International Insight : Malaysia
Chulia Street Penang Lorong Love, Lebuh Leith
Budget tourists find cheap hotels, ticketing and cafes. Sailors and itinerant salesmen come for the red light district. Locals look for rattan shops, hardware stores, fames and furniture. By night, the place is alive with pubs and street hawkers. All this along a street which is rich with Indian Muslim mosques, religious schools and burial grounds. Constrasting values and cultures have co-existed for a long time, making Chulia Street a place of great character and notoriety.
Chulia Street is the most important street in Penang for tourists, and is the centre of a well-established backpacker scene. It all began in the 1960s when the Vietnam War made Bangkok the hub of relatively cheap flights from many parts of the world. The great Southeast Asian overland adventure then consisted of taking a flight to Bangkok, catching a 24-hour train to Penang – with an optional stop at Koh Samui – then continuing by train to Singapore, by boat or plane to Jakarta, overland across Java to Bali, stopping on the way at the Yogyakarta to see the great monuments of Prambanan and Borobudur, then back to Jakarta, Singapore, perhaps by bus along the East Coast, and finally from Kota Bharu/Golok back to Bangkok.
Penang was a natural stop, with its reputation at the time as an unspoilt beach resort and duty-free port. Getting off the Penang ferry in Geroge Town, the backpacker was greeted by trishaws which offered to take them to cheap hotels along Lebuh Chulia (Chulia Street) and in the vicity along Lebuh Leith, Jalan Pintal Tali (Rope Walk), Lebuh Cintra and Lorong Love.
The cheap hotels originally catered for lusty sailors and itinerant salesmen. The backpackers didn’t mind, though they were looking for a different sort of action. Over time, the traditional Chinese inns-cum-brothels were gradually transformed into backpacker hotels, promoted in guide books like Southeast Asia on a Shoe-String and subsequently Lonely Planet Guides.
Who are the Chulia Street tourists? In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a great hippie scene in Chulia Street, and associated with it was drugs and free sex. That was before Malaysia introduced the death penalty for drugs. The arrest of the German Frank Forster at the Swiss Hotel and his worldwide televised trail and subsequent acquittal made Chulia Street internationally infamous. After the drug scene was more or less cleaned up, Chulia Street was gradually taken over by student backpackers and casual, but fairly sophisticated, tourists who opted for modest accommodation. Tourists used to come from all over the region to Chulia Street for cheap tickets, in the days before Malaysia began imposing a tax on tickets. Many of the mosquitoe ticketing agencies were then gobbled up by a few computerised companies in the early 1990s. Today, tourists still frequent these travel agencies to find out how to apply for visas to Thailand, or to catch the Thai mini-bus going to Koh Samui and Krabi via Haadyai.
Has Chulia Street maintained its charm? One European ex-tourist remarked, “When we came here as backpackers in the 1970s, Penang was a paradise. Back then, Europe was still drowning in industrial pollution, traffic congestion, and people had no time for anything but work. In contrast, the environment in Penang was unspoilt, and people were devoted to indulging in life’s simple pleasure – going to cinemas, sampling all varieties of hawker food, listening to traditional music and organising joget or ronggeng parties. Walking along Muntri Street then, you could hear the endless clatter of mah-jong tiles. People were always out on the street, talking to each other and to tourists. They were happy”. Apart from low budget hotels and travel agencies, more recently antique and collectibles shops, Burmese and Chinese crafts shops, second-hand bookstores and a variety of cafes ranging from “Rainforest” to “Raggae” have sprung up to serve the low budget tourist market while traditional activities such as the cane and rattan craft shops, picture framing and mirror shops are mainly patronised by locals. Cheapside, off Chulia Street, has a row of small hardware shops. For more unusual souvenirs, check out Lim Tan Tin, a workshop that makes mahjong tiles and dice on Lorong Love.
Tucked away in Lorong Chulia, off Lebuh Chulia, is a lovely Hainanese coffeeshop called Sin Kheng Aun. It is well patronised by locals, a sure sign that its food is as good as its ambience. For those who are not so familiar with the dishes, the enthusiastic young manager can be relied upon to describe the day’s specials. Customers are waited on by several loyal, elderly employees. The coffeeshop furniture is original, apart from the unfortunate exception of the cigarette display counter which was traded – old counters for new – for the original wooden one some years ago.
There are larger tables upstairs, and food is conveyed by a dumb waiter. At night, the street hawkers take over Lebuh Cintra, Kampung Malabar, Lebuh Chulia and the adjoining section of Jalan Penang. This stretch of Jalan Penang is also well known for Chinese restaurants, Japanese hostess lounges and adult nightlife. Lebuh Carnarvon, just off Chulia Street, turns into a roadside wet market in the morning. Some stalls sell cheap clothes, slippers, crockery and knick-knacks. If you walk along this way, you will come to the Campbell Street Market, a turn of the century market building. The shophouses along Lebuh Carnarvon specialise in dried and preserved foods. One spice shop Hup Loong has modernised its business and now produces instant mixes for Penang’s favourite hawker foods such as Laksa and Hokkien Mee for export throughout the world. Parents of Malaysian students studying overseas sometimes come and buy box loads of these instant spice mixes for their children nostalgic for home food.
The antiques and curios trail: Starts from Jalan Penang, near the E & O Hotel, walk south to Lebuh Chulia, then from west to east along Lebuh Chulia, where most of the shops are concentrated. Continue north along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and east across Lebuh Bishop, ending up at Lebuh Pantai.
When Ibrahim Munshi visited Penang in 1872, he was entertained at the home of Dalbadal and Yahya Merican. “They are Penang-born Indians and they treated us with great honour, in the manner of high-born persons lacking in nothing. And their home, too, was a fit place for persons of gentle birth and comfortable means”. This home was a large Anglo-Indian brick bungalow along Lorong Market, since given a new façade and converted into a budget hotel
Publish in Roving Insight Magazine