Something for Everyone at the Jelutong Night Market

Young and old participate at the Jelutong night market.

Curios for the curious.

Jelutong night market unfolds like clockwork every Friday at 5pm, come rain or shine – nothing dampens the spirit of the vendors. It is one of the larger and more famous night markets, or pasar malam, in Penang, attracting sizeable crowds on the hunt for street food and knick-knacks, or just a fun evening out.

“The night market has been around for decades now,” says Batu Lanchang state assemblyperson Ong Ah Teong. The history of the market goes back to the early 1990s, although residents and night market enthusiasts reckon it’s been around for way longer.

Seasoned traders – some with kids in tow to help them run the business – and fresh-faced entrepreneurs set up shop side by side. All are easily identifiable by the orange shirts they wear bearing the words “Pasar Malam Jalan Van Praagh”, “Pasar Malam Taman Kheng Theam” or “Pasar Malam Jelutong”.

The uniform was an initiative taken by the Desa Green Residents’ Association, whose members keep the market going and growing every week. Chuah Chin Chuan, who is in his fifties, is the current deputy chairman, and together with Yeoh, chairman of the sub-committee directly in charge of the night market, work tirelessly to ensure that come Friday, things go on without a hitch.

Yeoh, 51, is a permanent fixture at the market, managing everything from the cleaning up to the on-duty members of the People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) as well as collecting the monthly maintenance fee from the vendors. “She’s been here from day one. If the hawkers or vendors need anything, they go over and see her. If the council comes, she must be present,” says Chuah.

The night market started small and, as with most things in Penang, organically – in 2002 there were about 40 to 50 vendors operating from a small field nearby. In 2005 the council informed the vendors to move because residents there were complaining about traffic woes. They moved to the Lorong Kulit flea market: “It was supposed to be just for a few months, but when they finally came back, it was 2006,” says Chuah. “The buildings here (at Taman Kheng Tian) were not yet complete when we started the pasar malam.”

However, they were still considered illegal and were without an approved license from the council. After the residents’ committee convened, they decided to help the vendors get their licenses, but it was no walk in the park to get the night market legitimised. It was only after the change in state government in 2008 that they were given approval to set up. “Towards the end of 2009, 250 licenses were given out to about 300 stalls and vendors,” says Ong.

Pasar Malam Culture

As chaotic as it appears to onlookers, Jelutong night market is a well-oiled machine. From pyjama shorts to power banks – and even quirky items such as gel flaps that work as strong adhesives for phones – this night market has something for everyone.

People travel far and wide just to get their hands on a good bargain and to savour the street food. Here one can find interesting dishes such as pork intestine satay and charcoal bun burgers. There is no limit to the fruits available, too.

Chuah Chin Chuan and Yeoh (left and middle).
Chuah Chin Chuan and Yeoh (left and middle).

Street food at Jelutong night market.

Some vendors have been in business for decades, such as Ah Chye, who has been selling rojak for over 40 years. He mixes the sauce from a home recipe and barely needs to look at his hands when he cuts up the fruits.

Gan, 57, is another veteran – he has been working at the Jelutong night market for over a decade, dishing out unique fusions of fruit with coconut ice cream.

Yong, 54, sells economy food and is happy to share his experience. When asked if doing business at the night market is enough to make a lucrative profit, he shakes his head with a smile, offering some advice instead: “If you enjoy what you’re doing, people will enjoy your food. If they look at you and you don’t look happy, who wants to buy food from you?”

Celine, a young vendor in her 20s, sells Taiwanese burger, which comes in a combination of cheese, sausages or eggs, among other ingredients. She is more experimental in her approach, like most other millennial vendors who use technology to complement their businesses. Some stalls even have a ticketing system to ease the long queues that form by the food trucks. This way, everyone gets their food and the vendors can better keep track of their business.

Seats are scarce, but people are happy to share what little space they have with others. Starting conversations with complete strangers over the weather and which stall has the best food is the norm. Some vendors even have business cards that they give out to customers who express interest in their wares; these vendors often have physical stores, but use the night market as both a platform to experiment with new recipes and as another means of income.

Looking Beyond Today

Weather, traffic, and funding are some of the larger issues the vendors face. “We can’t help the weather – it’s beyond our control,” says Chuah. Rainy skies affect their profit – customers shy away but the vendors still need to pay the Rela workers and the cleaners, even if it pours.

“What we do need to figure out is the traffic issue. In my opinion, it’s very simple: make the roads one-way, or close the roads only for the pasar malam,” Chuah suggests.

The vendors hope for more support. With bigger umbrellas and perhaps even better uniforms, they might look more attractive to visitors. Chuah hopes that in the future, the state government will allocate a smallsum for the night market to grow to its full potential.

“Night markets are good for business,” says Ong, who wants to be able to promote it as another tourist attraction, as it is done in Taiwan. “Maybe we can make videos to do this,” he suggests.

The vendors are also big dreamers and share the same sentiments. With their relentless enthusiasm, delicious food and quirky items, one can only imagine the possibilities in store for the future.

Rebecca Vega is a writer and a singer, and has had her hand in one too many cookie jars. When she’s not working, she’s usually found working. She’s trying to work on that.

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