Popular Posts

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Penang 1960 to 1980: Down memory lane

Penang 1960 to 1980: Down memory lane

By C S Wan

The journey

Back in the  1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when our children were still young, during the long school vacation, we would drive to Penang to visit my in-laws.
Back then there were no Federal highways and so we had to use the single-lane road with its twists and turns, steep inclines and bumps.

The road to Penang in the early 1960s

 Although there were few cars on the road, a non-stop journey would take more than eight hours. The long and tedious journey, however, was compensated by the captivating rustic scenery along the way. The terrain of forest-clad hills, interspersed with rubber plantations, would give way to flat, fertile paddy fields that stretched towards the distant horizon. At intervals we would pass through small towns, many with just a row of pre-war shop-houses.
Usually, around noon we would reach the small town of Bidor in Perak, just in time for lunch at one of our favourite restaurants which served wantan mee and char siew rice. A stop at Bidor would not be complete without purchasing its well- known chicken biscuits and perhaps driven by herd instinct, we joined the throng of tourists waiting to purchase this delicacy.
As the car headed northwards and crawled up the steep gradient, we would catch glimpses of verdant landscape dotted with isolated karst hills.

A karst hill along the road to Ipoh
Photo (2015) courtesy of Lenny 

 The sight never failed to fascinate and capture my imagination, as I thought about the caves and tunnels that may lay hidden deep within the bowels of the hills. Suddenly, a karst hill that resembled a lion’s head loomed in front of us and we knew we had arrived in Ipoh.

Ipoh town in the 1960s

 We would often break journey at Ipoh and put up the night at Tjien Tho’s house.  I remember our two young kids love playing with their two older children and Tjien Tho and his wife, Irene, would treat us to Ipoh’s iconic local food.
Early the next morning we would continue our journey to Penang and as we passed through Parit Buntar, Nibong Tebal and Simpang Empat, the sight would evoke sentimental memories for my wife, as she used to serve in these places during her nursing days and when undergoing her midwifery course. The hilly terrain soon gave way to flat landscape of paddy fields and mangrove swamps fringed with irrigation canals filled with dark, brackish water. The sight and scent of loamy earth that mingled with the smell of salt-laden sea air were clear indications we were in the proximity of the Butterworth ferry terminal.
As soon as the ferry docked, I guided the car up the ramp to the ferry’s lower deck and as the ferry chugged its way across the placid water of Penang Strait, we caught sight of seagulls circling and squalling above small fishing boats dwarfed by giant liners, tankers and merchant ships. 

A ferry at the Penang terminal
Photo credit: Travel2penang.wordpress.com

Standing against the starboard, we watched as the shoreline of the mainland began to fade in the distance while Penang Island loomed ahead. The hazy outline of buildings that shimmered in the distance was soon replaced by distinct concrete structures. Then above the raucous calls of the seagulls, the clatter of metals and the sudden shudder of the ferry heralded our arrival at the ferry terminal at Weld Quay.  

The house at Burmah Road

After a short drive from the ferry terminal, we arrived at my in-law's house. The double storey terrace house is located just a stone’s throw from the Union Primary School and overlooks a row of shop-houses. A stately tree with spreading branches that stood in front of the house provided shade from the sweltering heat of the afternoon sun.
I remember the house had an air well where Rose kept her pets and plants. Colourful budgerigars chirped and chattered amicably in a cage, graceful gold fish drifted back and forth in an aquarium, and a collection of potted cacti lined the wall. Rose would tend them with love and tender care and her caring and compassionate nature was not limited to her plants and pets, but extended to her friends and the less fortunate.

Rose and  Siew Leng
Photo taken at Charlie Chin Studio in 1960

 Beside the driveway, under a durian tree, there was a metal chair swing and on fine day I would sit there and watch the world go by. I let my eyes follow the itinerant Indian cake seller as he sauntered along the road, balancing a basket filled with nyonya cakes on his head. I watched, transfixed, as a trishaw pedlar expertly dodged and weaved his way through the maze of cars, bicycles, carts and pedestrians.  In front of the Union Primary School, an apom (pancake) vendor could be seen scooping sweet corn from a can and spreading them onto a soft, fluffy apom to which he would later add sliced banana.

An apom seller at Burmah Road

 As the sun rose higher in the sky, the cacophony of noises were drowned by the sound of tik tok, tik tok as an assistant to a wantan seller, clacked his bamboo clappers.
The tantalising aroma of char kuay teow wafted through the afternoon air, as a helper from a nearby coffee shop approached the house bearing plates of sizzling hot char kuay teow.  We were soon picking several strands of the flat noodles, mixed with generous amount of Chinese sausage, prawns and cockles with our chopsticks and letting the aromatic flavour linger in our mouths. After we had cleaned our plates with genuine satisfaction, the empty plates were left on the gate pillars for the helper to collect at his leisure.

 Foodie Trail

The weekends would see the start of a non-stop eating session. Usually, the day would begin with a lively discussion among the sisters and spouses as to which eateries or hawker stalls served the best Penang asam laksa, char kway teow, loh bak, cendol, hokkien mee  and other Penang local delights and after having reached a consensus  we would all head for the chosen outlet. However, we found out everyone was keen to take us to his or her favourite food outlet and so morning would find us eating murtabak with Nan and Hong Aik at a food stall  in Pulau Tikus and this would be followed with a trip to Air Itam with Lu for our lunch of Penang asam laksa and then in the evening Rose and Robert would entertain us with a sumptuous dinner at Eden Seafood Restaurant. The next day we would be taken to different food outlets at different locations to sample the best local cuisine on the island. I remember, after one of the foodie trails we were driving home with our bellies practically bursting at the seams when Robert called out , 
" That stall sells the best bubur gandum , in Penang. You must try it."
The car glided to a halt, next to a push cart and before we knew it, he had already ordered the irresistible sweet dessert.

Fun in the sun

When the mornings were fine, Hong Aik would take the children for a swim at Batu Ferringhi. Those days, virtually the whole stretch of beach was available to the general public and there were access routes to the beach as it was not blocked by the  line of hotels which occupy most of the beach front today.

The lovely stretch of sandy beach

 The children would swim or play in the shallow water while Hong Aik kept a watchful eyes on them.

Andrew and Lenny playing in the shallow water

Anita enjoying the water

 Sometimes, Hong Aik and I would race along the beach to a huge rock while the kids trail behind us. Exhausted, we would take a leisurely walk along the beach and helped the . children pick shells or dig for lala ( soft clams) in the soft, wet sand.

Taking a break

 The children also loved building sandcastles at the edge of the water and   from our vantage point, under a tree, we would watch them jump and scream in delight as the receding water washed away their lovely sandcastles. That magic moment remains with me to this very day.

Capturing the magic moment

I also remember Hong Aik and Rose taking us to a secluded stream somewhere along the road to Balik Pulau. As we stood on a wooden bridge that straddle the stream, I could see its clear, pristine water cascading and gurgling over smooth rocks and pebbles while tall trees and lush greenery lined both banks.

With Rose and Hong Aik on a wooden bridge

 Small freshwater fish darted between rocks and protruding roots. Knee-deep in its cool water the children tried to catch the fish which were just flashes of silver in the dappled shadows of over-hanging branches. 

With Lenny in knee-deep water

Andrew wading in the cool water

Andrew carrying his catch while others look on


Our stay in Penang was not limited to sampling the delectable and infinite array of hawker food, but we were also taken on regular trips to visit places of interest and among the most memorable were the visits to the Kek Lok Si temple in Air Itam, the butterfly farm in Teluk Bahang and Penang Hill.

Kek Lok Si temple in Air Itam

Rose and Siew Leng in front of a Buddhist temple.
The Kek Lok Si temple is reputed to be the largest in South East Asia.

Anita, Andrew and Lenny at the Kek Lok Si temple.
In the background is the seven-storey pagoda, one of the temple complex
main attractions.

Rose in the sprawling temple courtyard which is
dotted with beautiful flowering plants

Rose standing under an archway adorned with a plethora of lanterns

Butterfly farm at Teluk Bahang

At the entrance to the butterfly farm
From L to R: Wan, Siew Leng, Rose, Ah Leong

With Lenny at the entrance of the Butterfly Farm

The beautiful landscaped garden with stream, mini-waterfall
and lush greenery

On a bridge that straddled the stream

Butterflies flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar

Rekindling memories

In June of 2014, our young friend, Bee Choo after treating us to another Penang's  delicacy, took us for a drive round the city; a drive that evoked a montage of nostalgic memories.
She drove slowly along Gurney Drive, letting us  search for familiar landmarks, but what greeted our eyes was a vastly different scene. Where food courts and hawker stalls once stood, the place was now occupied by contemporary high-rise buildings.

Gurney Drive in 2014

 Across the road, I remember, there was a sandy beach lined with casuarina trees, where our children used to collect shells, but it was sadly missing. As we passed Northam Road we noticed most of the old mansions had been converted to modern eateries while others had been demolished and replaced with towering condominiums and today only the memories of their once glorious  past are left for us to fantasise. When we turned into Burmah Road, we told Bee Choo to stop at the row of houses before the Seven Days Adventist Church, as we wanted to have a look at the old house where we used to stay. However, we could not locate the house, as the whole row of houses had been converted into commercial buildings. 

The old house is now a commercial building

Is this the house?

My sisters-in-laws now have their own homes and the place has been rented out, but the memory of the old house and especially their occupants will live on in our hearts. Age and distance have made it difficult for us to visit my sis-in laws annually, but they are always in our thoughts and deep in our hearts we know we will be eternally grateful to them for their love, care, kindness and compassion.

Listen to Isla Grant and Daniel O'Donnell as they sing " Down Memory Lane"



  1. Enjoyed your article. Sad that the house is but a memory now.

  2. Hi Pepper Lim,
    Thanks for visiting the Blog and glad to know you enjoyed the article. Yes, sometimes we wish time can stand still.