GEORGE TOWN : In the wee hours of the morning, there is a flurry of activity as stall owners at Chowrasta Market, a century-old building located on Jalan Penang here on the island, start setting up for the day.
On the ground floor are hawkers selling fresh produce. Meat on hooks, fish and poultry, fruit and vegetables of every available variety are lined up as far as the eye can see.
At the nearby Jalan Chowrasta and Lebuh Tamil, vendors sell an assortment of food and drink – from snacks and tidbits to preserved fruit; from appetisers like popiah and kuih to more substantial offerings like porridge and Hokkien mee – many of whom have been in business for decades.
Second-hand bookstores, clothing shops, a Chinese medicine hall, and even a shop selling Chinese prayer items – the magic of it all beats within the heart of George Town, where this market and its surrounding areas roared to life over 100 years ago.
Chowrasta Market is one of the oldest in Malaysia. In the mid-19th century, the area was populated by prisoners and ex-convicts who began selling fresh produce like vegetables, fish and poultry to make an honest living. They were later joined by immigrants from Tamil Nadu in India, who took up residence in the vicinity.
The market building was constructed as a single-storey structure in 1890 by the George Town Municipal Council. In 1961, a second storey was added, making it the first building in Penang to have escalators.
Towards the 20th century, Chinese traders began selling items there and, as the market reached its capacity, vendors began flooding the streets that surrounded the building.
Besides being known as the “thieves’ market” due to its founding fathers, the name “Chowrasta” has interesting origins.
It derives from the Hindi “chowk”, which means “market street”. In Urdu, the word means “four crossroads”, which is apt as the market sits at the intersection of Jalan Penang, Jalan Chowrasta, Jalan Kuala Kangsar and Lebuh Tamil.
Celebrating heritage and longevity
In conjunction with George Town World Heritage Day on July 7, FMT visited some of the oldest stalls in the area.
While most of the non-essential stores were closed because of the movement control order, those that were open included businesses that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Surrounded by fresh cabbages, shiny eggplants and heads of pink ginger flowers, 75-year-old Gao has been selling vegetables in the market since he was a boy.
“This was my uncle’s store, but I began helping him after I stopped going to school,” he says. “Every day I’m here from 5am to 12pm and I haven’t taken a day off since I was 14.”
He says he spends holidays like Chinese New Year with his family and happily welcomes the rare day of rest.
Over on Jalan Chowrasta, in a little green shop that has been operating since the 1950s, Rebecca Lim has mastered the delicate art of making popiah skins the traditional way – dough pressed against a hot griddle in perfect circles, before being peeled off and added to a rising tower of freshly made skins.
Rebecca, who is now in her 30s, learnt the skill as a child from her father, Lim Ah Hoe, who can be seen sitting in the back of the shop.
The elder Lim turns 80 this year and is known as Penang’s traditional homemade popiah skin maker, even though he has retired and is happy to watch his children carry on his legacy.
Another family business stretches along the nearby Lebuh Tamil, consisting of three stalls manned by five brothers who sell “ais tingkap”, cucur udang, and a generations-old hot ginger tea made from a secret recipe.
At a small cart, Abdul Majeed pours streams of freshly brewed tea, and the area is redolent with its warm, inviting aroma.
“My grandfather ran this stall from 1942 and I took over from my father in 1985,” he shares, adding that their grandfather brought this tea recipe with him when he migrated to Penang from Sri Lanka over a century ago.
A few steps away, Abdul’s brothers sell “ais tingkap”, a rose-syrup drink with basil seeds and pieces of fresh coconut meat.
This year marks an impressive 102 years of this beverage being sold – their grandfather used to sell it out of the windows of a nearby building, giving the refreshing pink drink its moniker.
While speaking to FMT, these sellers lamented their losses due to the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns. But they continue to hold out hope that things will improve and interstate travel will be allowed again, so that more visitors can visit Chowrasta Market and enjoy the best of what Penang has to offer.
Lot 124, Jalan Penang
10100 George Town, Penang
By : Tsen Ee Lin – FMT Lifestyle