Making Bukit Mertajam a great place to live again


Teh feeling nostalgic at Bukit Mertajam market, one of the venues of Rakan BM's Jom Pi Pasar event. Photo: Yew ZX

One’s hometown is usually filled with pleasant childhood memories. It is a place some eventually leave to build their careers, while others choose to remain and carve out a life for themselves.

Nonetheless, there is no denying that each person’s hometown has a special place in his or her heart.

And that is something Bukit Mertajam boy Alan Teh readily agrees to.

The locals know Bukit Mertajam, located in Penang, as Tua Sua Kha in Hokkien, which means “the foot of a big hill”. That precisely describes the geographical location of the town, said Teh.

“If one were to view it from Penang Hill, one will not miss the pointy Bukit Mertajam across the sea. The word ‘mertajam’ also refers to a type of tree found in abundance at the hill in the olden days, ” explained Teh.

To preserve and pass on collective memories of their cherished kampung to the next generation, 20 volunteers got together to form Rakan BM (Rakan Bukit Mertajam) in 2018.

“We started as a small volunteer collective in 2016 when Yokohama city council representatives came to Bukit Mertajam to study its urban history under the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica).

A coffee roastery is an old trade of Bukit Mertajam that vistiors to Bukit Mertajam's Art & Cultural Festival can learn more about. Photo: Rakan BMA coffee roastery is an old trade of Bukit Mertajam that vistiors to Bukit Mertajam's Art & Cultural Festival can learn more about. Photo: Rakan BM

“We offered our opinions as citizen participants, ” said Teh, one of the pioneers and founding members of Rakan BM, or “Friends of BM” in English.

Then in October 2018, the group officially registered itself as Persatuan Rakan Bukit Mertajam.

“The aim of forming the association (rather than operating as an unofficial group) is to receive funding and sponsorships with full transparency and professionalism. It is also to adhere to the rules and regulations entailed within a non-governmental organisation, ” explained Teh.

One of Rakan BM’s plans is to gather experts in various fields to investigate ways to revitalise the historical Bukit Mertajam town and discuss sustainable development.

Bukit Mertajam has two important religious events that attract pilgrims nationwide: Bukit Mertajam Hungry Ghost Festival (featuring one of the biggest Hungry Ghost Festival effigies in Malaysia) and St Anne’s Festival.

Chinese calligraphy works by local artists at Rakan BM's Jom Pi Pasar BM. Photo: Yew ZXChinese calligraphy works by local artists at Rakan BM's Jom Pi Pasar BM. Photo: Yew ZX“So far, we have done three main things; hold an annual art and cultural festival; rejuvenate an old, deserted lane into an art walk with landscaping and activities; and gather a data inventory of historic buildings and organise guided tours on the history and heritage of Bukit Mertajam, ” he said.

The first Jom Pi Pasar BM, or the Bukit Mertajam Community Art & Cultural Festival, was held in August 2018.

The four-day festival successfully raised awareness on preserving and rejuvenating the old streets in Bukit Mertajam.

Last August, Rakan BM organised Jom Pi Pasar for the second time, with the aim of bringing the four-day festival to new heights. The theme of the festival was “Back to Old Streets”, where visitors walked down memory lanes through streets that came alive with art installations.

Winds of change

Teh used to live with his grandparents in Kampung Aston near Bukit Mertajam town until he was three. Then, his parents moved out to stay on their own. On weekends and festive seasons, they still returned to spend time with his grandparents when they were still alive.

A Chinese opera make-up artist at work during the Jom Pi Pasar BM festival. Photo: FilepicA Chinese opera make-up artist at work during the Jom Pi Pasar BM festival. Photo: Filepic

Teh recalled: “I used to follow my grandmother to the Bukit Mertajam market for Chinese New Year shopping. The streets would be packed with hawkers and traders selling foodstuff, praying paraphernalia and decorative items. We would shop until midnight and the streets would still be thronged with people.”

After Form Five, Teh left Bukit Mertajam to further his studies. He later chose to settle down in Kuala Lumpur with his own family and has been there for almost 20 years.

Teh observed that Bukit Mertajam has changed a lot over the years.

“From a thriving business hub and logistic centre of the northern region (via its railway and road transport network), Bukit Mertajam is now in sharp decline.

“The town has grown even quieter now after the Electric Train Service (ETS) was established and the railway station relocated out of Bukit Mertajam, ” he said.

Creating a more liveable town

Teh added that Rakan BM is playing a supportive and advisory role to the relevant authorities in identifying historical landmark buildings in the town as it does not have the capacity to conserve those buildings.

The association, he continued, has a heavy responsibility to do cultural mapping and placemaking exercises as they can work with various parties.

Teh said that in terms of ethnic breakdown, Bukit Mertajam town comprises 90% Chinese – which is similar to many historic west coast towns like Taiping, Ipoh and Kampar – and 10% Indian.

Meanwhile, the Malay population is mostly involved in trade and come to the town for their business activities. They predominantly live on the outskirts of the town.

Currently, more than 35% of shophouses in Bukit Mertajam have been deserted or closed down.

An architect by profession, Teh also owned an art gallery for seven years until its closure last October.

“I was the curator for the Bukit Mertajam Community Art & Cultural Festival. I have also started to collect and archive the history and building fabric of Bukit Mertajam in the hope that one day, the information can be showcased in a local history museum.

Committee members of Jom Pi Pasar BM at Bukit Mertajam market in Jalan Pasar in August 2018. Photo: Filepic.Committee members of Jom Pi Pasar BM at Bukit Mertajam market in Jalan Pasar in August 2018. Photo: Filepic.

“Also, through my networking in Kuala Lumpur, I have been collaborating with people from the academics, urban planning and conservation, and business and tourism fields, to revive Bukit Mertajam via various mechanisms, ” he shared.

Ultimately, Teh said Rakan BM wants Bukit Mertajam to be revived as a liveable town with equal economic opportunities and a place rich in culture and history.

With the group’s passion and determination, that is surely a dream that is within reach.

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