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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Introducing the Penang Walk Zones Project

By Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly, Cover Story, September 2021 

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IF THERE IS one motto that Penang Monthly can use to describe its mission and vision, it is “Knowing Penang”. That means capturing to the best of its ability all there is to know about Penang: Its past and prospects, its people and places, and its dreams and fantasies.

Humans as Story Addicts

As is the case with individuals, places are comprised of narratives. But unlike individuals, places are able to accommodate endless stories. The more tales there are to tell, the more credible a place becomes. Remembering history becomes a responsibility every generation has to the location they inhabit.

But where a place is overwhelmed by physical change and by migration, things get forgotten. Its inhabitants fail in their task to pass on stories so that others may wonder and gasp at what they may not have been a part of individually but which they still can feel to be common human experiences. In that sense, they participate, and in that sense, their lives are enriched.

We are all story addicts, and a magazine like Penang Monthly therefore aims to supply what Penang lovers long for – stories about Penang. And to do this in detail, Penang Institute proposes to discover, discern and describe the distinctive histories of its many townships and settlements.

George Town may now be listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site, but the history of Penang and the wealth of stories about its people do not really need to be acknowledged by any distant international body in order to be fabulous. They merely need to be revived, remembered and publicised by those who live here. Knowing how history permeates one’s surroundings is the best way to know that one belongs to that place. It makes you and you make it.

You are never foreign to the place you live in if you participate in its continuing narrative. It is a tragedy indeed for any generation to let stories they inherited or stories they have lived, to fade away as mere specks of dust. And so, to know a place, we must recall memories, and narrate them all to here. Put together, these reminiscences portray the place, define it, and locate its uniqueness. That is the living legacy of a place, and that is what makes it worth visiting.

Introducing the Penang Walk Zones

Therefore, Penang Institute, through Penang Monthly, would like to begin the important process of highlighting distinct districts in Penang. We seek to collect interesting information about them to weave into a database over the coming years, making that available to all who are lucky enough to visit Penang and to all who wish they could visit.

We call these townships Penang Walk Zones to suggest that the distinctiveness of each place is best enjoyed on foot, and best savoured if they take their time about it. No visual visit can replace a considered walk through the place; and a rushed car ride through the place is to mistake a forest for a tree.

In discovering the businesses, places of worship, wet markets and hotels found in these Walk Zones, visitors also help the local economy to flourish despite the pandemic and despite the concentrated shopping habits inculcated by giant malls. These lucky people will also discover the many layers of legacy that places in Penang continue to conceal.

This baseline project by Penang Institute, meant to list known stories and extract yet unknown details about Penang from among the populace and the available literature, will be done in phases, mapping four districts at a time. This is a serial placemaking project covering key population centres in the state, and one that is largely anthropological which mines folk memories as much as it studies historical documents.

The pandemic-induced movement control orders have of course affected the methodology for this broad study so far, but over time, Penang Institute is confident that this project will perform well as a platform for the collection and dissemination of place information, and over time, make the Penang Walk Zones popular attractions for all visitors to the state.

The project starts with a soft determination of the boundaries of a Walk Zone, after which follows the work of mapping out essential landmarks, basic facilities such as bus stops and zebra crossings and local businesses. Distinctive and well-known stories about the Zone are also collected. This information is then introduced in Penang Monthly, starting this month (September 2021); it also goes online, allowing for new details collected from members of the public and from scholars, to be added from time to time, and open-endedly.

Phase One

In Phase One of this curating and collating exercise, Penang Institute has decided to feature four Walk Zones. These are Pulau Tikus, Air Itam, Penang Hill and Balik Pulau. These are choice areas that have had a history of their own, that exhibited internal dynamics in their socio-economic growth, and which have related in diverse ways to the free port economy before the 1970s, and to the tourism and manufacturing sectors thereafter.

Aeriel view of Air Itam. Photo by: tsyew/123rf.com

Separate articles are found in this issue of Penang Monthly on these four Walk Zones. The work of compiling, collating and curating information about each of them has just started, and will therefore be “work-in-progress” for a long while. But by kicking off this project, we also appeal to members of the public, to scholars and to lovers of Penang in general, to contribute details and stories about each Walk Zone. A special email has been started through which such information can be contributed to the project: write therefore to walkzones@penanginstitute.org.

Growing up in the Air Puteh and Rifle Range area which is the entranceway into Air Itam (written as Ayer Itam then), I personally thought of these places as being rather distinct, each with a soul of its own. If you walked into Air Itam then, you passed a Zoo Road which had no zoo, you passed a Chinese school that had night classes for Malay, and you noticed a street straight as an arrow that led to a station where a railway with cute carriages would take you up the hill. There was a loud, exciting market, half wet half dry, and then there was this tremendous pagoda protruding above less colourful rooftops. If you knew your way, you could walk up to the reservoir.

Air Itam, just like so many other districts I knew on the Island, was not – and is not – merely subordinate territories whose raison d’être depended on some metropolitan hub situated somewhere else. The Air Itam area anchored my young existence, and Penang Hill stood calmly casting a motherly, unblinking and comforting eye over the chaos of everyday life in the valley below.

The main street of Air Itam. Photo by: Ooi Kok Hin

I knew that there was a place on the other side of the hilly range called Balik Pulau. It offered exotic versions of durian and nutmeg. It had wondrous waterfalls, some more haunted than others. It had food stalls similar to the ones found in Air Itam, but favouring flavours nevertheless strange to my tongue.

Within cycling distance to the north of Air Itam was Pulau Tikus, where a market as famous as Air Itam’s also sold exquisite goods famous for its own reasons. Thence also lay sunny Gurney Drive and the Botanic Gardens, populated by macaques and frequented in the dark of night by courting couples in cars. The Thai and the Burmese temples rose above the skyline, somewhat incongruous but not more so than was usual of things in Penang’s diverse urbanscape.

If you turned right at the traffic lights, you ended up in George Town, and if you went left, your cycling legs would be challenged by steeper roads leading you up the northern coast. If you persisted along that route, you reached Balik Pulau and the west coast, maybe in time to see the sun set over the Indian Ocean.

View from the Burmese temple overlooking the Thai temple in the background.

Future Phase

The Walk Zone Project will move on to highlight other hubs with distinct history and culture throughout the State of Penang. Phase Two will study two areas in Seberang Perai (which I personally like to ruminate of as East Penang), presumably Kepala Batas and Butterworth to start with.

Phase Three will focus on George Town itself, on the satellite settlement to its south which we know as Jelutong, and further along, on Gelugor, where Universiti Sains Malaysia is located.

Anjung Gurney Hawker Centre. Photo by: thamkc/123rf.com

With Phase Four, we move back across the Penang Strait to target Bukit Mertajam, this exciting crossroads of cultures and highways, and Batu Kawan, where the second Penang Bridge links to the Island’s airport as the longest sea bridge in Southeast Asia.

The final phase, necessarily more tentative than the others, will study Bayan Baru, Bayan Lepas, Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang. The first two are strongly interlinked, as are the latter two.

These phases are preliminary plans however, and pandemic conditions and other considerations are almost certain to change our initial plans.

Upgrading Our View of Ourselves

With the ending of local elections and the withdrawal of free port status by the late 1960s, Penang’s culture went through huge changes. The slow and steady brain drain from the state began even as the free trade zones which would save Penang’s economy were growing into global significance. But Penang’s unique cultural heritage would survive and thrive within a tourism sector that before Covid-19 stood as an equal second leg of the state’s steady economy, alongside the manufacturing sector.

The people of Penang, programmed by 180 years of free trade and laissez faire government, shifted from being entrepot traders to being players in global supply chains on one hand, and objects of wonderment for global tourists on the other.

This change was a profound one, and it happened hastily. In the process, many continuities were cut, urbanscapes scrapped and cultural consciousnesses altered.

The funicular railway which climbs up Penang Hill from Air Itam. Photo by: nizamkem/123rf.com

Much that was living culture was left stranded. Place names lost former significance and new roads, new names and new traffic flows, not to mention an aging population made older by the exodus of young people to serve foreign economies, erased memories. All this within half a generation.

But just as global links once created Penang, the worldwide supply chains in which it plays a vital part, the international links of its diaspora, the attention paid its cultural heritage by the world, and the global exposure of its population in general have not allowed its dynamism to fade away. The time has come for recovery and reorientation.

This was made obvious when the people of Penang voted to change the state government in 2008, and UNESCO listed George Town among the most valuable heritage sites in the world.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, appreciating the local and the proximate has become a necessary wisdom. We have had to reconsider what we already have but failed to value, instead of longing for things and places that are far away, or non-existent. Crises are indeed reality checks. If handled wisely they leave us with more sanity than before.

The Habitat Penang Hill. Photo by: The Habitat Penang Hill

As Walk Zone after Walk Zone in Penang is “place-made” for the 21st century and as the natives of each place learn to value their environs and their past, a healthy trajectory for cultural and economic development may be achieved, which brick by brick will build the highly liveable state that we all want Penang to be.

Organic Town Planning

Apart from being an epistemic exercise and an admittedly ambitious placemaking endeavour, this Walk Zones project will have an impact on local urban planning as well, not least where easy access to amenities is concerned. With detailed and valued information popularly available about the culture, history and economy of a locality, urban planners will need to pay proper attention to the uniqueness of the places they intrude upon, and consider as a rich and manifest asset for their work the sentiments, narratives and needs of the local population.

Photo by: tsyew/123rf.com

Disruptive architecture and infrastructure will hopefully diminish, and value-adding in cultural and economic terms may come to overlap and supplement each other. Together, balanced trends of development in small places will culminate in a high level of liveability.

Localising Tourism

After Covid-19, one may assume that tourism will become more domestic and regional. As international tourism becomes more experiential, focused and high-end, domestic tourism will need to decentralise, diversify and localise. More separate destinations offering distinct enjoyments and experiences could become the trend.

The Domestic Tourism Survey 2020 done by the Department of Statistics Malaysia shows that domestic tourists traditionally seek to do five things: shop, visit relatives and friends, holiday and relax, seek medical treatment and pursue entertainment.

By decentralising destinations for domestic or regional tourists, one increases the attractiveness of Penang as a whole, multiplies the number of visits these tourists would make, and drives customers to the small businesses that populate these Walk Zones.

The Balik Pulau mangrove arboretum plot. Photo by: Rexy Prakash Chacko

Penang has been a major destination for medical tourists, making more Walk Zones known to the families of those accompanying them to seek medical help would be an enormous boost for local businesses.

With Walk Zones becoming individually famous, such as Balik Pulau for its cottage industries, Pulau Tikus for its small shops, George Town for its traditional trades, Penang Hill for its jungle and tree-top tracks, and Teluk Bahang for its parks, the probability of Penang finding a proper balance between mass tourism and cultural continuity will be strong.

Links to articles on some Walk Zones:

  1. Pulau Tikus: Penang’s Most Liveable District?
  2. Air Itam: Once the de facto Capital of Penang
  3. Penang Hill: A Cultural and Ecological Treasure Trove
  4. Balik Pulau: Penang Island’s Rural Solace


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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