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This Old Town in Bukit Mertajam is Penang's Hidden Gem

Credit: j.photographys (Instagram)

Located in the middle of Seberang Perai, Bukit Mertajam is a former agrarian village with quite a flavourful  start. In the old days, the bustling town was known for its pepper, clove, cinnamon and sugar plantations. While Penang Island is populated by the Hokkien and Fujianese Chinese communities, the majority of the Chinese community members in Bukit Mertajam are the descendants of the early settlers of the spice and sugar industries, who are the Fui Chiu and Teochew Chinese people. This has shaped Bukit Mertajam's legendary foodscapes today.

Penangites living on the Penang Island would often cross over the strait to have their cravings fixed — and for good reasons. Dishes such as Hakka noodles, Teochew koay chiap, cup rice and more are hard to come by on the island.  

The hawker stalls and coffee shops flanking the century-old Pek Kong Cheng Tua Pek Kong Temple along Jalan Pasar is a good place to discover Bukit Mertajam's specialty dishes. Visitors can start with a hearty bowl of Hakka noodles, also known as white wantan mee. Although it resembles wantan mee, the Hakka noodles in Bukit Mertajam is pale in colour, seasoned only by a dash of soup. 

Hakka noodles or white wantan mee. Credit: Peter Yeoh

Another must-eat dish is koay chiap, a noodle dish with duck meat, skin, intestine, coagulated blood and braised duck egg in a herbal broth. Although the dish is unique to Penang, Bukit Mertajam's koay chiap has a lighter flavour than the ones found in George Town. “In general, Chinese food in Bukit Mertajam tends to be lighter and blander due to its overwhelming Teochew influence while the Hokkien community members in Penang Island favour more robust, punchy flavours," says Peter Yeoh, Penang Walkabouts moderator.

Koay chiap. Credit: Peter Yeoh

Other signature dishes located nearby the temple are the Rojak Orang Hitam and Rojak Orang Hitam Putih. These stalls serve rojak, a type of fruit salad made with fresh local fruits like mango, guava, and pineapple along with cucumber and turnip. Sliced thinly and mixed in homemade rojak paste, topped with crunchy toasted peanuts and dried shrimps, it's one winning dish on its own.

Owner Teng Ah Hock showing off his sought-after Rojak Orang Hitam. Rojak Orang Hitam is Bukit Mertajam's oldest and best-known rojak stall, having founded in 1970. Teng Ah Hock, 72, has been selling rojak since he was 22 years old. Customers referred to him as "Or Lang Hock" (dark-skinned Hock), which later became "Orang Hitam" (Malay for 'black man') due to the colour of his skin. Credit: Peter Yeoh.

Diagonally adjacent to Rojak Hitam is the Rojak Orang Hitam Putih. Owner Teh Lee Pheng, 36, began selling the rojak since 2007. According to Teh, a customer suggested that she name her stall Rojak Orang Hitam Putih to set herself apart from her rival Rojak Orang Hitam. Credit: Peter Yeoh

A short walk away from the temple's ground along Jalan Danby is the BM cup rice. The rice is steamed individually in a metal bowl, then inverted onto a plate and topped with chicken slices and roasted pork before hot gravy is ladled over. Just like the Hakka noodles and the Teochew koay chiap, this dish is rarely available on Penang Island.

BM cup rice stall owner (left) proudly showing off her iconic dish.

A close-up snapshot of the BM cup rice. Credit: Peter Yeoh.


Heritage Sites

A walk through Bukit Mertajam's old town is a step back into Malaysia's past. In stark contrast to the restored heritage shophouses in George Town, the vine-covered walls and rickety wooden windows of Bukit Mertajam's shophouses are proudly on display, lending the town a rustic old charm. 

Visitors can take a walking tour along Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng, Jalan Teh Cheok Sah, Jalan Pasar and the surrounding areas to discover the old town and its heritage sites. To start, look for a narrow lane next to Nam Thong Paper Merchant on 40 & 41 Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng. In the old days, tofu vendors would pass by this lane carrying two baskets of tofu on either end of a pole on their shoulders, earning the nickname “Tofu Lane” by the local townsfolk. 

The locals also have a cheeky term called "stroking tofu" on Tofu Lane — because the path is so narrow, some men try to physically get near the woman coming from the opposite direction, as they brush past each other on this lane. Credit: Peter Yeoh.

Another must-visit site is the old family home of Penang's first Chief Minister Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee in Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng. The house, which dates back to 1907, has overgrown plants on its roof and vines covering the walls. The Seberang Perai City Council recognises the house's historical values by placing a plaque at the five-foot way. 

The entrance of the house

Though the house had fallen into a state of disrepair, it holds a significant historical value

A Virgin Mary icon atop the front door. Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee was a devout Catholic. Credit: Peter Yeoh

The Seberang Perai City Council recognises the house's historical values by placing a plaque at the five-foot way.

Just a short walk away from Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee’s house is the Sin Weng Heng traditional clayware shop. The shop, which also dates back to 1907, still displays the original signboard in Tamil, Jawi and Mandarin, a testament to Penang's multiculturalism. The owner, Teoh Teik Seng, 90, refuses to cease his business as he believes in the goodness of using earthenware for cooking. He sees his shop as a family legacy and a living heritage.

The multilingual signboard of the Sin Weng Heng traditional clayware shop. The signboard is still showing the old name of Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng as well as its old phone number.  Credit: Peter Yeoh

The Sin Weng Heng traditional clayware shop is currently being run by Mr Teoh Teik Seng. Credit: Peter Yeoh.

The interior of the Sin Weng Heng traditional clayware shop. Credit: Peter Yeoh.

The period between the 1960s to the 1980s were the years when cinemas played movies to sell-out audiences with tickets priced as low as 40 cents. One of these cinemas was the Cheok Sah Cinema  — another historical landmark worth visiting in the old town. Located along Jalan Teh Cheok Sah, the cinema was a landmark during its hey-days. The cinema business went into a decline, with the introduction of video cassettes and later on, satellite television.

Cheok Sah Cinema is owned by one of Bukit Mertajam's largest landowners, Teh Cheok Sah. Credit: Peter Yeoh 

A sealed ticketing window and the queue barriers shine some light on its colourful past. Credit: Peter Yeoh 

Bukit Mertajam might be well off the tourist trail, but it is certainly worth a visit. This is a town where time stands still, ideal for intrepid travellers seeking to spend a little time away from well-trodden tourist spots on the island.  

The writer would like to thank Tneh Teo Weng of Rakan BM, Peter Yeoh of Penang Walkabouts, ‘Chooi Gu’ and Jothi Jhen Hao from Bukit Mertajam for their invaluable help with the research of this story.  Those interested in joining such a walkabout may contact Tneh Teo Weng at +6012 401 1970.

Name: Pek Kong Cheng's Hakka Noodles (White Wantan Mee)
Address: Jalan Pasar (next to Pek Kong Cheng Tua Pek Kong Temple)
Operating hours: 6am - sold out (daily)

Name: Pek Kong Cheng's Famous Duck Meat Koay Chiap
Address: Jalan Pasar (next to Pek Kong Cheng Tua Pek Kong Temple)
Operating hours: Opens from 6:30 am to 11 am (closed on Mondays)

Name: Rojak Orang Hitam Putih
Address: 207, Jalan Cheok Sah
Operating hours: 12pm – 6pm (Daily)

Name: Rojak Orang Hitam
Address: Jalan Pasar, 14000 Bukit Mertajam, Penang. 
Operating hours: 12pm – 6pm (Daily)

Name: BM Cup Rice
Address: 74, Jalan Danby
Operating hours: 6.30am – 9pm (closed on Wednesdays)

Name: Tofu Lane
Address: Next to Nam Thong Paper Merchant at 40, 41, Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng

Name: Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee old family home 
Address: 118, Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng

Name: Sin Weng Heng Traditional Clayware Shop
Address: 102, Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng

Name: Cheok Sah Cinema
Address: Jalan Teh Cheok Sah