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A Tale of Two Towns
From trading port to commercial centre, today’s Pekan Melayu Pekan Cina in Alor Setar, Kedah looks ready for a revamp. What will be its new identity?
To start talking about Pekan Melayu Pekan Cina, we have to go back to the Kedah Sultanate. The oldest government of all the other Malay states, Kedah’s economic power came from paddy. Agriculture was the state’s main resource and the produce would get shipped and distributed through the Kedah River. Alor Setar acted as Kedah’s administrative centre and the pull of trade and agriculture drew a robust population in.
There are many different views on when exactly the Chinese arrived but one of the families instrumental to the growth of Pekan Cina was the Lee family. Arriving in the early 19th century, the Lee brothers – Yok Siew and Yok Cheng (spellings vary in different sources) were particularly successful at integrating themselves into the local Malay culture. They attended Malay school during the day and at night, and continued their studies in their mother tongue.
The ability to communicate in the local language endeared them to the Malay community and as they gained success in their trade, their stature rose as well. Although different sources interchange the names of the brothers and their roles, it remains clear that both held administrative positions in service to Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin; offering a glimpse into the depth of integration between the races even at that point.
As Chinese-run businesses started to flourish along what is known today as Jalan Pengkalan Kapar, the area started to be referred to as Pekan Cina, as it was right next to a majority Malay commercial area – Pekan Melayu. Over time, the success of the Chinese afforded them the ability to expand their businesses and gradually, the ratio of Pekan Melayu Pekan Cina changed. Today, almost all shops in Pekan Melayu Pekan Cina consist of Chinese businesses.
To counter this, a weekly market for Malay vendors was started by a member of the royal family at Tanjung Chali near Pekan Cina in the early 1920s. It was a move to encourage commercial activities within the Malay community. As Pekan Rabu (Wednesday Market) evolved into a daily market, the site had to be shifted to avoid congestion. In 1975, the state spent RM3.2million building a complex that has seen many renovations since and now houses over 300 stalls. Tun Dato' Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth prime minister was once a vendor at Pekan Rabu when his studies were interrupted during the Japanese Occupation.
Cheow Chang Seng, age 75, a business owner in Pekan Cina has been watching the scene in front of his riverfront shop change for the last few decades. His father started selling crockery right before the Japanese Occupation. Cheow and his younger brother still live upstairs and run the business together with their families.
His memory of the area’s past is vivid as he rattles off a list of places that cargo boats used to come in from – Langkawi, Alor Janggus, Air Itam. The river that once was the bustling centre of trade now lies ochre and dormant in the afternoon heat. There is a boat-rowing competition going on, but hardly any spectators. Although it is tough to find a parking spot in Pekan Melayu Pekan Cina, the area seems a little subdued in comparison to the glory days that Cheow describes in retrospect.
Jackie Loo, however, feels that things are picking up the pace again. Born and raised in Alor Setar, this sentiment from the owner of Caffe Diem is not just a feeling as his extremely successful café proves. Within a mere three years, Caffe Diem has moved out of a single shop lot to occupy four at the corner of Jalan Penjara Lama. The café is gleaming white, air-conditioned and is furnished with throwback details like salvaged wood tables, heritage lanterns and old sampans hanging from the ceiling.
“We could possibly rival George Town,” Loo enthusiastically throws the statement on the table. It is hard not to be impressed with the progress his café has made in the short span of time. He humbly puts it down to the town’s people not having much of choice for places to “hang out”. Since the start of his business, he has seen the area’s safety improve with the influx of patrons making the alleys less likely places for drug addicts to “do their thing”.
Part of Pekan Melayu Pekan Cina’s charm is largely rooted in its older establishments – family-run businesses, friendly markets, old-fashioned hair salons and kopitiams.
However, much needed vigour is being injected through new businesses that pull in younger crowds – cafés with expensive coffee and bars with names like Terrace Forty-Eight. Murals are also popping up along the old walls; a trend that largely started out from the hippest of all heritage cities – George Town, Penang.
When asked if he minds his hometown turning into a tourist attraction, Loo’s earnestness never lets up. “Alor Setar is slow and it takes its time,” he says when talking about the city’s potential. “All we need is to grow at our own pace and not bite off more than we can chew,” he concludes. When the future is uncertain and past glories are long gone, it is perhaps perfect advice to then seize the day.
Address: Pekan Cina Pekan Melayu, Jalan Seberang Perak, Taman Pesisiran Tanjung Chali, 05050 Alor Setar, Kedah.
- Isu-isu Pensejarahan: Esei Penghargaan kepada Dr. R. Suntharalingam edited by Abu Talib Ahmad and Cheah Boon Kheng
- Rulers and residents: influence and power in the Malay States, 1870-1920 by J. M. Gullick
Text and photos by Adeline Chua
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