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Author: Kenny Loh

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The songkok maker

[gallery link="file" columns="1" size="large" ids="848,849"] As Ramadan approaches, Shahul Hameed Malim will gear up for his busiest days of the year. The Hari Raya season is a peak sales period for the Malay headdress – called songkok – that his family produces. Their company, ABM Zulaikha Sdn Bhd, is the biggest producer of songkok in the country. But there is not a single person making songkok in their factory. “We used to have 10 workers here, but there’s not enough space. So, we changed our method of operations. The workers now work from their homes, and we also outsource the work,” says Shahul who uses his factory space for warehousing instead. In the 1980s, they moved their songkok operations to Mak Mandin, Seberang Perai’s earliest industrial zone, set up in the 1960s. It is now an enclave of medium-sized factories like ABM Zulaikha. Before that, Shahul’s father had a shop on Beach Street in George Town. Then, the company was called Hj Aboobacker Marican & Sons, and Shahul’s father was the biggest importer of velvet in his time. There was a small space in their shop to sell songkok. “All songkok are made of velvet, but the quality of the material varies. My father taught me about velvet and how to work with it. All the songkok makers used to buy their velvet from us. Some still do,” says Shahul, who renamed their company ABM Zulaikha after his father passed away. ABM are his father’s initials and Zulaikha is his mother’s name. Out of 10 siblings, Shahul and his two brothers have carried on their family trade. “These days, it’s harder to get workers who are keen to acquire the skills required to make the traditional headdress. Everyone wants to make fast money, but it takes time to master the skills to make a songkok." “There is an art, seni, to making songkok. It’s about making it with your heart. If you only use your head but not heart, you can’t make a songkok. It’s the right intuition that will make a fine songkok,” says Shahul as he demonstrated the steps to making a songkok. Even though they have modern machines now, each songkok produced is still finished with hand-sewn hem. Shahul pays housewives 50sen a songkok for their fine stitching. “Songkok making is an art,” he reiterates. “We tried out a machine, but we rejected three out of 10 songkok it hemmed. The work was just not fine enough." But Shahul does not always adhere to the old ways. Songkok used to be lined with old newspapers, and before that with old mengkuang matting. At ABM Zulaikha, they have innovated by using straw boards. “I was uneasy about using old newspaper as lining. We wear songkok to pray in the mosque, and we don’t know where these newspapers have been or what’s written on them." With this innovation, they have also been able to make songkok that are more pliable, so wearers can experiment with different styles. Some people prefer the Sultan style, which sits lower and flatter on one’s head, some...

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At the cinema

After sundown, shops are shuttered and it’s mostly quiet in the Jalan Bagan Luar area. But the old Cathay cinema – now the Lotus Five Star (LFS) – is all lit up and loud with the chatter of movie-goers. There used to be two stand-alone cinemas side by side here – Cathay and Rex. Everyone in Butterworth came here to watch movies. Rex has since shut down – a casualty of the VHS era, Hong Kong TV serial rentals and modern-day cineplexes – and has been reborn as a club. LFS is today the only stand-alone cinema in all of Penang, and one of a few left in the country. The exterior and the lobby area remain, but gone are the massive hall with a special class upstairs and the single screen of yesteryears. There are now four neat cineplexes with four screens that can seat 230 persons. “In 2007, LFS took over this cinema. At first, we played different types of movies. But we don’t attract many Chinese or Malays because they think LFS is an Indian cinema. “As our clientele was mainly Indian, we started playing only Indian movies,” says LFS Butterworth’s manager Sathis Waran who took us on a tour around his cinema. It’s all plush cushioned seats and carpeted floors in cozy cineplexes now, no more kuaci shells strewn everywhere. In the screening room, Sathis points to the reel projector sitting forlorn in a corner. They no longer have to lift and change heavy reels of films to keep a show going. “We switched to digital six years ago. Now, we just plug in a pen drive,” says the 33-year-old who has been working in cinemas since he left school. The local boy says LFS cinema is the main source of entertainment for the Indians in the area. “There isn’t much to do in Butterworth. It’s not convenient to go over to the island. So, the only thing to do for the Indians here is to go to the cinemas and watch movies,” he says. The most popular mode of escapism via Indian films now is Tamil horror or ghost movies. “In the 1980s and 1990s, love and gangster shows were popular. But now, it’s ghost movies that people like. People used to like Hindi movies, but 10 years ago they switched to Tamil films. Now, it’s mostly the Nepalis and Bangladeshis who like to watch Hindi movies.” The cinema is most festive, he says, when there are blockbusters showing. The halls are packed and the audience exuberant in anticipation. And LFS has the best popcorn in town… their popcorn is so good that even non-moviegoers come and buy it, claims Sathis who insisted we try a pack of his sweet buttery popcorn. They run four shows on weekdays, and five shows on weekends. “Going to the cinema is a family outing – people go for dinner at the restaurants around here and then come for the movies. They bring the entire family, the children and even the grandparents. “But nowadays, it’s hard for families because prices of everything keep going up,” says...

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Eating noodles together

On a quiet street in Butterworth’s old town are three side-by-side eateries – a Hainanese restaurant and two beef noodle ‘kopitiam’ shops. They are run by Chinese proprietors but their customers are from all ethnic groups, including the Malays. It’s not common these days to see Muslim customers eating in Chinese-run shops, but no one bats an eyelid here. “Our family has eaten Hoe’s beef noodles for three generations. My late husband’s parents brought us here, and now my grandchildren eat here too. So, there is trust,” says retired teacher Siti Rohani Mohamad Hashim, who introduced it to her husband Ahmad Husine when she remarried. Ahmad likes Foo Thian Hoe’s beef noodles so much that the couple eats here three times a week. They have become friends with the proprietor, as have many other loyal customers who post about their favourite noodle stop on Facebook. Until Foo’s son, C.K. Foo, quit his job as a field engineer to expand their family business, the family had operated from nameless stalls in coffee shops in Butterworth’s Bagan area. Their last rented stall was at the eatery next to their present premise, Luan Fong. When Foo moved next door in 2015 to set up his own shop, another hawker took over his stall. That’s how there came to be two beef noodle shops side by side on that street. Foo’s shop is the middle one, and they named it Meng Chai after his son who passed away in 2012. It marked a new chapter for the 60-year-old family business, inherited from Foo’s father who started out in Bukit Mertajam. Foo’s children – his son CK and daughter Ruth – value their family’s heritage and are keen to preserve it. Ruth, who holds a PhD in Planning from Britain, sees Butterworth old town’s potential for revitalisation, and believes her family has a part to play. They have decided to stay put on Jalan Bagan Luar 2 even though it’s a run-down part of town with few retail shops because they want to contribute towards Butterworth’s regeneration. “There is now one less untenanted shop. But more importantly, there will be one more bustling business here to inject life and increase the vitality of the Butterworth old town,” says Ruth. “We intend to take this business into another few decades, if not generations. We see it as a way to bind multi-ethnic groups together, through food, literally, and to genuinely foster and champion the values of 1Malaysia.” Their customers are of the same mind too bringing their families here for their favourite beef noodles, just as they have done for generations....

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Built on tin

[gallery link="file" columns="1" size="large" ids="844,845"] One of the first factories in Butterworth, a tin smelter, started operations in December 1901, when the then European-owned The Straits Trading Co (STC) started operating its eight-furnace tin smelting plant on Jalan Pantai. The coastal site, facing George Town across the sea, was chosen because it was beside Penang’s deep water ports and could easily be reached by steamship vessels. Tin mining was in full swing at that time and had become the driver of Malaya’s economic growth. Smelting tin – the process of extracting tin from its ore – was Malaya’s earliest heavy industry, and Butterworth was at the forefront of processing tin ore to meet the world’s demand. The plant was also strategically located. The British had built road and railway links from the tin mines in Kinta Valley, Perak, to Butterworth and the Penang Port was a major hub for tin exports. By 1912, STC was the biggest tin smelting company in the world, producing half of the world’s tin supply. In 1982, the Malaysia Smelting Company was formed to take over STC’s smelting business in Butterworth. In 2005, MSC became a subsidiary of STC following an unconditional takeover of MSC by STC. “Butterworth town grew around the smelting company. One of the earliest settlements here was Kampung Jawa, across the road from the plant. The village is no more, but there is now a housing estate called Taman Jawa on that site,” says MSC Group General Manager-Internal Audit Yoon Choon Kong. When the plant was set up, it was said that about 100 Javanese workers from STC’s first smelting plant in Pulau Brani, Singapore, came to Butterworth. According to Jejak Warisan (warisanseberangperai.blogspot.com), a website documenting Seberang Perai’s heritage, there are workers in the plant who can trace their ancestry lines back to those same Javanese workers from Pulau Brani. Some of them lived in the staff quarters on Jalan Allen (named after an MSC manager) but many set up homes in Kampung Jawa. The European managers lived in bungalows on Jalan Pantai, some of which are still standing today. The staff quarters were demolished in 2002 to make way for the construction of the Butterworth Outer Ring Road. The workers at the Butterworth smelting plant – then called the Penang Smelting Works – were highly skilled workers. “Locals then say working at STC was like being gifted with an iron rice bowl because it was a secure job with good pay and perks. It was said that when the company gave out year-end bonuses back then, Butterworth was in a festive mood as workers went about spending their hard-earned money,” shares Yoon who joined STC’s accounts department in 1978. In the past century, the Butterworth smelting plant has survived two world wars and the collapse of the tin market. In 1985, the world tin price crashed by half due to the failure of the price support mechanism of the International Tin Council (ITC) at that time. Many tin mines in Malaysia closed down as it was no longer feasible to...

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Heritage & History

If it were not for the state border marker, there would be no telling where Seberang Perai Utara ends and Kedah begins. The scenery here is of undulating tracts of padi fields, bordered by the Muda River up north and the Perai River down south. The scene is straight out of a child’s drawing of the rural hinterland – blue skies, green padi fields, swaying coconut trees and houses on stilts – except these days, highways cut through the landscape. The North South Expressway and the Butterworth-Kulim Expressway are the main arteries linking the district to northern Peninsular Malaysia. The most well-known town here is Butterworth though it has lost its lustre in recent years. There are ongoing efforts to reinvigorate this town, and the completion of the Penang Sentral integrated transportation hub here in 2017 is expected to breathe new life to Butterworth. The Kepala Batas area further up north has experienced much growth in recent times. It is most famous for being the hometown of former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. When its most illustrious son was in power – he was Malaysia’s fifth prime minister from 2003-2009, and deputy prime minister from 1999 before that – he brought massive development to the Kepala Batas area. In recent years, Kepala Batas and neighbouring Bertam Estate have been transformed from a sleepy rural enclave into an administrative, economic and education hub. Government agencies shifted from Butterworth to be housed under one roof in Wisma Persekutuan in Kepala Batas, and the Millennium Hall was built to accommodate big events. Golf resorts and housing estates now stand where rubber and palm oil plantations used to be. Various educational institutions have been set up here, from community colleges to industrial training institutes to government vocational centres. Bertam Industrial Park is also located here. Rustic charms Along the coast from Teluk Air Tawar to Penaga to Kuala Muda, the scenery is still predominantly of rice fields and fishing villages. Further inland is Tasek Gelugor, known for its vegetable and fruit farms. Years ago, the government encouraged the farming of market crops to increase food production. But the primary crop here is still rice. In the midst of this Malay heartland is also Kampung Selamat, a Chinese new village most known for pig farming. Though there was the occasional protest, people here have lived peacefully with their neighbours for generations. Nowadays, fewer people are interested in reaping nature’s bounty. More and more are opting to earn their living working in the civil service and private sector, or in factories. Many are also businessmen and entrepreneurs who would rather not depend on the whims of the sea, land and weather. Even though the march of progress has been relentless, Seberang Perai Utara has retained its slow rural pace. On scorching hot afternoons, the fields remain still and the shopping malls are deserted. Though the new buildings are big and brash, the roads are not congested. Folks are friendly, even with strangers in cars bearing out-of-state number plates. They readily give directions in heavily-accented northern Malay - pi...