The Penang Upper Beach Street Walking Tour takes you through the heart of the early commercial district of George Town. It is one of two walking tours of Beach Street which I am creating for Penang Travel Tips. The Upper Beach Street tour covers a distance of 4300 feet (1300 m) and can be completed on foot. Depending on your speed, you can complete it in between 1 to 1 1/2 hours. I recommend doing it in the early part of the day which is cooler. Doing it on a Sunday morning is even better, as the place will be devoid of traffic. Feel free to print out the itinerary and map (do a screen save) so that you can refer to them when you do your walk.
This walking tour covers one side of Lebuh Pantai at a time. In this way, you only need to look at the sights on your right. The tour begins at the Beach Street Roundabout where Beach Street meets Light Street (Lebuh Light). On reaching the Chulia Street (Lebuh Chulia) junction, you cross the road to the other side of Beach Street and then head back to the Beach Street Roundabout. Throughout this walking tour, I will be using the English name of the roads throughout, with the Malay name provided in parenthesis the first time the street is mentioned.
We start our walking tour at the sidewalk in front of the Light Street - Beach Street roundabout. In front of us is the Immigration Department building (1). From this roundabout emanate Beach Street (Lebuh Pantai) and Light Street (Lebuh Light), two of the oldest streets in Penang. These two streets, created when the British settlement of Penang was established, could hardly be more different from each other. One was built to serve a civic role while the other a trading role.
Before we start our walk, I want you to take a moment to appreciate how different Light Street is from Beach Street. If you stand at the roundabout and shoot an arrow down Light Street, it will right through to the end of the street, perhaps hitting a wall at the convent school at the far end. You cannot do the same thing with Beach Street. While Light Street is arrow straight and lined with stately civic buildings, Beach Street makes gentle curves. During working days, the street is extremely congested. It is probably meant to be. For all the congestion, trades were being conducted, deals cemented, money made, and in a way, Beach Street reflects the whole purpose of why the British established Penang: to trade
When Beach Street was laid out, it follows the contours of the beach. At that time, one side of it was already right at the beach. That is why it got its name Beach Street. Since the mid 19th century, reclamation - not at all a modern concept - created new land east of Beach Street. All the land between Beach Street and Weld Quay (Pengkalan Weld) is reclaimed land.
Look at the map that accompanies this walking tour. The area I've shaded brown was not yet terra firma when Francis Light first set foot on Penang. You may wondered why the British would embark on land reclamation at Beach Street when there is ample land in the rest of Penang Island. The reason, as I would show you when we walk, is that the land was reclaimed to serve a specific purpose. What that purpose is, I will tell you later. Now let's start our walk.
The first building we are looking at is the Immigration Department (1) located right at the roundabout. It was built in 1890, at that time, as an administrative office for the Central Police Station. The Beach Street police station is still there, but has taken a much lower profile than during the turn of the 20th century, when all that land, including the State Assembly Building (Dewan Undangan Negeri) on Light Street, belonged to the police.
You will see that most of the buildings along Beach Street are fairly new compared to those in the side streets. Although Beach Street is one of the oldest streets in the city, it was so important to commerce that the buildings along it were often built and rebuilt many times over to take maximum advantage of the store frontage to the street. Earlier structures were often pulled down when commercial activity - and prosperity - dictates the need for more space.
Walking past the Immigration Department, you can see the Beach Street Police Station and the police quarters behind it. That's all that's left of the Central Police Station that was once here. Past it, we reach the Standard Chartered Building (2). The present building was completed in 1930. Standard Chartered has been in Penang since 1875, in the form of the Chartered Bank of India, China and Australia, and it is the oldest bank branch in Malaysia. Together with HSBC across the road, these two British exchange banks represent the throbbing heart of George Town's central business district.
As you standing in front of the Standard Chartered building, take note of the similarity between it, the Immigration Building and HSBC building in front of it. Although they are all built at different times (1930, 1890 and 1948 respectively), at least at the ground level, all three have a similar rusticated finish. Above the ground floor level, each takes its own style.
Crossing Union Street (Lebuh Union), you arrive at Logan's Building (3). It takes up the whole block between Union Street and Bishop Street (Lebuh Bishop). At the moment, it is the most dilapidated of the entire Beach Street stretch, and I hope restoration work on Logan's Building will be done soon. What's interesting about Logan's Building is that it is today only two storeys high, although when it was built in the 1880's, it was three storeys. It lost one storey in the 1930's when (as it is today), the building was in such a dilapidated state that it was served a dangerous building notice. The architect called in to save it altered it from three storeys to two. As with all the buildings along Beach Street that was built or "retouched" in the 1930's, the Logan's Building received an Art Deco finishing.
Logan's Building has certainly seen better days. During the turn of the 20th century, it housed upmarket stores patronized by Europeans and wealthy locals. When I was small, it housed Barkath Stores, a general store whose signage still appear on the building, but its business has closed up at least a decade ago.
Taking up the whole block from Bishop Street to Church Street (Lebuh Gereja) is Whiteways Building (officially Whiteways, Laidlow & Co.) Similar to Logan's, Whiteways housed the upmarket Whiteways General Store, a famous British firm based in Calcutta with stores in British colonies throughout the Far East. Today, Whiteways has just been thoroughly restored and is looking like a bride getting ready for her wedding.
At Church Street, we arrive at the first of many side streets along Beach Streets with the word "Ghaut" (translated Gat in Malay) suffixed to their names. It is a word borrowed by the British through their occupation of India, where it is written ghat (Read about the ghats of Varanasi which I have written). The ghat are steps leading down to water's edge, except that, you don't see any ghats along Beach Street.
As I've mentioned, in the beginning Beach Street was right on the beach. The waterfront area was along Beach Street. It was a muddy stretch that was sea when it was high tide and mudflats when it was not. There were piers and steps leading from the shore down to the water's edge. Church Street, for example, would extend across Beach Street, ending with steps down to the water.
As harbour activities grew during the early 19th century, it became necessary to build warehouses to store the goods arriving in Penang port. These warehouses - called godown, after the Malay word gudang - had to be located close to the port, so that stevedores who handle the cargo can easily unload them from the ships. For this to happen, the coastline alone Beach Street was reclaimed and warehouses build all along them. On the map that accompanies this tour, the reclaim land is shown as shaded brown. Companies operating the warehouses usually have their offices on Beach Street itself, while their warehouses are located behind their offices. Even today, if you look through any of the narrow alleys, you will see the warehouses.
When new land was created east of Beach Street, the side streets that branched perpendicular to it were extended eastward, and had the word Ghaut suffixed to them. They extend all the way to Weld Quay (Pengkalan Weld) where, often, a new pier, jetty or ghat is built there. Hence, Church Street (Lebuh Gereja) was extended into Church Street Ghaut (Gat Lebuh Gereja), China Street extended into China Street Ghaut, and so on. The word Ghaut that once referred to steps descending into the water now take on a new meaing, as street extensions.
As mentioned, Beach Street was built for trade, and all the communities that descended on Penang engaged in it with gusto. Prime cut was the northernmost section. This went to serve European commercial interest. The Hokkien people in Penang has a different name for each section of Beach Street. The section extending from the roundabout to China Street is called Ang Moh Thow Koh Kay. It translates as "European Commercial Street" (literally, white people's warehouse street). During the British era, it was the centre of commercial activities in the port settlement. It commanded the highest rental and received the best care - in the 1870's, it was the first street in Penang to receive petroleum lamps. In 1894, it was the first to be tarred.
As we cross Church Street, we pass through three heritage houses in a row: Kongsoon House (5), Old OCBC Building (6) and the 1886 Building (7). Kongsoon House and Old OCBC Building are the first two buildings owned by non-Europeans along Beach Street. The Old OCBC Building already carries the OCBC logo from long ago. It was built in 1938, and was finished with Shanghai plaster, which was all the rage during the late thirties. The 1886 Building was so called after its year of completion. It is the oldest building along Beach Street to retain its original form. Today all three buildings belong to OCBC Bank, which has its presently office next to the 1886 building.
The Chinese presence along Beach Street gives way to Indian presence as we pass through Che Em Lane (Lorong Che Em), one of the narrowest alleys in George Town. Going through this lane, you will emerge in George Town's Little India on the other end.
The next street that we pass through brings out the Indian presence in full force. Market Street (Lebuh Pasar) was called Little Madras by the British. You can see Indian-owned shophouses on both sides of it (we will tour this street on a different walking tour). Look at the accompanying map. You can see that Market Street is separated from Market Street Ghaut (Gat Lebuh Pasar) by a sort of no-man's land. In the old days, there was a market here which gave its name to the street. After the market moved elsewhere, the land was used as the Victoria Street bus station. Today (at I write this, 29 June 2008), it is left unused but barricaded, so I suppose some form of construction will happen here soon.
We cross to the other side of Beach Street when we arrive at the Chulia Street junction. That's the junction with the Central Fire Station (I will describe it on a different walking tour as part of Chulia Street). Now let's this other side of Beach Street and make our way back.
This side of Beach Street is lined with buildings that were built on reclaimed land. Most of the shophouses one this stretch of Beach Street (from Chulia Street junction to China Street Ghaut junction) dates from the late 19th century to the turn of the 20th century. Between them and Weld Quay is Victoria Street, created in the late 19th century and named after the British queen of that time. Before Victoria Street was created, these shophouses have their warehouses extending all the way to Weld Quay. Victoria Street halved the size of many of these lots, creating a back entrance for these shoplots.
The first significant building on this side of Beach Street is the Ban Hin Lee Bank Building (8), at the junction of Beach Street and China Street Ghaut. This is one of the few banks to be founded in Penang itself. Built in the late 1930's, when Penang's economy was climbing out of the worldwide Great Depression, the Ban Hin Lee Bank building was made to look particularly monumental by the large archway at the entrance. Like most of the building of that era, it was done in the Art Deco style.
On the other side of China Street Ghaut is George Town Dispensary (9). It was completed in 1923, and today looks a bit run down. The side facing China Street Ghaut has the signage George Town Chambers, and includes warehouses that continue along the street. The George Town Dispensary building was originally designed to be only two storeys, but during its construction in 1922, alterations were made so that a third storey could be added. For many years, the dispensary operated from the Beach Street side of the building.
Next to George Town Dispensary is the Thio Thiaw Siat Building (10), recognized by the TTS emblem on its facade. It was built for the estate of Thio Thiaw Siat, better known today as Cheong Fatt Tze, whose mansion located along Leith Street was the recipient of a Unesco aware for conservation.
Further down the road, at the junction of Beach Street with Church Street Ghaut, is India House (11). It was built in the India Art Deco style in 1937 by a prominent member of the Chettiar community, and even today, houses the Indian money chargers at the Beach Street side. Like the 1886 Building on the other side of the road, India House was finished with Shanghai plaster, which gives is a grim, stout appearance.
The AMB Amro Bank building originally housed the Netherlands Trading Society. It was built in 1905 in the Neo-classical style. The building has a square tower which was originally a domed turret. At the time it was built, the AMN Amro Bank Building faced a road called Crown Road which has today shrunk to just a small lane between itself and the HSBC Bank Building (12).
The HSBC Bank Building, completed in 1948, is one of the first buildings along Beach Street to be built after the Second World War. It replaces an older HSBC building which was destroyed during the war. Built in the late Art Deco style, the HSBC building has a rusticated facade for the first two floors while the facade of the upper floors is plain. The enlarged footprint of the new HSBC building encroached on Crown Road, reducing it to just a small lane today. The lane is filled with Malay foodstalls and the name Crown Road has been entirely forgotten.
The Islamic Council Building (13) originally housed the Land Survey Offices of the British colonial government. It was built when this section of Beach Street was reclaimed (around 1883-1889). It is part of a U-shape ensemble of buildings called the Government Offices which faced the section of Light Street later renamed as King Edward's Place (Pesara King Edward). All the rest of the buildings forming Government Offices have been lost to the war, leaving this the sole survivor. The main entrance facing Downing Street is today just a facade framed by a classical pediment.
We are back at the roundabout. Before the reclamation, Light Street extended to a pier. When new land was created, Light Street was extended and linked to the newly formed Weld Quay. Later on, the section of Light Street between the round about and the corner with Weld Quay was renamed King Edward's Place, and the name survived till this day as Pesara King Edward.
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