Walk Zone: Pulau Tikus - Penang's Most Liveable District?

By Lim Sok Swan

September 2021 November 2021 FEATURE
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AS IT IS today, Pulau Tikus may not be as densely filled with shophouses as George Town is, but what is clear is that it was very much a direct outgrowth of the city centre. One of Penang's longest streets, Jalan Burma, used to seamlessly join the two townships before the redirecting of heavy traffic made that journey the zig-zag undertaking that it is today. In full, Jalan Burma stretches eastwards from the middle part of Jalan Penang for about 3.7km, till it hits Jalan Gottlieb at Penang Chinese Girls' High School.

While George Town was illustriously named after King George III (1738-1820) of Great Britain, Pulau Tikus more enticingly means Mouse Island. According to the records of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the place was first populated by Thai-Portuguese Catholics fleeing religious persecution in Phuket, Thailand in 1810 by the invading Burmese.

Dato' Dr. Anthony E. Sibert, one of only a few Eurasians left living in the area, told Penang Monthly in 2015 that these early residents of Pulau Tikus arrived on sampans and crossed dunes on the beach that looked like a string of mice – hence, Mouse Island.1

It's not that no one has protested against this daunting place name. In 1953, Mrs Khoo Choo Poon from the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP), urged in her election campaign that Pulau Tikus be renamed. Some residents opposed this. They were happy with the name, and were proud of it. It nevertheless sparked a discussion about the origin of that name.

Varied Origins

One of the versions claimed that the place was a swampy forest inhabited by giant rats. The group fleeing Phuket that settled here before the British came killed these in large numbers and buried them in huge heaps by the sea. When the first Briton came and enquired about the strange mounts, the residents informed him that they were "Pulau Tikus". The graveyards stood out like islands at the sea's edge.2

Lorong Bangkok. Photo by: Nic Lee

A retired inspector of schools, Encik Zainul Abidin, had another version to tell. At the first general meeting of the Penang Historical Society held in 1954, he said that there was a tiny island shaped like a mouse off the northeastern coast of Penang. People from the town who wanted to pay a visit to this island would embark from the North Beach at the endpoint of Jalan Cantonment, where there was a sizeable fishing village. This was before Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong further up the coast were properly settled, from which such a journey would have been much easier and shorter.3

One can easily google to have a look at this legendary island today – a huge mass of rocks and boulders punctuated by tiny stretches of beach. A lighthouse stands there, alongside the tomb of a holy man, Seyad Mohamed Kuddoos Oliyullah. Visitors have been known to journey there to offer prayers at the tomb and to wish for their dreams to come true.4

Gurney Drive

The North Beach was renamed Gurney Drive in 1952 after Henry Gurney, High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya, after he was ambushed and killed by communists.5 This seaside promenade was once a famous food haven, offering cool breezes and clean swimming opportunities.6 A hawker centre remains at the end of this drive today. People now come here more for its shopping centres – Gurney Plaza (2001) and Gurney Paragon (2013), and for the food and beverage outlets within. In the midst of Gurney Paragon stands St Jo's. This heritage building was once the St. Joseph's Novitiate for the Christian Brothers (1918-1988), as well as a teachers' training college; and before this, it was a two-storey chapel built in 1916. St. Jo's is flanked by two luxury residential towers and the mall.

As a town, Pulau Tikus centres around its famous Wet Market. Often known as a "rich man's market", one can find the plethora of premium and expensive fresh produce here, and relatively wealthy customers from affluent neighbourhoods in the proximity frequent the place.7

Also situated close by are many embassies, consulates and private colleges, alongside major private hospitals and international organisations.

Many traditional businesses still occupy these streets, such as Ban Joo Lee the biscuits seller, the Lay Seng bicycle shop, various Chinese medical halls, laundry services, coffee shops and so on.

Pulau Tikus is one of the few communities in Penang which has successfully transformed itself into a modern commercial centre. Banks, restaurants, convenience stores, and an endless variety of shops all prefer to be based here.

Richly Cultured

Most intriguingly, several old communities remain along both sides of Jalan Burma, including the Siamese Village (Kampung Siam), an Arab-Muslim community called Kampung Syed, and the Chinese village, Kampung Sirih. The picturesque Lorong Bangkok is also located here with its 41 beautiful symmetrical double-storey houses built by the millionaire Cheah Leong Keah in 1928.

The Eurasian Village (Kampung Serani) has sadly disappeared, its lands sold in 1984 to make way for development.8 The only trace of it is in road names such as Leandros Lane and Solok Serani. The Church of the Immaculate Conception, the second-oldest church in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Penang, founded in 1811 by the Portuguese Eurasian immigrants, maintains its status as an essential landmark of the town.9 The community and the church initiated two schools in the neighbourhood, the St. Xavier's Branch School (1906-7) and Convent Pulau Tikus (1922).

On the same street as the Siamese Village, are the grand Burmese and Thai Buddhist temples, long the town's major tourist attractions. As early as in 1803, four lady trustees founded the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, and it subsequently developed into an active centre for Buddhist learning and practice.10 The Wat Chaiyamangalaram Thai Buddhist Temple came in 1900. It was visited several times by the Thai Royal family. In June 1962, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit performed the religious ceremony of unveiling the eyes of the 108ft Reclining Buddha at the temple, the world's third-largest Buddha of its type.11

Pulau Tikus is also an important town for Hindus. Within walking distance from the town centre stands The Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Hindu Temple, also known as Hilltop Temple. The world-renown temple complex hosts thousands of worshippers from many nations celebrating the Thaipusam festival every year. To reach the temple, visitors have to climb up 513 stairs to access the seven-storey Chola-style main tower.12

Recreational Spaces

Penang Botanic Garden. Photo by: Nic Lee

This temple stands at the beginning of Jalan Kebun Bunga. Just beyond it lies the popular Penang City Park. Named Penang Youth Park when it was opened in 1972 by the third governor of Penang, Tun Syed Sheh Al-Haj bin Syed Hassan Barakbah, the place offers rich recreational open space for people of all ages.

At the end of Jalan Kebun Bunga, at the foothills of Penang Hill, you find one of the main reasons why Pulau Tikus is such a popular residential area. Here, you find the sprawling Penang Botanic Gardens. The shady walks and hill trails here are perfectly suited for urban dwellers who wish to move their limbs, either to start the day or to end it. It was from this point that Penang Hill was first accessed over 200 years ago.

The Botanic Gardens was established by the British in 1884 on what was then an old granite quarry site. It remains Penang's favourite recreation spot.

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.