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From Festivities to Flavors: Campbell Street’s Timeless Charms - My Indie World

From Festivities to Flavors: Campbell Street’s Timeless Charms

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From Festivities to Flavors: Campbell Street’s Timeless Charms

by Geok Ling • September 17, 2023

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Festive Shopping

Chinese New Year was truly a big affair on Campbell Street. The celebrative shopping periods were much shorter than what malls now offer, with their very early fancy decorations. In the old days, most parents in Penang needed a rest period after buying school uniforms and books before suffering another shopping binge for the festivities.

Campbell Street would become extra lively as pop-up stalls lined the five-foot ways on both sides, like two red streams rolling down the incline. These stalls sold affordable clothes, shoes, accessories, festive goodies and lots of decorative items, including the almost-defunct Chinese New Year greeting cards. In the background, one could hear the blaring of familiar greeting tunes coming from vendors selling cassette tapes.

Today, this festive mood is not even a fragment of what it used to be. I wonder how the old shops selling clothes and shoes had survived, even during pre-pandemic times, stuck as they seemed to be, in a 70s time warp. Joo Wah Shoe Store diversified by adding inflatable beach toys and souvenirs to attract tourists. No obvious change to their shoe display was made – they just hung the new merchandise on their five-foot way for full visibility. I wonder if their business will resume once the MCOs are over; even then, we do not expect many tourists to return for some time.

Sadly, another shoe store with old-world charm closed for good last year. The couple who owned Kean Hin Shoes Supplies retired due to old age and mobility challenges. At the time of writing, they can still be seen moving in and out of their no-longer-a-shop house, though their shoes remained on display in the glass casings. The two columns flanking the shop still proudly proclaim in embossed Chinese calligraphy – “Modern sandals for men and women” on the left and “Superb quality European and American leather shoes” on the right.

Across the street from Kean Hin still stands Campbell Street’s oldest business on record. Kwong Tuck Sundries and Liquors was established in 1836 by the great-grandfather of its current 90-year-old proprietor, Woo Shee Kow, who lives above the shop. I still frequent it for normal sundries to make tong sui (literally translated as sweet water and refers to Cantonese soupy desserts) or once in a while to indulge in some yoon cheong, waxed sausage made of goose liver. Waxed or preserved meats and dried seafood, including fish maw and sea cucumber are the specialties Kwong Tuck is renowned for.


Kwong Tuck’s paper bag was kept as a collector’s item by an old customer who had bequeathed it to her granddaughter. Photo by: Chuah Eeyan.

As of this year, they are selling online via their website, kwongtuck.com, and it is heartening to know that not only is their business not affected by the various lockdowns but that it is doing even better with more home cooks trying out more complex recipes. Before gift hampers wrapped in cellophane became popular, Penang people used to gift festive goodies in Kwong Tuck’s printed paper bag; big city folks always thought this a quaint idea and “very Penang”. If only Kwong Tuck would start printing those bags again, so that we can revive the tradition.

According to Austin Wong of Woo Hing Brothers, only four buildings on the portion of the road which stretches from his shop to Rope Walk survived a fire in World War II. The fire stopped just before Kwong Tuck. After learning this, I started to study the architecture more closely. Adjacent to Kwong Tuck, there are indeed no columns along the five-foot way of the rebuilt shops. I had not noticed that before!

Chicken Rice

The two oldest residents we know of on Campbell Street are residing in two of these four pre- war buildings. Austin’s mother, Madam Loo, is 91 years old and prefers to be independent in familiar surroundings. Austin recalls that her favourite hairdresser, Hoong Tho (Red Peach), was located just diagonally across the street, now occupied by Magnum 4D. She also enjoys the local food available in the neighbourhood.

For Hainanese Chicken Rice, however, Austin now has to go to Cintra or Chulia Street even though that dish was what Campbell Street was once famed for. Despite her fading memory, even my mother remembers Chip Seng Chicken Rice which was sandwiched between Woo Hing and Tho Yuen Restaurant, the latter always well-known for its dimsum and Cantonese- style noodles.

So, what happened to Chip Seng? According to an old article in Guang Ming Daily, Foo Say Chee (Hainanese) and Ooi Hak Say (Hokkien), had set up Chip Seng and revived the selling of chicken rice after the war. One of their old employees, Lau Hor Kan or more affectionately known as Kan Sook, or Uncle Kan, affirmed that Chip Seng had existed before he joined them in 1953. After two years, he left to work in the eatery next door. That was because “Tho Yuen had a bigger variety of food for its employees!” Kan Sook recalled that Ooi branched out in the late 50s to set up his own shop, Loke Hooi, just across the street. You can still see Loke Hooi’s name embossed in Chinese on the building facade even though the business ceased in the 80s. It is today an art space, Izu Zone, owned by Penang-born and Rome-based artist, HH Lim.


Kan Sook, in the foreground, serving customers during a Mooncake Festival.

Foo eventually sold his business but Chip Seng continued to operate under a new management until Tho Yuen took it over in the late 80s. Tho Yuen’s heir apparent, Leong Chee Khong, joined his father and managed the newly acquired division; their restaurant expanded. Thus, that was how a Cantonese eatery ended up with Hainanese Chicken Rice on its menu.

When they ceased serving chicken rice two years ago, the only trace of Campbell Street’s chicken rice history is on Tho Yuen’s signboard. When dining-in-premises are allowed again, diners will surely miss the distinctive-looking Kan Sook, who decided to retire last year.

Credit: Penang Monthly

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