Back in those days, people collectively understood five-foot ways as a shared space between the public and the private, writes Penny Wong.
“Look at the five-foot way.”
“What five-foot way?”
“There!” She pointed to the five-foot way.
“There! They call it kaki lima in Malay”
“Kaki lima sounds familiar but what is it?”
“This.” She was standing on the five-foot way while stretching her arms to indicate five feet.
Amazed and shocked – that was how I felt when I discovered the concept of five-foot ways. It was during a photo-walk session with my lecturer that it clicked. I had used five-foot ways regularly, yet I had never stopped to think about them.
I never knew these covered walkways had a name. Historical stories, values, social and cultural aspects are embedded in the five-foot ways. Knowing that five-foot ways have played an important role in many people’s lives since the late 19th Century, I set out to learn more about the shift in the social and cultural features of these unique walkways, from the past to the present.
This article has two parts. This first part explores the social and cultural features of the five-foot ways of the past; the second part will touch on their present state.
Online resources about Penang’s five-foot ways of the past are scarce. To gather more information, I meet up with Khoo Salma, a local historian and councillor with the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), and Kuah Li Feng, a heritage services consultant. Observing five-foot ways in George Town and chatting with older residents and business owners about these passageways gives me fresh insights.
The tropical weather that encourages torrential rain and blazing sunshine made five-foot ways a practical and unique architectural feature in Penang. These walkways are part of a row of buildings: the owner is required to push back the ground floor by four feet or more for public use; so the first storey of each shophouse acts as a shelter for pedestrians passing below. As of today, the law that governs five-foot ways is Act 133, Street Drainage & Building Act, 1974.
As I stroll along the streets of George Town, I spot a senior citizen, seated along a five-foot way, passing his time puffing a cigarette. I soon gather he is waiting until it is time to pick up his granddaughter. He seems to have made the outdoor space homely by planting greens and decorating the space with Buddha statues.
Having lived at Lorong Ceti for decades, he remembers a time when people sat along five-foot ways in the evenings and engage in animated conversations with their neighbours about everything under the sun. Or they watched the world go by. Children played on the road. The five-foot ways were especially lively during festive seasons when families dropped by for a visit. The sense of community was tangible, but now it is no longer the same, he laments.
Meeting Khoo Salma, a local historian and councillor with the Penang Island City Council, at her quaint publishing house, Areca Books, I get a glimpse of days gone by. Children played badminton by tying a net from one house to another in residential areas such as Lorong Sek Chuan, she recalls. It was possible back then as fewer cars plied the road.
Over in Little India, children played hopscotch on the streets in the 1970s. Older children taught their juniors mathematics along five-foot ways. Perhaps this was less visible among the Chinese communities because they had established associations, kongsis, which provided education for the children, says Kuah.
In his book Portraits of Penang: Little India, medical practitioner-photographer Ooi Cheng Ghee writes: “Most people in Little India had little private space and so the matrix of streets – and the verandahs and five-foot ways that border them – belonged to everybody and nobody.”
Back in those days, people collectively understood five-foot ways as a shared space between the public and the private. Socialising along these walkways after work was the norm. People treated these areas as a place to breathe freely as their own homes were usually crowded and stuffy, packed with 30 to 40 people in a house, during the rent control period.
Itinerant vendors frequently wandered along five-foot ways, which also served as a trading space for shophouses. Chinese medical halls placed herbs out to dry on flat rattan baskets along the five-foot way, recalls Kuah.
As their houses were compact, Chinese residents prayed along five-foot ways in front of small altars they had built – something still noticeable today. Weddings, funerals and festive celebrations such as the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, Phai Thien Kong, were held here. Such displays are rarely seen today because of the declining number of residents in George Town.
When George Town was still a duty-free port, cart-pullers in Little India slept on newspapers spread out along the five-foot ways in front of textile shops. The passageway in front of a single shop could accommodate up to 10 people (Cherita Lebuh Chulia, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, 2013). Here, men could take day-time naps.
These five-foot ways were bustling open spaces; no permanent obstructions to hinder the flow of people walking or conducting their daily activities.
The above photographs and stories suggest that people back then knew how to use these spaces appropriately by coming to a common understanding of one another’s needs. After World War II, temporary obstructions sprouted but even these did not hinder public movement much.
What about today? Read Part 2 – Reclaiming George Town’s five-foot ways as a public space
Penny Wong is an anthropology and sociology student with a local university. She is currently doing an internship with Aliran.