Walk Zone: Air Itam - Once the de facto Capital of Penang

By Lim Sok Swan

September 2021 FEATURE
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Kek Lok Si Temple.
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AIR ITAM (Black Waters, a commonplace name throughout the Malay Peninsula) is an inland town in Penang Island. It is located at the northeastern foothills and blessed with vibrant natural environs. Unsurprisingly, its modern history is related to agricultural and plantation trade, and to ecological preservation.

In fact, the Penang Botanic Gardens was initially based in Air Itam Valley. That started out as a spice garden before being relocated to the current site in 1884.

Furthermore, the Penang Zoological Gardens was founded in Air Itam in the 1920s, and housed more than 10 types of animals. This was probably the country's earliest zoo; and was closed down before the Japanese Occupation, never to be reopened again.1

Today, everyday proof of its existence is obvious only in a road in Air Itam that still bears the name Jalan Zoo.

As mentioned, Air Itam was once an important agricultural production area. One of the oldest Malay settlements in the area, Kampung Melayu, was formerly a rubber estate and home to several fruit orchards owned by private individuals. This explains why there are still seven roads in the district today named after banana types: Jalan Pisang Nangka, Jalan Pisang Nipah, Jalan Pisang Raja, Jalan Pisang Embun, Jalan Pisang Awak, Jalan Pisang Tanduk and Jalan Pisang Rastali.2

Kampung Melayu itself got its name when the British gazetted the Malay settlement on site after the Second World War; its history can however be traced back to the 1800s. A famous Sufi teacher, Sheikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy from Lebuh Acheh, settled there in 1870. He was a towering figure indeed, and the grey eminence for the Muslim community in Penang seeking guidance on religion and on daily matters. After he died in 1881, he was buried in the majestic Muslim Mausoleum Kampung Melayu, the largest of its kind in Penang.3

Today, Kampung Melayu is more popularly known for its nasi kandar. The Air Itam Valley, thanks to its topography, became a haven for countless Penangites who were trying to avoid Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. The 1947 census shows that Air Itam had a population of 13,478, more than that of Port Swettenham, Sungai Petani or Bukit Mertajam. It was in fact Penang's de facto capital.4

Rapid Development

The proposal to include this district in the George Town Municipality was first raised in 1949 but only became a reality in the 1970s, when the George Town City Council combined with the Penang Island Rural District Council to form Penang Island Municipal Council.5

The rapid development of post-war Air Itam can be observed in the housing schemes in and around the district, such as Rumah Seratus (1960s), Rifle Range (1970s), Bandar Baru Air Itam or Farlim (1980s) and Paya Terubong Residential Area (1980s).

The beautiful Air Itam Dam is witness to this series of developments. Commissioned in 1962, it serves as a vital component of Penang's water supply infrastructure. It is also a favourite local recreation spot where 2.7km of walking trails can be found, and where young and old can do simple exercises such as jogging and cycling.6

Photo by: Ooi Kok Hin

Housing project after housing project has made Air Itam a dense residential area, and home to a large segment of Penang's illustrious population. Lebuhraya Thean Teik and Jalan Air Itam are two of the major thoroughfares leading into Air Itam. Constant traffic jams lengthen the distance between work and rest for many living here. Be that as it may, the backdrop of verdant hills in more than one direction appears to make up for that discomfort. As long as these hills remain tree-covered, they provide support and solace to counterbalance the hustle and bustle of this vibrant part of Penang.

Air Itam is also home to Malaysia's first British Colonial Hill Station. Penang Hill, or Flagstaff Hill (sengkee suarh in local Hokkien parlance) remains one of the most popular weekend spots for Penangites and domestic tourists in general. Its trails are legendary and it now hosts globally renown destinations such as The Habitat Penang Hill’s treetop walk. Indeed, its rich history requires that it be treated as a Penang Walk Zone in its own right.

Temple Complexes

Air Itam also boasts many religious sites built into the hillside.

The Kek Lok Si (Temple of Supreme Bliss) is definitely the most famous of these. It is Air Itam's most unforgettable landmark and definitely a must-see attraction. Its cultural value, however, stretches far beyond that. After its earliest buildings were completed in 1891, Kek Lok Si soon developed into one of Southeast Asia's most important Buddhism centres. Moreover, it houses many valuable architectural features and heritage relics, such as plaques of calligraphies by the Guangxu Emperor and the Empress Dowager Cixi of the Manchu Qing Dynasty; these indeed reveal the temple's regional significance at the beginning of the 20th century.

Coming to Penang and not setting foot in Kek Lok Si would therefore be like going to Beijing without visiting to the Forbidden City. Many famous personalities have indeed graced this temple's halls and walkways, and among those who left their autographs behind was the Qing Dynasty's most famous reformist and philosopher, Kang Yu-wei.

Aerial view of Air Itam Dam.

One of the temple's finest buildings is the Pagoda of a Million Buddhas. Completed in 1930, this tiered-building rises about 100ft high and exhibits an innovative combination of Chinese, Thai and Burmese architecture. It strongly represents the diverse cultures that had come to Penang by then, and that had been influencing its daily life over the last century.

Many temples in Air Itam are still the sustenance of many Penangites to this day. The Thai Seong Loh Koon Temple is one of the easier to reach. It is one of the oldest of the temples built at the end of the 19th century. Not far from it is the Cheok Tong Temple, located where the Penang Hill trails begin, from where visitors can gasp at a beautiful aerial view of Air Itam.

Hawkers and Markets

Most of the glorious delicacies found in Air Itam are hawker ware such as duck rice, yong tau foo (tofu filled with meat paste), popiah (spring rolls), and asam laksa. These flavours have been tested by discerning tongues over two centuries, and have indeed withstood the test of time. Most of these are found in and around the Air Itam Market. With the large population now living in the valley, new markets such as those at Bandar Baru Air Itam and Paya Terubong have appeared, but these do not detract the charm of the original market, which remains the orientation point and cultural centre of the whole area.

Photo by: Ooi Kok Hin

Built very soon after the beginning of Penang's modern history, Air Itam Market was rebuilt after a big devastating fire in 1935. It remains an important node for local shopping. The goods and services on sale include fresh and frozen food, hot and cold snacks, vehicle repairs and laundry, etc., alongside items for young and old tourists. Traditional pastries can be found here too, alongside famous shops such as Syarikat Cheong Kim Chuan, which specialises in nutmeg products.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, tourism was an essential source of income for many here. One of Air Itam's famous asam laksa stalls fell victim to the pandemic and closed down in May 2021.7 But by and large, there is no doubt that this town in the valley that had survived wars and occupation, will flourish again once the pandemic is over.

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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.