George Town’s forgotten canals

BEFORE George Town was linked by tarred roads, rickety bullock carts and sampans plied the waterways and dirt paths of the Unesco World Heritage Site between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century.

Penang Travel Tips author and history buff Timothy Tye said that back in the 1870s, the waterways, which were “at least 2m-wide”, were the lifeline of the city.

He added that boats were a much cheaper mode of transport compared to bullock carts because there was no need to worry about feeding the animals.

“Before Transfer Road, there was a canal (running along present-day Transfer Road) connecting Prangin Canal to the northern channel.

“Prangin Canal is just one of several canals that were used as a mode of travel and transport but the others have been long forgotten.

“The Transfer Road Canal converged with Prangin Canal somewhere near Masjid Titi Papan in Burmah Road where there used to be a wooden bridge,” he said.

Tye said since motorised vehicles replaced sampans, the role of these canals had diminished.

“There were at least five canals in George Town along Transfer Road, Prangin Road Ghaut, Burmah Road, Chulia Street, Muntri Street and Kampung Malabar (off Penang Road).

“Today, only remnants of these canals are visible. They’ve lost their purpose and are relegated to drains forming part of the sewerage system,” he said.

In the early days, Tye said, George Town was mainly populated by the Indian and Indian Muslim communities.

He said the Transfer Road Canal was probably busy with those who regularly visited the Datuk Koyah mausoleum and Masjid Titi Papan.

Tye, who was a Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) past council member from 2006 to 2011, urged the relevant authorities to clean up the canals and put up interpretive plaques to mark the canals’ history.

He said: “I am happy to share my research information. Perhaps the state can even consider linear parks where the auxiliary canals used to flow.”

He welcomes the state government’s proposed Penang’s Heritage Square, a project under the Komtar Phase Five development.

“I have been studying the history of this area for the past five years.

“Back in March 2010, on behalf of PHT, I brought former Penang Municipal Council acting president Tan Cheng Chui and then George Town World Heritage Incorporated general manager Maimunah Mohd Sharif to view the area,” he said.

“I gave them a briefing of the history of Prangin Canal and its surrounding areas such as Anson Bridge and Maxwell Road.

“Since that walkabout, nothing concrete seemed to have developed. I’m very happy now that something is finally happening in the form of the Penang Heritage Square,” he added.

Tye said that until the early 19th century, Prangin Canal was just a meandering river that flowed from the mangrove swamp into the sea, and over the course of the 19th century, the forest was cleared for vegetable farms.

He also said settlements such as Koay Kang-Nga (village across the river) were established beside the river which was turn into a canal.

By the late 19th century, the village made way for urban development, creating Magazine Road and the Seven Streets’ Precinct of George Town, he explained.

He said Prangin Canal was an important waterway long before the Sia Boey Market structure was erected.

“George Town depended on the Prangin Canal as well as other auxiliary canals for the transport of material and goods.

“Bullock carts lined Prangin Road, as they did Weld Quay, ready to accept vegetables, farm produce and livestock delivered by sampans on the canals,” he added.

“Serving as the boundary between the town to the north and the countryside to the south, the Sia Boey area was the ideal location for a market to develop.

“I hope that through the Heritage Square project, such glimpses of history can be brought back to light, and every effort is taken to capture and accurately interpret the area and its history,” he said.

It was reported on Aug 1 that the state government and Penang Development Corporation plan to transform a 1.82ha plot of land, including the old Sia Boey Market, into Penang’s new heritage enclave.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng had said the project had five major elements — restoration and expansion of Sia Boey (Prangin Market), creation of urban spaces, a heritage celebration square and an iconic George Town heritage centre, reinstatement and adaptive reuse of old shophouses and restoration of the Prangin Canal.

Tye said Singapore’s Clarke Quay was a good example of canal revival projects.

“We can’t recreate history but we can adapt Prangin Canal to suit present needs.

“A green lung with huge shady trees is ideal as a public park,” he said.

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