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Tracing Tradition, Unveiling Transformation Across Campbell Street - My Indie World

Tracing Tradition, Unveiling Transformation Across Campbell Street


Tracing Tradition, Unveiling Transformation Across Campbell Street

by Geok Ling • September 17, 2023

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Ask Austin what his formula for their sustainability is now that the footfall on Campbell Street has shrunk considerably, and he attributes it to a pivotal business decision made in the 90s to carry only one brand – Rolex. He had contemplated moving to a mall in the 80s, but he must be glad about that decision now as he would be having the same issues with rental and pathetically low footfall which mall tenants presently have. His two children are running the business now.

Another good example of a well-sustained business on Campbell Street is Cheng Woh Medical Hall, currently managed by its fourth-generation successor, Lee Xi Wen and his still- active parents, Lee Tak Tsong and Yap Chee Bee. The shop doubled in size in 1988 after they took over Eng Huat Electrical Appliance Store next door. It has been airconditioned and modernised for convenient shopping; the retained medicine drawers and foot-tall glass jars behind a glass counter look interestingly like they are from half a century ago. My mother used to send me there to pick up simple items such as a particular brand of cough mixture. That item is still available in exactly the same packaging.

My Zoom conversation with the Lees was fruitful as they connected my memory dots for a fuller recollection. They confirm that there was indeed another Muslim restaurant adjacent to them. Originally Meerah, it was taken over by Taj in the 80s. They were friendly neighbours judging by an anecdote shared by Yap. After Xi Wen was born in 1985, the owner of Taj commented that she gave her son a good name as it sounded like Siva!

The cough mixture I was sent out to buy from Campbell Street.

We also reminisced on their neighbours who ran perm parlours, a term you hardly hear these days. One was Hoong Sing (Red Star) and the other was Foong Lan. Another neighbour operated a tailoring shop and its signboard, Nam Poe, is still there even though the building has been completely taken over by her son’s watch and clock repair shop. And we did not forget to mention Wing Hing, the gramophone and record shop along the same row.

In stark contrast to Cheng Woh, Poh Aun Tong Medical Hall has not changed its interior or its business motto of “only pack when purchased”. The motto is a legacy which Chan Soo Sum, a qualified physician, inherited from her father and that she has been bent on keeping till today. You may be attended to by Chan before she prescribes the herbs you need. And if you wish, Poh Aun Tong also provides brewing services. While I was at the shop, a young lady showed up with a thermos flask to collect her order. I wonder how many medical halls still do that around Penang.

The motto “Only pack when purchased” is staunchly practised by attending physician Chan Soo Sum at Poh Aun Tong. Note the prescription being prepared in multiple doses.

Pre- and Post-pandemic


Ten years ago, Campbell House was opened after being transformed from a neglected three- storey corner shop. It was one of the earliest boutique hotels to be started in George Town. With it came Il Bacaro, the first Italian restaurant in the inner city. You would expect an investment like that to put the spotlight on Campbell Street, and it did.

Gradually, accommodation of different affordability sprang up on the upper floors while cafes operated on street level.

The distinctive rounded-corner of Campbell House.

We also started seeing a lot more cars at night parked along the block where the jewellery shops are. There were even long queues to get into Safe Room Café for their signature

nitrogen ice cream, while opposite, a new noodle house attracted crowds with their dough- kneading artistry using a long bamboo pole. Next door to it, a larger building which was formerly Kim How Jewellery, was repurposed into a hotel, café and lounge in 2017. KT Tan, one of its owners, said that Kim Haus started offering stand-up comedy sessions as a novelty in Penang, and since a regular venue was needed to support local talent.

More food and beverage outlets also opened on the next two blocks and were a welcomed change to the wholesale clothing shops which threatened to monopolise the street. Writer, a contemporary-design stationery shop, is another refreshing newcomer which gives diners and pedestrians purpose to linger for longer.

The evolution of Campbell Street happened organically, thanks to entrepreneurs who not only saw opportunities for profit but also wanted to contribute to the culture and arts scene in George Town. Perhaps a shot in the arm from the authorities and city planners will further boost the momentum of this upward trend. Furthermore, the pandemic has re-directed the interest of retailers away from malls to streetside shopping, a role-reversal of shoppers’ trend in the 80s which caused the decline of Campbell Street.

Campbell House rejuvenated the building where Tai Loke Hotel once stood.

While the city council is looking for the perfect balance between pedestrians and cars, they may well aim higher, and make Campbell Street destination-worthy again. It already has a rich history, cultural heritage, good accessibility with supporting side streets, diversity, F&B and an old cinema building to boot – all cool factors for a vibrant street.

It just needs a bit of help in some departments. How about having curated outdoor activities, perhaps at the old Sun cinema? Add design-oriented touches to the streetscape. Bring back its signature vertical signboards. Provide better security. Introduce public transportation on Campbell Street.

And please, encourage shoe stores to return.

Credit: Penang Monthly


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