Neighbourhood Support Sustains Small Businesses in George Town

loading Lorong Toh Aka has been given a rejuvenation following the opening of Ome by Spacebar Coffee and Komichi Tea House in 2017. Photo: Pan Yi Chieh

Photo: Regina Hoo

WHEN ONE TALKS about new creative ventures, nine times out of 10 it has to do with the uniqueness of the products and services on offer. Not much thought is given to the locale where they have decided to set up shop – or their relations with the neighbourhood.

Sustainability, if not outright success, does depend on having a supportive environment. Such a support system definitely exists on Lorong Toh Aka and along Lebuh Pantai, one that is anchored in daily interactions.

Over the years, friendships were fostered between vendors, customers and residents in the neighbourhood,1 and this is shown in many unremarkable ways, e.g. helping to fix a leaky pipe or explaining government notices to elderly folks; but these also shed light on the societal changes that have been taking place since the repeal of the Rent Control Act.

Now in her late 60s, Ooi See Han of the Beng Geok Hong Glove Puppet troupe has lived most of her life at Lorong Toh Aka. She recalls how in the 1980s, the air was filled with chatter and noise but with the gradual outflow of residents in the 1990s, the lane soon grew quiet. “I feel much safer now that we have young people moving into the neighbourhood; the lane gets very dark at night.”

Lebuh Pantai, or Beach Street, is still regarded as George Town’s central business area. Once the focal point of Penang’s sea trade, its surroundings prospered through the years with the establishment of various commercial and cultural activities. Its penultimate stretch2 especially, saw a rejuvenation in the 2010s when one by one, cafes began opening up there.

Photo: Regina Hoo

“The lane gets very dark at night.” Photo: Regina Hoo

Ome by Spacebar Coffee and Komichi Tea House breathed new life into Lorong Toh Aka in 20173; and located at a nearby row of shop houses is Urban Daybreak, to which breakfast and lunchtime crowds flock. Other exciting cafes include Le Petit Four Patisserie and Narrow Marrow, the much-loved social haunt for local creatives, which relocated from Lebuh Carnarvon during the pandemic.

The pastries and coffee served at Le Petit Four Patisserie. Photo: Regina Hoo

Making Friends

Le Petit Four Patisserie

In 2013 Hooi Shing, a trained engineer, embarked on a learning journey to France to learn about pastry-making. For a year, she immersed herself in butter, flour and all things sugary, and dreamt of starting her own shop back home – the idea of a French patisserie was still a novelty back then.

To test market receptivity, Hooi Shing first started selling her baked goods at the Sunday pop-up market at Hin Bus Depot, where they were scrumptiously devoured. Later, she opened a small shop along Lorong Hutton where she met future co-owner Elveen, whose passion for coffee was just as ardent as Hooi Shing’s love for French pastry. Together, these partners decided to look for a bigger space and in a less bustling neighbourhood. They wanted an area whose charm and character are still nebulously felt.

Co-owners of Le Petit Four Patisserie, Elveen and Hooi Shing (right). Photo: Pan Yi Chieh

“When Le Petit Four Patisserie opened on Lebuh Pantai in 2018, the street was still relatively quiet – we are quite a walk from where ChinaHouse is located, and Penangites don’t like walking very far.” But the patisserie’s shopfront, replicated to look like a traditional French patisserie with its turquoise blue door and expansive window for natural light to filter through, soon catapulted it from anonymity to social media stardom.

But tasteful décor aside, Hooi Shing and Elveen are hopeful that the quality of pastries and cakes, as well as the coffee served, is able to attest to its enduring popularity, which has weathered even the adverse effects of Covid-19.

Le Petit Four Patisserie has amassed a sizeable following. “Some of our elderly neighbours who first visited the shop out of curiosity are now among our regulars.” The patisserie has occasional expatriates for customers as well, who come in for a little taste of home.

Utile

In 2014 Terance Chen founded his brand Utile, which specialises in tailor-made leather products. For four years, he shopped around for the perfect studio before settling into his current one at Lebuh Carnarvon; and with Lorong Toh Aka situated just a short walk from his studio, Chen has integrated the neighbourhood into his social circle. Frequenting cafes and tea house to meet with friends has become an everyday norm, and for a young urban dweller, Chen says this social network has brought much joy to working in George Town.

Chen at work in his studio.

Chen has integrated Lorong Toh Aka into his social circle. Photo: Pan Yi Chieh

As an artisan, Chen imports high-quality leather from certificated foreign brands and fashions them into products, from bags to belts. It certainly is a labour of love; a simple leather bag takes him at least eight hours to make, while an intricately designed purse can take Chen anywhere from 24 to 36 hours to complete. He recalls how an encouraging prompt, following a stimulating exchange on fashion at Narrow Marrow in the 2010s, expanded his exploration of leather fashion to closely follow the developments of local traditional leather artisans. “Experimenting with leather and textiles can sometimes take months and years to see results. Once, and I discovered this purely by chance, I found a way to make leather semi-transparent to light.”

One of the first products Chen created were aprons, for which he found ready customers among the proprietors of the Toh Aka neighbourhood cafes. Though a “newcomer” in George Town, Chen has acculturated himself nicely, learning the history of the area and maintaining friendly relations with his neighbours.

1 Note that “neighbourhood” is used loosely in this context.
2 The junction between Lebuh Pantai, Lorong Toh Aka and Lebuh Acheh.
3 In the Hokkien dialect, Lorong Toh Aka is referred to as Phak Tik Kay Hang A, Kam Kong Lai Hoan Lor to refer to its proximity to an old cluster of ironsmiths.

Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.



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