Carnarvon Street — where change happens quietly
GEORGE TOWN, June 1 — Once when I mentioned Carnarvon Street to a now successful business owner, he looked at me with wonder and asked, “Why Carnarvon Street? There is nothing there.” Then he sighed and added, “When I was a child that road used to scare the shit out of me. There were funeral shops, dead people and dodgy people hanging out on the corners. In fact, I was beaten up by a gang of older kids when I was 10.”
But that was a long time ago. What does Carnarvon Street look like now? The number of funeral shops has dramatically decreased, but they are still here, and there are no dodgy people hanging out at street corners at night. Carnarvon Street has changed, together with many parts of Penang, into a much safer, more prosperous place. However, the street lacks the charm of Love Lane, the boutique chic of Armenian Street or the chaotic bustle of Gurney Drive. In fact, many taxi drivers in town don’t seem know where the road is.
Hardly glamorous, but rather dusty and concrete, there are no boutique hotels, and the shophouses have not been renovated for decades. The only tourists who pass by are the ones who lose their way. It seems that the street has been spared from the boutique chic craze and people move here from other places looking for cheaper rent.
But don’t be fooled by its sleepy appearance. There are plenty of interesting things going on, free from rampant tourism. This is George Town with no make- up. For example, it is home to one of the most famous restaurants in town as well as a well-known duck rice place, a busy morning market, bookshops, art material shops, graphic design offices and funeral shops where you can buy a paper Mercedes or Tiger beer for the dead.
One of the highlights of Carnarvon Street is Ng, the stone carver and Chinese calligraphy artist — people come from as far as Singapore and Hong Kong to see him. Through long years of dedicated craftsmanship, Ng has become an icon of the living heritage and he is sometimes called “Heritage Uncle”. Most people come to see him out of nostalgia, because his trade is rare. I asked if there were many stone carvers in Penang before, Ng smiled and said that it was a dying trade in the 1960s and long before that.
One of the reasons why he became a stone carver after returning from his art studies in Hong Kong was purely practical — at that time there wasn’t a single one in Penang and market demand for his skills was high.
Tek Sen is another highlight on Carnarvon Street and has been there forever (or 46 years to be exact). It all started with a mobile food stand where Tek Sen sold Teochew porridge with economy vegetables and meat to coolies who worked the docks, trishaw guys and Chinese construction workers. His son San Kien would help him and later take over the business. When the port declined, so did the number of coolies; and in the 1980s Tek Sen transformed and started selling more sophisticated dishes and seafood to reach to a wider clientele.
Last year, Tek Sen carried out its latest renovation, moving into a heritage shophouse after its mobile food stand was demolished by the local authority. The new place is big and airy, there are new fancy illustrated menus telling the history of the three-generation restaurant (the menus were designed by San Kien’s second son, so everything stays in the family).
It is as busy as usual; people stand in a queue and sometimes even jostle to get a table. The secret? San Kien replied: “We do home-cooked local food which is not as fancy as in high-class restaurants, but we have a big choice of Nyonya, Hakka, Cantonese and Teochew dishes.”
While there is a fair share of heritage along the street, there is also a twist of the multicultural and modern. A recent addition to the slow and uninterrupted flow of life is a Taiwanese cake shop which makes the best cheese cake in town. The Taiwanese owner is a French-educated chef and somehow the Taiwanese and French blend well with the overall portrait of the street.
There may be better looking, more glamorous streets in George Town, but Carnarvon Street has the true quality of a hidden gem that will shine more and more as other places undergo uniform renovations and are polished to “perfection”.
* Gabija Grusaite works as a journalist, and also writes scripts for short movies and animations.
* This article was taken from the latest issue of Penang Monthly.