory remark of “kucing kurap” against MPPP officials are among the most remembered during his decade-long chairmanship.

I must confess that as a DAP leader, Karpal's choice of words and sometimes his choice of moments occasionally left me feeling uneasy, especially when it came to party matters as well as issues relating to coalition building. But his mission to uphold the integrity of the party was always crystal clear and well understood.

Karpal was a courageous soul who feared no one and stood up for the downtrodden, the dispossessed and the destitute. This legend lives on beyond his death. In his lifetime, he has inspired and given hope to at least two generations of Malaysians. His story – and his will to see justice done – will continue to inspire many more.

Karpal and his wife, Gurmit Kaur.

Karpal and his wife, Gurmit Kaur

 

Liew Chin Tong is the MP for Kluang. He was formerly the executive director of Penang Institute.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Feature

Chowrasta Market undergoes change

The Penang state government is upgrading the iconic Chowrasta Market in George Town’s heritage zone into a beautified indoor affair. Opinions among stallholders diverge greatly. Some welcome the transformation while others are apprehensive.

Call me an Orientalist if you wish, but to hell with Edward Said’s theories. Street markets are one of the most peculiar and colourful realities of life in Asia, and are found nowhere in the West. All the overzealous worries about sanitation, cleanliness and whereabouts of food origins are traded for practicality, velocity and convenience. In fact, famous street markets and bazaars define the character of Asian cities and countries; just think of Bangkok’s enormous Chatuchak open market or Tabriz’s ancient bazaar, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

George Town has its fair amount of bustling markets; in Air Itam, Lebuh Campbell or Jalan Datuk Keramat, life really comes together at the street level in celebration of the island’s living heritage. Iconic Chowrasta Market – meaning “Four Cross Roads” in Urdu – is George Town’s historical shopping precinct’s liveliest market. Set in the centre of Jalan Chowrasta, Jalan Kuala Kangsar, Lebuh Tamil and the southern end of Upper Penang Road, it boasts stalls of all shapes and sizes – some mounted on carts, others simply laid down on bare concrete – that still offer timeless examples of everyday Malaysian life. Most importantly, Chowrasta Market adds colour to a city centre that risks losing its authenticity in favour of boutique hotels and tourism dollars.

Tan Choo Tong.
Tan Choo Tong.

But things might change as the Penang state government has started an upgrading project supervised by award-winning architect Laurence Loh to renovate the market building, which will see street sellers abandoning the sidewalks. If, on one hand, the area’s functionality will improve with a new five-storey car park already underway, on the other, the market risks losing its street character. In fact, Chowrasta has been a crucible of goods and multi-ethnic relations since well before the first market building was erected in 1890.

But what do the street sellers and shop owners think of the upcoming transformation? I decide to get a clearer picture by asking around the market area.

Cheong Ban Tuck.
Cheong Ban Tuck.

I meet Tan Choo Tong as I walk down from the Jalan Kuala Kangsar entrance. He’s bent behind his friend’s stall, steadily unpacking goods from carton boxes. When he tells me that he’s 82 years old, I could hardly believe it. “My friend here has been working in Chowrasta for 40 years,” he says with a smile as he squints at me from behind a pair of spectacles. “There are regular customers on the streets, and nobody knows how business is going to turn out when the stalls shift inside.” Tan tells me that the street sellers are mostly worried about getting a bad number at the lucky draw for the positions inside the building. “That’s how it works. If they get the wrong number, they must take the stalls at the back. It’s not good for business.”

Right across the road, a street vendor sells vegetables out of boxes neatly arranged on plastic stools. Hoo Lee Hin, 67, is another of Chowrasta’s oldest sellers, and he’s worried about the upcoming move. “Penangites like convenience. They like to park their cars close by, send their wives down to shop for vegetables and drive off. I don’t know what’s going to happen when we move inside. I’m afraid I’ll lose business.”

Lee Hin and Boon Seng.
Lee Hin and Boon Seng.

His son, Hoo Boon Seng, 36, comes back to the stall as his father finishes talking. He is tall and carries the signs of a life spent on the road. “You see this scar running across my face? That’s what happens when you are young and uneducated, and like to mix with gangsters,” he says before exploding in laughter that exposes a couple of missing teeth. Boon Seng is mostly afraid that the rent, which now averages between RM100 and RM300 per month, will increase after the move. “We don’t know the new pricing yet. I think that the government should keep this place as it’s always been. You want to clean up during the day? Fine, but you can let the sellers make some extra bucks by organising a night market.”

Changes in business flow could also affect the rows of shops and restaurants that line the sides of the four historic lanes. Cheong Ban Tuck, 63, runs Tuck Kee Dried Mince Meat from the junction of Jalan Kuala Kangsar and Jalan Chowrasta. He knows the scoop inside out, having been in business here for the past 34 years. “Of course I’d love to keep the street market at my door as it is good for business, but we must comply with the government,” he says, passing around cups of dark Pu-erh tea. “Truth is we still don’t know the new rules and regulations. As far as I’ve heard, the wet produce will be moved inside while the dry will remain outside. I guess we’ll just wait and see.”

Shaik Osman.
Shaik Osman.

Sim, 64, is parked outside one of the market building’s side gates. For the past 40 years he’s shuttled dried fish all the way from Balik Pulau, as Chowrasta Market has a continuous flow of new customers. “I’m very happy to move inside,” he says. “It will be cleaner, more comfortable and less hot. On top of that, we generally get at least one summon per month by staying out here on the street.”

The one thing that hits you straight in the gut when you enter the middle section of Chowrasta Market’s building is the smell of livestock and the sight of washed-out blood between the cracks of the floor tiles. Before I get to the poultry section, I stumble upon butcher Shaik Osman, 53, as he slices prime cuts of reddish beef and hangs them on metal hooks. “The only discomfort for the inside sellers is that we will be forced to move around as they renovate the building,” he says. “I’m sure it will look better and cleaner than now.” I leave Osman to his business and walk to the farther end of the building where the smell of death and boiled feathers becomes stronger. I must be very careful where I step, as the old tiles are slippery jigsaw puzzle pieces awash with water and blood. That’s probably the main reason for the state government’s desired upgrade.

Abu Hassan.
Abu Hassan.

I find a group of Malays and Indians busy at work transforming live poultry into boneless lumps. I’m a welcome diversion in their raw business; as I arrive, the excited workers start playing around with dead chickens and pulling live ones out of cages for pictures. One grabs two strips of chicken meat and holds them straight in front of the camera, while the others laugh.

Abu Hassan, 40, is one of the two main sellers here, and judiciously practices halal slaughtering procedures. “The other’s a young Chinese man, and he can’t do this properly. I’m helping him out as a good neighbour should,” he says. Abu, who’s draped in a blood-spattered plastic apron, is very happy that the building will be upgraded. “I certainly want cleaner work conditions,” he says. “After the upgrade, you will never see Chowrasta like this again, because all the livestock will be moved to Sungai Pinang. No more slaughtering here.”

Poultry play.
Poultry play.

Back in the main hall, I meet coconut seller Kudus, 57. He inherited the stall from his father and has been working here since he was a young boy, all 41 years ago. He explains that the adjacent part of the building being erected now will be the car park. “When it is finished in 2015, we’ll move there first as they remodel this side,” he says. “Chowrasta has been losing business ever since life shifted out of George Town into the outlying districts. I hope that by having a new convenient car park, customers will return for good.”

Sitting close to the main entrance, Foo Wah Chong of Shin Huat store, 66, is at work fixing his shop after a small fire. “The place is certainly old,” he says. “We can just benefit from an upgrade.” But other anonymous shopkeepers harbour strong concerns. “Now we have a big space for our shop, but once they re-assign the lots, we’ll have to make do with whatever size we get,” they say.

Foo Wah Chong.
Foo Wah Chong.

As they await the state government’s modernity injection, the sellers have a lot on their minds and seem not to bother if the shell of their businesses is a bit tatty around the edges. To my eyes, it all adds to the charm. As I walk outside towards upper Jalan Penang, I bump into a stall selling roasted chestnuts. A true hawker at heart, Yap works out of a moving cart on the corner of Jalan Penang and Jalan Chowrasta, defying all prospects of urban development. “Will I move? Truth be told, I don’t know if I will want to,” he says before cracking into hearty laughter.

I have a feeling that Chowrasta’s reckless spirit, regardless of any renovation project, will never leave these four streets.

pic 12

Two rounds of dialogues were held between traders and the MPPP during the planning stages. Inputs from the traders, such as the multi-storey car park, were incorporated.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.
Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...
Kwong Wah Yit Poh

Feature

Public Transport Must be Affordable, Convenient – and Sustainable

Experiences from KL-Klang Valley suggest that simultaneous investment in public transport and car ownership is folly.

In recent decades, development in Asia has been phenomenal. And so has the building of roads. From Bangkok to Beijing, the endless spaghetti of super highways has only worsened traffic congestion. Beijing, for example, has been building one outer ring road after another to handle its growing population and economy. Today it has eight outer ring roads, and the traffic has only gotten worse.

The conventional belief that persists among many of our engineers and political leaders is that more roads with more lanes will reduce traffic congestion. This is despite the fact that this claim has time and again been proven to be false. In fact, the opposite is almost always true – that more roads create more traffic congestion.

Advertisement

The most recent notable case where the fallacy of road building as a cure for traffic congestion was dismissed and a new paradigm sought comes from Sylvester Turner, the new mayor of car-centric city Houston. In April this year, Turner admitted that the city had spent US$2.6bil (RM10bil) to construct the world’s widest highway with 26 lanes – and traffic congestion got worse. He then proposed a new solution: move away from widening roads to public transportation solutions and encourage car sharing and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes instead.

Traffic Congestion in the US

In the US, trillions of dollars have been spent on widening roads to reduce congestion, but this has actually encouraged and stimulated more car trips that would not have occurred otherwise.

Why?

Because increasing the supply of roads only creates higher demand for its use. Two things happen. First, like the mathematician Braess predicted decades ago, motorists who have taken alternative roads now converge on the widened road, and this naturally results in congestion. Second, people who would have used public or other modes of transport opt to drive as it is now more convenient. So we arrive back at Square One, except worse off financially and environmentally.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, Penang, which prides itself as forward looking and a leader in urban planning, is also caught in this conceptual trap.

Moving Cars Not People – the Penang Reality

Despite the Penang state government’s transportation idea of “Moving People Not Cars”, the opposite is actually happening. This is evident from the weight its transport plan gives to road building, in terms of both timing and expenditure.

Under the Halcrow transport plan, 61% of the RM27bil is allocated for road improvement and building. Under the first phase of the proposed SRS transport plan, 50% is for building roads. This is moving cars, not people.

The first phase of the SRS transport plan proposes to build the Pan-Island Link (PIL1) and an LRT line from George Town to the SRS island B between 2017 and 2022. The PIL1 is estimated to cost RM6.1bil and the LRT line RM6.2bil, making up a total of RM12.3bil.

Disastrous to Promote Car Usage and Public Transport at the Same Time

If the public transport modal share is to increase from the present paltry three per cent to 40% by 2030, as the state wishes to do (and which is unrealistic under the SRS proposal), most of the money will need to be spent on public transport and not roads. At the same time, proactive steps will need to be taken to discourage motorists from using private vehicles. At present, a high proportion of investments are into highways and this will only encourage motorists to drive, especially if these highways are toll-free.

Subsequently, public transportation will not gain popularity. The SRS proposal intends to spend RM6bil to build PIL1 to the airport and cut north-south travel time to 15 minutes, toll-free. But this approach is fundamentally flawed. If it is cheaper and faster to use the PIL to get to the airport, people will shun the LRT in favour of cars. This will lead to financial disaster for the LRT as public ridership can be expected to be very low. For example, the actual ridership of the KL Putra LRT line reached only three per cent of projected ridership in 1999 and it took another four years for it to reach 44%.

The KL-Klang region clearly demonstrates the folly of a strategy that promotes car use and public transportation at the same time. Despite two LRT lines and one monorail line, public modal share of transport dropped from over 40% in the 1970s to 17% in 2014, as shown in the graph above.

Furthermore, the bad financial experience of the two LRT companies (SMART and Putra) and the KL monorail should be an eye-opener for Penang. The two LRT companies faced financial difficulties within the first year of operation (1998-1999) due to poor ridership and were bailed out by the federal government. In the case of the KL monorail, the government had to come up with a RM300mil soft loan. Things only got worse and in November 2001 the Ministry of Finance had to issue RM5.5bil in bonds to purchase the debts of the two LRT companies (Jeff Tan, 2008: 114).

For a public transport system to succeed, both pull and push factors are needed. The pull factor is a well-connected public transport system that is convenient, punctual, frequent, affordable and accessible. But this alone will not do. The push factors are equally important. In order to discourage the use of private vehicles, the authorities will have to take measures such as raising parking charges, restricting parking spaces, and implementing road congestion charges.

One without the other will not do.

Reference: Jeff Tan, 2008 Privatization in Malaysia (Routledge).

 
A version of this article was published as “Road to folly – will building more roads solve traffic congestion?” in Malaysiakini on May 18, 2016 (https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/342032).

Lim Mah Hui is a City Councillor at MBPP.

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Editorial

Penang’s Waterfronts May be Its Future Identity

Penang’s free port status began eroding after the final boundaries of Malaysia were defined with the exit of Singapore in 1965. By 1974, the federal government had made it a thing of the past.

Luckily for the state, the state government that was voted into power in 1969 had the boldness and imagination to press for the establishment of a free trade zone on the island. With Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak’s support, Chief Minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and his team quickly industrialised Penang in the 1970s. With that, Penang stayed intimately connected to the economic processes of the world – something that has formed its population’s identity ever since.

With the side-lining of the port as the economic hub of the island, George Town’s waterfront lost its historical importance. And when Penang Bridge was inaugurated in 1985, passenger traffic using the ferry naturally dropped further, affecting not only the economic life of the old parts of the city but also its waterfront.

But things are brightening up for the port area. Tourism may have been an important part of Penang’s economy for a long time, but with George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, the focus definitely moved to the old town. Heightened local pride and newly aroused global interest in Penang’s heritage meant an inflow of investments and tourists. The decay of the old town began to reverse. Of course, what this also means is that much that is old – and much of that “oldness” was what got Penang its valuable Unesco listing in the first place – came under threat.

Will George Town become so gentrified by careless and uncomprehending investors that it kills its golden egg-laying goose? That is a question that keeps many awake today.

In the midst of all this, the Waterfront is starting to awaken. And it may be the inspiration for an economic and aesthetic interplay of land with sea which can provide the right balance between the old and the new, the slow and the fast, luxury and modesty.

Advertisement

The project of creating a 21st-century Penang identity that is based on – and that definitely must not deny – its enviable legacy of 19thcentury modernity is not going to be an easy one. Making Penang a model city requires its planners to consider where its strengths lie. I venture that the essence of iconic cities very often lies in how it appreciates its immediate watery environs – be this a river, a lake, a glacier or the sea.

What is Paris without the Seine? London without the Thames? Geneva without its lake? Sydney without its harbour? Los Angeles without its bay? Stockholm without its archipelago? Istanbul without the Bosphorus?

What of Penang? Our rivers are not big, we have no lake worth mentioning and our northern beaches do not make a splash. What we have are the city’s waterfronts.

Waterfronts are not only about the nexus of land and sea. Penang actually has a strait fronted by two coastlines, not unlike Hong Kong. Having two waterfronts facing each other is a luxury. The potential for Penang to focus on its waterfronts as a foundation stone for its future identity is immense. This asset has been neglected so far. In fact, does the strait even have a name?

In contradistinction, and as a reminder of how lucky a place like Penang is, Singapore is limited by the fact that it is surrounded by watery national borders and international sea lanes, and finds it difficult to strengthen the maritime connection of its population beyond condos with sea views and marinas for the globally wealthy.

Penang, on the other hand, has waterfronts that can connect consciousness outwards into the sea and over to the other coast, and inwards onto streets that overflow with history and culture. What more does a visionary planner want?

Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...