Grasping the Intangibles

If you can imagine it, Penang streets used to house rows and rows of what are considered today as traditional traders such as makers of prayer paraphernalia, kitchenware, trishaw and wholesalers of dry goods and more. All of them catered to people’s daily and festive needs. Through the decades, these handmade goods are disappearing to give way to machine made goods that can produce in mass to meet an ever-growing consumer demand. It is inevitable, an unapologetic evolution, necessary to suit the times. Therefore, here are some observations or facts collected by George Town World Heritage Inc on currently existing traditional traders of Penang that produce products still widely used today.

The word chappal stems from India and means slippers. These leather sandals or slippers are mainly worn by Malay men and are considered part of their traditional attire. Consisting of inner sole, a slight heel and thong, capal have a distinctive design that is acceptable as both casual and formal wear. In the very old days, royals and aristocrats of Malaya wore them not only as daily footwear but also during scuffles and, as history recorded, keris-drawn battles. Unlike the modern slippers of today made out of various materials, capal has a design that never goes out of style and this has been time-tested through decades,
Where to visit: Capal Jago on Jalan Kedah in Kepala Batas on Penang mainland. They’ve been a handmade leather capal manufacturer since 1958. Their product range from RM75 right up to a couple hundred ringgit.

Anchor Maker
Perhaps the skill that reflects George Town’s trading port heritage, it’s a known fact that anchor making is not only a ‘high temperature’ profession but a dangerous one as well. Mainly located very close to the waterfront area of George Town, the two remaining blacksmiths out of four still do produce anchors for boats and ships in Penang. One of which is Teck Ban Choon blacksmithy, run by the grandson of the man who started it over 60 years ago. Alas, today, due to lack of skilled blacksmiths, they no longer make large anchors that can weigh up to 300kg and instead produce small anchors needed for offshore fishing. However, what hasn’t changed till today is, blacksmithing is still as labour intensive as ever.
Where to visit: Tech Ban Choon Foundry on Gat Lebuh Armenian in George Town.

Kapok Pillow and Mattress Maker
Considered as Malaysian cotton, kapok is a natural fibre from seed pods of its tree that grows in the wild around Malaysia. Due to its cooling effect and hypoallergenic qualities, it’s a popular filling for pillows and mattresses. Besides sewn into pillows and mattresses , sacks of kapok are also sold as re-fills for when needed for old pillow and mattress. Apparently, before foam was invented, kapok was used In floatation devices since it’s buoyant and water resistant. There is a shop in George Town that makes kapok-filled pillows, bolsters and mattresses on site and even import kapok from Indonesia to top up customer demands. They produce around 10 pillows per day and Chinese New Year is their busiest time since many throw out old pillows and mattresses during this period.
Where to visit: 78 Lebuh Cintra in George Town. The shop is open six days a week till 4.30pm and is closed on Sunday.

Spice Merchants
There’s nothing to dislike about spices. They are aromatic, terrific for cooking, adds multitudes of flavours into dishes and very useful due to their medicinal quality. There’s a lot to thank for Malaysia’s colonial history in terms of the existence of numerous spices in the country where the British paved the way for their shipping as well as cultivation here. In those days, pepper, nutmeg and cloves were cultivated in Penang to some success. Penang, known as a pepper entrepot during the 18th century, imported the spice from Acheh and exported them across to China and India. During this time, spice merchants from India opened stores within Penang’s Little India enclave and they’re an enduring legacy till today. At the port in the old days, the spices were unloaded from the ships by Indian labourers, wheeled to nearby godowns before delivered to the stores. Today, sundry shops at Little India show off the many ground spices needed to produce delectable curries in open plastic tubs and are sold by the grams. These spices are integral in the Indian cuisine that is a big part of Penang’s culinary heritage.
Where to visit: Sundry shops on Lebuh Pasar at Little India in George Town. There is also one on Lebuh Penang across from the Ren-I-Tang hotel. Today’s spices come from India, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, Iran, Bulgaria and Madagascar. At these stores, you’re able to conveniently purchase blended ground spices for specific curries.

Images from GTWHI, MPSP and PGT