Vestiges of Penang’s Entrepot Days

loading Clan Jetties in 1990.

As the last surviving Chinese surname jetties in Penang today, the beginnings of the Clan Jetties are intertwined with the island’s once-bustling entrepot, buoyed by the emergence of Weld Quay in the nineteenth century.

Efforts to improve the quay’s shipping facilities were carried out in the 1880s,1 and since 1882 the gradual reclamation process of Weld Quay began to deepen the port’s wharfage, giving rise to more landing docks for trading. Upon the completion of the island’s first deep-water wharf – Swettenham Pier in 1905 – its harbour could then cater to different shipping markets.2

While Swettenhem Pier generally outfitted large ships from Europe for the world market, Weld Quay functioned as an important frontage for the entrepot trade, serving regional markets and the northern Malay states.3

More interestingly, its shallow front soon became a base for lighters to provide shuttle and handling services to larger ships anchored at sea. This niche service gave rise to the Clan Jetties. Starting with jetty residents providing lighter services with their own jetties acting as landing stage and berth, by 1927, as many as 15 jetties were operating under temporary license, stretching from Weld Quay to Prangin Canal.4

The Rise and Fall of the Clans

Hailing from villages in China’s Fujian Province, many first-generation jetty residents settled in respective clan houses near the waterfront, such as those on Stewart Lane.5 Many then travelled to Weld Quay to work as labourers.

Gradually, some jetties became monopolised by clan members. This was obvious in 1928 when the Lim, Chew, Tan and Yeoh Jetties were established with shed linings on one side of each jetty, marking the boundaries and distinction from each other.6

While the jetties were often viewed as a nuisance – being the cause of serious congestion along Weld Quay, the main thoroughfare of Penang Port – the residents there remained an essential labour force.7 Weld Quay’s prosperous entrepot trading in the 1920s, in turn, prompted the growth and expansion of the jetties’ communities. In 1929 the lighters of Weld Quay formed the major avenues of Penang Port (by total trade tonnage) instead of its counterparts from FMS Railway at Prai and the Penang Harbour Board.8

There are more than 30 different sectors of profession-based Chinese associations in Penang.3 Most of them have members in the same profession while a minority of them amalgamated traders within the same vicinity. More than a quarter of the profession-based associations are for food traders and hawkers (Figure 3), followed by the automobile and metal sectors, which comprised 7.5% and 6.6% respectively.

Clan Jetties in 1965.

The free port policy also helped sustain the Clan Jetties. Before the Second World War, each jetty played a different role at sea depending on their location and job opportunities within the clan. For example, the Lees, Ongs, Lims and Chews were mostly sampan men and general labourers; while the Tans and Yeohs dealt mostly with the firewood and charcoal trades.9 Regardless of their distinct roles, the lives of their respective communities were centred uniquely around the wooden planks and surrounding landscapes of the mudflat and seas.

Until the 1960s, the jetties played a crucial role for crewmen and cargo coming to the island – because of the port’s shallow front, larger ships were anchored out at sea on a daily basis; and the jetties’ wooden planks formed casual walkways for residents to take on lighters to reach these large ships.

Such lighter services were generally held by the clan members of each jetty to protect the interests of their own clans. For instance, the old Lee Jetty, situated near the harbour prior to the 1960s, had always been dominated by members of the Lee clan, especially when it came to Chinese ships.10

The jetties’ role is reflective of the times when the sea was indispensable to the island – not only in terms of port activities, but daily labour as well. In the late 1930s and at the height of the Sino-Japanese War, Lim Jetty served as an important gateway for local volunteers, including Chinese mechanical units dispatched from Penang to China. In 1939, for the same reason, it similarly witnessed the gathering of thousands along Weld Quay to greet volunteers from Perak, Kedah and Penang boarding sampans from Lim Jetty to get to larger ships.11

Many houses at Lim Jetty were burnt and destroyed during the bombings of the Second World War, but the post-war era saw the continued growth of the jetties and also improvements in living conditions for the residents.

Their lives were further secured under the Temporary Occupation Licences (TOL) granted in 1969, which guaranteed them legal ownership of their houses.12 The late 1960s also saw the installation of basic necessities such as water and electricity.13 The old Lee Jetty moved to its present site, along with the formation of Mixed Surname Jetty. All in all, between 1953 and 1977, the six jetties witnessed tremendous growth and expansion, increasing from 89 to 175 households.14

While the 1960s brought positive change to the jetties, their traditional role was challenged by diminishing trade at Penang harbour due to the erosion of the free port status. Following Malaysian independence in 1957, Penang’s economic policy was repositioned within the national framework; these changes prompted Penang’s port to be modernised at a fast pace to compete with other Malaysian ports such as Port Klang. In the late 1960s a number of deep wharves were improved with modern cargo facilities and deep water berths, further contributing to the jetties’ already declining role: with modern port technologies, manual labour became obsolete.15

The 1980s and 1990s saw movement away from sea trade, which spelt the near end of lighter services at the jetties. Without income from port activities, many residents – especially those in their middle age – became unemployed and began to move out of the jetties in search of work.

It was during this period that the jetties gradually shed their notorious image of being an area prone to gangsterism, smuggling and drug addiction.16 On top of that, the landscape underwent change – the mudflat and sea areas were gradually reclaimed to echo changing living trends, which became more land-based.

Despite all this, jetty residents are resilient – such as in the 1960s, when Penang was the stop for marine fishing, some residents were offered jobs on board Japanese tuna ships.17 The Clan Jetties continued to grow, sustained by the clan and kinship system, which still exists.

World Heritage Site – Consequences

While given rights to stay along the waterfront, the jetty communities faced constant pressure in the course of development. The early 2000s witnessed the demolition of many jetties due to fire and development, such as Peng Aun Jetty and Koay Jetty.18 Prevailing insecurities indirectly motivated the younger generation to move out.

In 2008 the inscription of George Town as a World Heritage Site marked an important transition for the jetties. While this has lessened their anxiety, the interest and tourism that ensued has caused some pain.

Chew Jetty, with the largest number of households, has been the most popular, but also the most affected. While some commercial activities, such as grocery stores, have operated for generations, the influx of tourists after 2008 led to the mushrooming of shops. While this phenomenon may, in some ways, have solved the problem of unemployment among residents, it has also had drastic social impacts.

Many residents have rented out their houses to business operators who are outsiders, and have themselves moved out of the jetty. Neighbours and relatives competing for business have culminated in increasing clashes within the community. Current jetty residents are forced to compromise with the presence of tourists, followed by noise pollution, the obstruction of walkways and the intrusion of private space.

The situation at Chew Jetty has raised the issue of preserving cultural heritage while securing community needs, such as income gained from tourism. Considering the Clan Jetties as a whole, the essential question lies in striking a balance. Generally, while the jetty communities cherish their lifestyles and social environment, further improvements are necessary – especially when it comes to sanitation and the maintenance of their wooden houses. This would enable the preservation of intangible cultural heritage, at the same time enable current residents to live more comfortably.

Situated between land and sea, the Clan Jetties remind us of our waterfront past, and reminds us of our collective identity. It also poses a question: if the sea once functioned as an important enabler for Penang, what then are the enablers of its future?

1“The Port of Penang”, Penang Master Plan 1964, p.25.


3Loh Wei Leng, 2009 “Penang’s Trade and Shipping in the Imperial Age”, In Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepot, Singapore: NUS Press, p.83-102.

4Penang Weld Quay Committee 1927, p.19

5Clement Liang, Eric Yeoh, The Clan Jetties of George Town. George Town Heritage Incorporated, p.1.

6Chan Lean Heng, “The Jetty Dwellers of Penang: Incorporation and Marginalisation of An Urban Clan Community”, Unpublished Master Thesis, Universiti Sains Malaysia, p.62.

7Penang Weld Quay Committee 1927.

8Chuleeporn Virunha, 2009 “From Regional Entrepot to Malayan Port”, In Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepot, Singapore: NUS Press, p.125.

9Chan Lean Heng, “The Jetty Dwellers of Penang: Incorporation and Marginalisation of an Urban Clan Community”, Unpublished Master Thesis, Universiti Sains Malaysia, P.66.

10Interview with Lee Jetty residents in 2010.

11Thanks for the clue from Lim Jetty’s resident; “各地機工在豐祥輪開聯 席會組馬華機工總隊”, Penang Sin Poe, 10 April 1939. “Thousands Bid Chinese Volunteers Farewell”, Malaya Tribute, 11 April 1939.

12George Town Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca Special Area Plan, A4.7.7. Prepared by AJM Planning and Urban Design Group Sdn. Bhd. and Arkitek Jururancang (M) Sdn. Bhd. for the State Government of Penang, 2016.

13Chan Lean Heng, “The Jetty Dwellers of Penang: Incorporation and Marginalisation of An Urban Clan Community”, Unpublished Master Thesis, Universiti Sains Malaysia, P.63-64.

14Ibid: 59.

155 Penang Master Plan 1970 Volume 2: Annex, Prepared for the Penang Master Plan Committee by Robert R. Nathan Associates INC, Consulting Economists. p.1-8.

16Detailed records and observations of Clan Jetties’ social and economic lives in the 1970s and 1980s were importantly captured by Dr Chan Lean Heng in her master thesis.

17Penang Master Plan 1970 Volume 2: Annex, Prepared for the Penang Master Plan Committee by Robert R. Nathan Associates INC, Consulting Economists. p.53-57.

18Clement Liang, Eric Yeoh, The Clan Jetties of George Town. George Town Heritage Incorporated, p.23&25.

Related Articles