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My Handpicked Street: Campbell Street - My Indie World

My Handpicked Street: Campbell Street


My Handpicked Street: Campbell Street

by Geok Ling • September 17, 2023

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Campbell Street – Where the Old Shine is Just a Rub Away

Is a street a merely a passage one goes through to get from one point to another? First of all, let’s differentiate it from a road. Before I can even type, naïve scenes appear in my head. I imagine bigger buildings on a road, more vehicles and moving ostensibly faster. A street, on the other hand… I see children on bicycles, more people than vehicles, more smiles, a newsstand, a coffee shop.

You can use “street” or “road” when you tell a child to “be careful when you cross the …” but the two are not always inter-changeable in a sentence. For example, “Penang has the best street food” or “don’t put me out on the streets” whereas it is “the road to progress” or “a salesman who’s always on the road”. We are not arguing semantics here, but the word “street” connotes much more than its physical meaning, even before we explore its socio- cultural aspects. I will even go so far as to say that a street simply has soul.

There is more greenery on Campbell Street now compared to the old days.

In 1989, the municipal council of Penang in conjunction with Pulau Pinang magazine organised a “Memory Of Our Streets” essay competition. It was part of a worldwide campaign by UNESCO “to encourage an awareness of the character of streets, through rediscovery of their past, as a pledge to the future.” That is the same reason for Penang Monthly’s homage to Campbell Street in this issue.

Physically, Campbell Street is only 500m long. It stretches from Penang Road to the Campbell Street Market with intersections at Cintra Street and Rope Walk. Those intersections dissect the street into three blocks of unequal lengths. In its heydays, a very diverse range of businesses thrived on Campbell Street, thus earning it the reputation of “the Fifth Avenue of Penang”. That was in the 60s and 70s, coinciding with my growing-up years. During that period, no gigantic cast iron arch announced entry into it.

Poster of the competition was published in Pulau Pinang magazine in 1989.

Interestingly, upper Campbell Street refers to its start at Penang Road, while in Chinese dialects, the “head” of Campbell Street is where the colonial-style Campbell Street wet market is, at the other end of the street.

The old buildings along Campbell Street are almost all still intact, save for a few three-storied ones which are now only facades. The street has lost most of its vertical signboards, though; these were once a favourite focus for photographers. What are left are few and far between. These showcase the diehards, the few still lucrative shops and a handful of hotels, cafes and pubs. The biggest category of still surviving retailers is jewellery and goldsmith shops.


Childhood Memories

Campbell Street was my night time playground as a child; the junction where it meets Penang Road was merely two minutes away by foot from the shop house I lived in on Transfer Road (now part of Hotel Penaga). Like an insect drawn to bright lights, I often hopped over to this vibrant street. There was always something interesting or new to see. It may be hard to imagine that today, but it used to be fairly safe (at least I felt so) for an eight-year-old to do that.

Where the Penang Road branch of Ban Heang Biscuits is today was a very popular shoe store named Zlin. I remember eyeing Dr Scholl’s Exercise Sandals there, but its price tag of RM49 put them beyond the reach of a pre-teen. I could only admire the beautiful grains of the beech wood foot bed each time I walked past Zlin’s open shelves to enter Campbell Street. That was probably when and where my love affair with shoes began.

Zlin Store viewed from Penang Road in the 70s. Traffic on it was two-way and children could walk around safely.

Remember the tagline “First to Bata, then to school”? The nearest Bata shoe store to my home was just two doors from Zlin. The Bata Badminton Master shoes with green rubber soles, white socks and the must-have whitener were the purchases I looked forward to every year end.

The Bata store on Campbell Street in the mid-70s.

Incidentally, Zlin was the Czechoslovakian town where Bata shoes originated in. Someone had remarked on social media that Zlin used to sell Bata shoes before chain stores opened under the Bata brand. So that was the backstory of one of Penang’s earliest modern shoe stores.

Speaking of school, how many of you carried the mini-suitcase schoolbag in red and black tartan? No prize for guessing where I got mine from. I wish I had kept mine the way Dato’ Seri Dr. Anwar Fazal, a fellow lover of Campbell Street, still has his “first travel investment” of a Dionite hard shell suitcase.

Anwar recalls purchasing the suitcase in preparation for his prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship in the US in 1972. Campbell Street was the go-to place for bags and luggage and traces of that can still be seen today. Anwar continued going to Campbell Street to fix the wear and tear on his bags and suitcases. His favourite repair shop, until the business closed, was Tong Chai Tong, located at the junction of Campbell and Cintra Streets.

Dato’ Seri Dr. Anwar Fazal showing off his first “travel investment” of a Dionite suitcase.

Credit: Penang Monthly


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