A Market that Reeks of History

By Dennis Ong, William Tham

August 2021 FEATURE
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The fountain at the entrance was likely a drinking fountain being too small for handwashing Drinking water was not easily accessible during the early 20th century so such facilities were introduced for the public seen in places like Singapores 1864 Gemmill Drinking Fountain and even Balik Pulaus 1882 Fountain Roundabout for livestock The nearby keramat is just a few steps away out of sight. Pictures taken by Monty Williams

THE CAMPBELL STREET Market was built on what was once part of a Muslim cemetery, colloquially called “Utan Mayet”1 – the forest of corpses. There are however few signs of this history etched in the heritage brickwork and Victorian neoclassical architecture of this oldest market building of its kind in George Town.2

Located deep in the dense urban core, it would henceforth be regulated by the regime of order and sanitation imposed by the colonial authorities. Yet to this day it still maintains both cultural and religious significance, even as daily market activity continues unabated in a building that has changed little over the years.

Photograph showing Campbell Street Market in 1968. Pictures taken by Monty Williams a traveller to Penang He still has fond memories of his week here and remembers purchasing a star sapphire ring at Nam Loong Jewellers for his wife and even had a suit made by a local tailor.

Tropicality and Sanitation

Tropicality is the notion that nature overshadows culture or human elements in the architecture of the tropics, linked in turn to the dominance of colonial cultural power.3 The tropics had been hard for the colonists to “tame”, and they viewed it in contradicting ways – on one hand, it was an Eden, (“positive tropicality”) under “the permanent dominion of sensuality” conjured by exoticised tropes ranging from lush landscapes to unpredictable cloud patterns, and down to the air, shadows and scents;4 and on the other, an intolerable place of inhospitable sickness (menacing or “negative tropicality”).

One constant remained: the belief that the “equable climates and fertile soils in the tropics produce lazy inhabitants”.5 Hence the need for order, rationality and European discipline. It is not difficult to see how “tropicality” is a concept equivalent to that of “Otherness” – the “temperate” West against the tropical non-West.6 However, these tropes alone could not substantiate how tropical architecture should be defined and evolve, even if its foundations in a Western idea of modernity was largely imposed through colonialism, and not merely dictated by aesthetics and climatic factors. At the same time, its existence evinced the tension and negotiations needed to arrive at the completion of a modern, standard building that qualified as “tropical”.7

Meanwhile, the regime of hygiene took longer to be established, with its physical manifestation in the modern market. At the time of construction, the miasma theory of disease transmission was being supplanted by germ theory, but one imagines that vestiges of the former remained. The architecture of the tropics provided an opportune testing ground for new ideas and approaches to combat sickness. Miasma, believed to be a “noxious vapor ... associated with both the natural and the built environment ... generated by human bodies through breathing and sweating ... [was] perceived to accumulate in large amounts in overcrowded and poorly ventilated interiors”.8 Thus the construction of hospitals or barracks allowed for plenty of light and ventilation – which in any case was healthier for their users. The market thus featured this, and the maintenance of health and sanitation was welded to scientific and statistical data.

Although it contains the caption "Markt in gevogelte in Penang” – it has been identified that the sale of poultry actually took place at the Central Market in KL in 1928. Photographed by the Federal Rubber Stamp Co. (Penang-Ipoh-KL-Singapore), from the collection of Universiteit Leiden.

When the market was being built, British interference in the local economy was mounting, and the results were the occurrence of incidents such as KL’s “Daching Riots”, where attempts at standardisation of measurement gave way to violent disturbances “at a historical juncture when trade activities were dominated by Chinese immigrants”.9

Regardless, such scruples would not stand in the way of the establishment of a modern model building. The Indian Muslim community was compensated for the loss of its cemetery, which was relocated to the outlying Jalan Perak, and today, the features of the market have largely remained the same, and renovations and extensions have kept its vintage look.

Spectacle and Religion

In 1938, two large crowds were drawn to the market. The first watched the delivery of an enormous “koay kow” fish, tipping the scales at over 300 pounds,10 and just a little over two months later, the second gawked at a severed ear belonging to the unfortunate proprietor of a lodging house and an accompanying placard in Chinese characters, strung up on display opposite the market.11 It was very much a “public stage”, out of the scope of the regime of order. The local Hokkien names of the nearby streets also have a very different flavour from the official ones: “Carnarvon Street” is “Beh Chai Keh” (“Vegetable-vending Street’’), while “Seck Chuan Lane” is “Beh Bak Keh”, (“Pork-vending Street”).12

Not all of the market’s significance was secular. One grave remained in place, for its planned removal was objected to by the Muslim community. This was considered a keramat, or shrine, and belonged to Wali Mustapha, whom Khoo Salma Nasution points out was the “patron saint of poulterers”, and “[t]he site around the grave is still occupied by poulterers today”.13 This may be one of the least-known Muslim shrines in Penang, as the street itself slowly became more famous for its historical jewellery and upmarket commercial trade.

Coincidentally, the market is also the site of major festivities during the Hungry Ghost Month, culminating in the great open-air bonfire where paper offerings are burnt for ancestors. Janet Pillai found that committees were arranged for the organisation of the festival, comprising not just the traders but also local residents, which in turn were tied to local authorities. “One large committee comprises of shopkeepers … and three smaller committees composed of vegetable vendors, chicken and fish vendors, and pork vendors who operate out of the core market building.”14 These committees liaise between the traders and the administrators, and thus exercise worldly and spiritual power. We notice that similar power is vested in the Trader’s Association in KL’s Chinatown, so quite possibly trade and commerce associations generally have strong links to such festivals.

Gentrification and Heritage

Central Market in KL (section highlighted in yellow by Dennis Ong), circa 1900s. Photographed by G.R. Lambert & Co. (Singapore), from the collection of Universiteit Leiden. Credits - Universiteit Leiden.

But what fate awaits heritage markets? It is useful now to study its erstwhile counterpart in the capital.

After the death of Yap Ah Loy, the famed Kapitan China, the authorities were quick to demolish the marketcum- gambling den that he had established. The market area, in front of Yap’s house (where the Pacific Express Hotel stands today), witnessed his own installation, which was celebrated with pagodas, altars, wayang, ronggeng-ronggeng and troupes of Malay and Chinese actors.15 Not just commodities arrived; Frank Swettenham once reported that this was the site of the brisk delivery of severed heads belonging to the Kapitan’s enemies, and the absence of municipal services saw constant outbreaks of illness and a prevailing stench which apparently overpowered visitors to Yap’s home.16

But the Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board, precursor to Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur – the City Hall – would do away with that.17 Despite its humdrum name, the Board was a key instrument of governance, and even the replacement Central Market of 1889 would not live up to its standards. Replacing this “disgrace” to the city,18 the new Central Market of 1938, with its “ironite cement floor” and calorex windows “specifically made for the tropics to exclude heat and admit light”, won praise.19 The Board was quick to further implement a sanitary measure that would today seem counter-intuitive to climate change mitigation: forbidding the “familiar” green leaf wrappers that were deemed “insanitary”, and instead prescribed only the use of “clean, unprinted paper” for wrapping raw meats.20

In the post-independence period, the market was once again slammed by the papers for its unhygienic nature.21 Before long the building was shuttered, only to be rebranded as Pasar Seni for the benefit of visitors and tourists, a hub of air-conditioned tropicality as the nearby area went through a spate of gentrification, doing away with the Pasar Karat flea market and the railways. With that came a certain level of policing, seen when a couple was briefly detained for “holding hands”.22

Is there a need to choose between the heritage and day-to-day market life, or the option of a new building like that of nearby Chowrasta Market, or to transform into a decidedly upmarket venue? Perhaps what might also be worth probing is the hybridity shown in the ways marketplaces have been used and in the influences that have informed their designs. By understanding how the idea of tropicality came about, we can question how contemporary perceptions of tropicality are translated into building designs and also our reliance on the ubiquitous air-conditioner. Have we continued to perpetuate the same ideas from the past? Regardless, for now the vintage brickwork stays, and so does its social fabric, determinedly anachronistic yet relevant.

  • Khoo, Salma Nasution. 1999. “Colonial Intervention & Transformation of Muslim Waqf Settlements in Urban Penang:Second Edition. Petaling Jaya: SIRD, p.77.
  • Pillai, Janet. 2020. Cultural Mapping. Petaling Jaya: SIRD, p.80.
  • Chang, Jiat-Hwee. 2016. A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience. London: Routledge, p.6.
  • Stagno, Bruno. 2001. p.65–92, 78, as cited in Beynon, David. 2017. “‘Tropical’ Architecture in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Tropicality, Modernity and Identity”, Fabrications, 27:2. doi: 10.1080/10331867.2017.1295502, p. 259.
  • Chang, op. cit., p.7.; and Arnold, David. 2002. p.10, as cited in Bowd, Gavin and Clayton, Daniel. 2020. Impure and Worldly Geography: Pierre Gourou and Tropicality, London: Routledge, p.5.
  • Beynon, David. 2017. “‘Tropical’ Architecture in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Tropicality, Modernity and Identity.” Fabrications, pp. 260–1.
  • Tariq Jazeel. 2013. Sacred Modernity: Nature, Environment, and the Postcolonial Geographie of Sri Lankan Nationhood. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, p. 99.
  • Chang, op. cit., p. 100.
  • Por, Heong Hong and Tan, Miau Ing. 2021. “Contested Colonial Metrological Sovereignty: The daching riot and the regulation of weights and measures in British Malaya”. Modern Asian Studies, p. 1-20. doi:10.1017/S0026749X21000019.
  • “Fishy!” Morning Tribune. 14 June 1938, p. 22.
  • “Human Ears [sic] in Market Place”. Morning Tribune. 30 August 1938, p.2.
  • Pillai, op. cit., p. 84.
  • Khoo, op. cit., p. 81.
  • Pillai, op. cit., p. 92. There has been plenty of interest in wet markets and their links to the Hungry Ghost Festival, as seen in a 1990 issue of the Pulau Pinang magazine, vol. 2 no. 4, edited by Khoo Su Nin.
  • Middlebrook, S.M. 1983. Yap Ah Loy. Kuala Lumpur: Art Printing Works, p. 39.
  • Middlebrook, op. cit., p. 83, 93.
  • Gullick, J.M. 2000. A History of Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, p. 95–6.
  • “A Disgrace To K.L.” Malaya Tribune. 24 September 1934, p. 10.
  • “K.L. Market Is Most Modern In The East.” Morning Tribune. 5 December 1938, Page 3.
  • “Leaf Wrappers not Allowed.” Morning Tribune. 13 June 1938, p.3.
  • “Pasar Besar Kuala Lumpur tempat yang paling kotor”. Berita Harian. 29 August 1968, p.8.
  • “Girl and boy friend detained for 45 minutes for ‘holding hands’ at market Accused of ‘behaving in offensive manner.’” Straits Times (Overseas ed). 5 August 1989, p.9.
Dennis Ong

Dennis Ong is a heritage and culture enthusiast with a great fondness for all things KL - his kampung. He enjoys exploring towns and cities with his camera during his free time. Currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Visual Culture, he is also a member of the Museum Volunteers, JMM.

William Tham

first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Book Prize in 2017. His second novel, The Last Days, was published in 2020. He is the editor of Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.