The newsagent on China Street

This column is dedicated to “ordinary” personalities in George Town, whose contributions to city life we take for granted. They are so normal to the street scene that they tend to become “invisible”. However, it is these people who keep the place ticking, and who sustain, in Unesco speak, its Outstanding Universal Values.

Syed Ibramsha is a very happy and friendly newsagent. His stall is based at the TNB box where China Street meets Beach Street. He is a working-day fixture selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes and sweets off his small metal pushcart stall, opening at 7.20am and closing at 6pm. It’s a good location and cars can pull in without obstructing traffic. He uses his hands expressively and has a great warm smile.

Cars will pull up and hands pass money through the window, no words said. Syed has, over time, matched each journal to each car. He continues his conversation with you as different people come along. He passes a box of cigarettes, a few sweets, folds a newspaper and takes their money without a break in the story being told. He knows everyone.

Last year I got worried. He was away from his stall for several months. The street seemed to miss his energy. I missed his shouting “Hello Kak!” and the wave of his hand as I went by. The man running the stall said that Syed had gone back to India for heart surgery. Syed tells me proudly now that his surgery was, in fact, done at the GH here in Penang and shows me the impressive scar from open-heart surgery. It all went well so he’d spent time away in India with his family before coming back to man his business.

This column is dedicated to “ordinary” personalities in George Town, whose contributions to city life we take for granted. They are so normal to the street scene that they tend to become “invisible”. However, it is these people who keep the place ticking, and who sustain, in Unesco speak, its Outstanding Universal Values.

Syed’s father was from Sungai Petani. He worked in a restaurant owned by an ex-Japanese soldier and later opened his own. His mother was from Southern India. Syed moved to George Town in 1981 and lived on Cintra Street for two years, then moved into No. 15 China Street for 15 years. Between No. 15, 17 and 19 China Street, there were about 60 tenants, each paying RM10 per month. Most worked as labourers on Weld Quay. He remembers people playing and relaxing on China Street after work. The five-foot-ways were used to dry goat and cow hides for leather. Syed now lives on Chulia Lane, renting a house with friends. He is 60 years old.

Syed is married and has one child, who is now 30 and who runs his own business. His wife moves between Penang and South India. In India she stays with his brother’s family. His brother manages their father’s land in India.

Syed owns the metal pushcart stall, and every evening he pushes it to the front of the Tokyo Marine building, keeping it out of the way until morning. He has been his own boss here for the last 32 years. He rides his bicycle to and from Chulia Lane each day and can always be spotted riding upright, smiling, in his chequered sarong and collared T-shirt. This is his uniform.

His newspaper stock is delivered every morning, then balance returned and paid for at the end of each day. The magazines, cigarettes and sweets are sold and returned on a monthly basis. Items that are damaged are also returned. He earns approximately 20 sen out of each ringgit sold. Nowadays he’s likely to take Saturdays and Sundays off.

Here on the corner of China Street, Syed has seen the future fast forward and morph in front of him. He has seen the transition from houses full of people to them becoming abandoned shells, from quiet inner city roads to the overflowing jammed streets of today. Syed’s little corner business is easy to dismiss but this man is dedicated and special. On their way to work, people take for granted the casual convenience of picking up the newspaper, a magazine, a box of cigarettes, but if Syed were gone, they would, like me, miss this corner stall and its friendly vendor.

Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson is a Malaysian artist and designer. She grew up on estates and has lived in Penang for the last 14 years. She is inspired by Malaysia's incredible environment, heritage and natural history. She had a magnificent childhood and likes projects.



Related Articles