Sunday, April 14, 2013

Glimpsing the Past along Penang's Warehouse Row

A big pot of chicken stock is simmering on the stove for the next six hours, filling my home with the heady aroma of slow living and doing things the old-fashion way. This island goes at its own pace, a notch or two lower than busy, buzzing metropolitans elsewhere, making you harken back to how things were done in a bygone era. That same sense comes over you when you stroll down the Prangin Road warehouse district which lies in the shadow of the towering, modern but sterile, KOMTAR structure that dominates the city.

The Prangin Canal used to run alongside this road, enabling small boats to bring goods inland from the harbor. In the 19th century, this canal marked the edge of George Town, and the area was called Sia Boey which means "village's end" in the Chinese Hokkien dialect. Numerous wholesalers conveniently located themselves next to the canal, especially inside Sia Boey Market. For a while, this district was nicknamed "The Land of Gold" because whoever opened a business here would prosper. As time marched on, the Market was forced to relocate in the name of progress to make way for the KOMTAR development, and the canal was almost completely filled in. A few wholesalers still station themselves in the shophouses lining the road, and they provide a glimpse into Penang's yesteryears. No speedy, computerized equipment here. Just folks conducting business as it's been done for generations.

The Egg Man
One of my favorite sites around Penang is the man delivering eggs via motorscooter. Now, I know where they get their start. Ooi Ah Tong started his egg distribution warehouse in the old Sia Boay Market over 50 years ago and moved it across the street when the market relocated. As is typical to the area, the eggs are unrefrigerated and kept at room temperature which is about 34C (95F) on this tropical island.

I am the egg man.

How many omelettes could you make out of these?

We are Rice, Ain't that Nice?
Being in Asia, rice is a staple on everybody's plate. I'm sure that this warehouse does brisk business. The man out on the covered 5-foot-way sidewalk clears the rice of hulls before scooping it into bags as heavy as a small child.

Cleaning the Rice

Rice Warehouse

Something Smells Fishy
Dried fish and shrimp are a big part of Malaysian cuisine. Caught fresh in the waters around Penang island, the fish are gutted and laid out on racks under the sun to dry. Surprisingly, the smaller ones take only one day to dry out.

An entire shop was dedicated to dried cuttlefish (squid). One man slices it into thin disks while the other one uses a machine to cut it into strips.

Slicing cuttlefish

Putting cuttlefish through the shredder

Eventually, some of dried seafood end up at another store on Prangin Road to be sold in bulk. You should be lucky that the internet hasn't invented Smell-o-Rama because I would have definitely piped through the pungent, fishy odor so that you could experience it yourself.

Top: These were as big as a serving platter
2nd row: Tiny shrimp; bulk scale; Finger-sized fish for MYR12 per kilo

This bulk bin warehouse actually sells a variety of other goods including premade rojak sauce, blocks of belecan paste (salted, fermented ground shrimp) and 10 pound tins of peanut butter.

I was particularly intrigued by these tins of Wheat Molasses. I've used sugar molasses plenty of times, but I had never heard of wheat molasses. Upon closer inspection, the ingredients are wheat, glutinous rice and water. I didn't have a chance to taste it, so I really wonder how close it is to what I know as molasses.

Hmmm.. what to do with all this Wheat Molasses?

The Sweetest Place in George Town
The sugar warehouse confirmed my suspicious that coarse grain sugar (color coded with a green label) is much more available here than the fine grain (pink label) or caster sugar. My daughter who, unbeknownst to me, only ate the dessert cake and sugar sachets on our last airplane flight would be in heaven here.

Sugar piled up to the ceiling

Revitalizing Sia Boey Market
The old, open air market building across the street has sat abandoned for years waiting to be demolished for a development project that never reached fruition. In July 2012, the state announced plans to capitalize on the site's status as a heritage enclave and restore it along with the old Prangin Canal. Who knows what lies in store for this area? Will it strengthen its wholesale business or support Penang's growing tourism? Only time will tell. Until then, we'll just have to take it slow and easy, the old fashion way.

I toured this area as part of the Trishaw Trades Trail tour organized by Spiral Synergy. Michelle Grimsley offers a great look at Penang's heritage past and the endangered trades and businesses that have been here for decades.

Related Posts:
Penang's Vanishing Heritage Trades
Penang Cooking Schools
The Street of Religious Harmony
Ramadan and Penang's Kapitan Keling Mosque

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Head over there for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. It really is a walk through the past isn't it.

  2. Hi, we are, a food delivery website which has just started delivering in Penang and would like to extend you a voucher for you to try out our services. Tried finding your email around but was unable to find. Do get back to me so that I can send you the voucher :)

  3. Michelle, even without a smell-o-rama over the internet, I could smell those dried seafood as soon as I saw your photos. Ha! Ha! I actually liked those dried stuff, especially dried squid, when growing up in the Philippines. You just made me miss them:)
    Anyway, I hope to make it to Penang someday. I know it's an interesting place and I know that the food there is heavenly. My favorite Malaysian restaurant here In New York City is called Penang!

    1. I used to eat dried, shredded cuttlefish (squid) as a snack when I was a kid. Still, this place was a little bit of an olfactory overload for me.

  4. Interesting place to visit... I like to eat dried fish and shrimp...

  5. I love the sound of restoring the old open air market building and the canal. Hope it all works out well. I love the motorbike egg deliverer.

  6. Really enjoyed seeing your photos and hearing about this old part of Penang. That is such an old-fashioned spot, hope it is retained as is. And I need one of those tins of peanut butter!

  7. The egg delivery was very interesting. Why do we think we need to refrigerate eggs? Not sure I'm wild about dried fish!

    1. I think that in the USA, eggs are washed which removes the natural protective coating that blocks bacteria, etc. from permeating the egg shell. They don't wash here, so it's supposed to be okay to leave them out.

  8. I remember these specialized stores in the Philippines and we had a few in Guam too. You've piqued my curiosity with wheat molasses. I wonder what the uses are. Thank goodness there's no Smell-o-Rama because I know that fishy smell all too well every time I visit an Asian store around here. I'm with Marisol, love those dried squid.

    1. They use the wheat molasses to make rojak sauce which is then poured over fruit for a dessert. Rojak sauces is made with molasses, chillis, fermented shrimp paste, soy sauce, sesame seeds and peanut butter. It actually sounds like something Filipinos might like.

  9. I love stuff like this! I wonder why the giant tins of peanut butter are branded with a telephone?

  10. I've never heard of wheat molasses. Wonder if it tastes like the cane molasses I'm used to.
    I always find it interesting how similar foods are used in different countries and the processes -- like cleaning the rice and the unrefrigerated eggs - that remain. Interesting stuff.

    1. I was also curious about what the wheat molasses tastes like but not enough to buy a gigantic tin of it.

  11. What a fascinating look at the foods. I can't imagine how awful one would smell after cutting up fish all day. Great shot of the egg man. I always wonder why we need egg refrigeration when you never see them refrigerated in developing countries - wonder if there is a higher incidence of salmonella?

  12. Interesting story nice illustrated with photos.

  13. What a fascinating glimpse into a world far removed from mine. My daughters would love this area, too, I think, esp. my youngest - who love to nibble dried fish (and worryingly, sachets of sugar).

  14. Nice blog and telling in a beautiful way thanks for share this blog. Cold storage warehouse Chicago


  16. I miss the chicken soup and the ikan pari Assam pedas with ladies fingers which my dad used to buy when I was growing up in Penang. I never went into Sia Boey itself, though, as it wasn't exactly the nicest of places, so reading about it in your article gives a new perspective. Thank you.


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