Komtar’s international community marketplace

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Visitors to Penang should experience first hand the vibrancy of a beautiful Southeast Asian community market place at Komtar, suggests Angeline Loh.

It was around 12.30pm and the kopitiam on the first floor of Komtar facing Magazine Road was slowly filling up for lunch with office workers and others from the surrounding area. A meal outside is a treat for me; it is a time to relax and let my mind mull over things at a more leisurely pace while savouring a delicious meal. Amidst the kon-lo wan than mee and barley suam, my aimless gaze settled momentarily on the various patrons of this traditional institution, our local Malaysian kopitiam.

The kopitiams – little cafes frequented by people of every race and colour, local and foreigner, worker and professional, rich and poor – are a heritage institution all over the country. Every ethnic community in the world has its local watering hole. In some countries, it is a pub or bar; in others it may be a coffee house or outdoor cafe. This is where people from all social and economic strata congregate to gossip, talk and socialise or even talk business in a pleasantly relaxed and friendly environment.

The taste of my wan than mee took me back to my childhood; it was a taste long forgotten. The fried wan than dumplings tasted like something enjoyed so long ago in the past and the accompanying tiny bowl of consommé melon soup with small bits of spring onions and fried garlic floating in it was just right. No overpowering taste of salt or oil to spoil this pleasure. The barley drink was smooth and sweetened to perfection, its thick white translucent liquid felt like velvet on the tongue.

My reminiscing was cut short by a sharp loud shout in Hokkien, “Or – peng- chniah” in a strange accent. It emanated from an Indonesian worker with complete and persistent gusto. Shouting out orders is the usual system in our Chinese kopitiams. Foreign workers face many problems in our country, despite working hard, possibly for more hours than they should.

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My contentment was momentarily clouded when I remembered that there had been an immigration raid in Komtar over the last weekend, where 300 undocumented migrant workers, including two children had been rounded up and sent to an immigration detention camp (The Star, 18 April 2010).

A majority came from Myanmar, the others from Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh and India. It was a sad thought that couldn’t be dismissed. This was the reality, the truth.

Asean community bazaar

Walking round Komtar, I noticed many of the Burmese food and sundry shops were closed. It was disappointing because these places added to the vibrant international variety in this complex alongside local traders selling local goods and food. This was the point at which one could literally walk into “Asean”. It is such a natural market place where prices are quite reasonable and affordable. These small migrant businesses serve the local migrant communities with basic necessities and special cultural and traditional goods.

You would come across Indonesian food from Acheh or Jawa tucked in corners somewhere in this labyrinthine complex or Philippine Pinoy food and goods shops on another floor. Bangladeshi shops and Indonesian and Myanmar goods shops sell ‘batik sarongs’, Burmese ‘lungi’, ‘jamu’ traditional clothes, footwear, medicines, foodstuff and so many things that might be found in these countries, without the hassle of having to buy a plane ticket or getting immigration clearance.

Yet, the raids by immigration enforcers, Rela, MPPP and police mar the life of peaceful co-existence in this international community business village. This interesting international marketplace also draws many Western, and Eastern tourists and local shoppers who happen to visit Komtar to find a delightfully wide variety of goods from Asean countries, including Malaysia.

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Komtar is the seat of the Penang State Government that should consider itself privileged to be sitting on top of this international business centre, particularly comprising citizens of Asean countries. Penang should be proud to be in this unique position – literally within Asean … or on top of it?

Historically, Penang was an international entrepot where traders from all over the world stopped over to trade, rest and ultimately settle. The original names of the streets and roads in Penang reflect its historically cosmopolitan character and in some ways continue to do so, particularly its traditional ties with Thailand and Burma. Penang boasts two prominent temples off Jalan Burma (Burma Road). The Thai and Burmese temples, where the Songkran i.e. New Year Water Festival, is held every year attended by droves of Thais, Malaysians, Burmese and foreign tourists in the country. These temples are not merely tourist attractions but places of worship and Buddhist learning. The name ‘Burma Road’ also has its own history of being the road along which many Burmese migrants settled centuries ago. I learned this from the reminiscences of elderly Penangites, including my parents who love to share stories of their childhood days.

Around the Unesco heritage city area and beyond, vestiges of small communities of various ethnic lineages can be found in places of worship set up to serve the spiritual and cultural needs of the various communities: Sikh gudwara, Pakistani and Indian Muslim mosques, Chinese clan houses, Taoist temples, Eurasian and European churches, old Hindu temples. Even a Jewish cemetery still exists in Penang. There was an Armenian community after which “Armenian Street” (Lebuh Armenian) was named and so many others – past evidence of the existence of an amazingly large and varied spectrum of migrant ethnic communities who had settled in Penang.

Penang has had such a rich history of being an international city with an international character. How can we be averse to foreigners and migrants who add to the unique international character and vibrancy of our city state’s society? These migrants undeniably make major contributions to Malaysia’s economy, whatever their legal status.

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Hopefully, the present state government will see the wisdom of maintaining the enjoyable ‘village  community’ ambience of  Komtar’s shopping centre for the enjoyment of locals and foreigners alike.  I would encourage any of my foreign friends who visit Penang to step into Komtar’s Asean world and experience first hand the vibrancy of this beautiful Southeast Asian community market place.

It was the present migrant community shops and a small number of local businesses that kept Komtar alive when it was slipping into a dilapidated and decrepit state with the deterioration of the city centre under the previous BN state government. The current PR State government has contributed to rehabilitating the complex and rejuvenating it by increasing its business potential. We also have the foreign workers and migrants to thank for saving this seat of the state government, and one of Penang’s most famous icons – Komtar.

Angeline Loh is an an Aliran exco member.

Footnote: The Filipino Pinoy shops and some Indonesian shops have been closed down.

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