SEBERANG PERAI, Oct 1 — Butterworth, better known to the locals as Bagan, started out as a small town that relied on fishing as its main economic activity.
When the British came, they renamed the town after the Governor of the Straits Settlements, William John Butterworth. It was developed to support the booming port activity on the then Prince of Wales Island (later to become known as Penang).
The jetty in Butterworth became the main link between the island and the mainland, as boats transporting goods, people and at one point, tin ore from Taiping, plied the sea between the two.
That saw the town transform into a transportation hub and by the late 19th century, a railway station was also built, completing the network of transportation linking Butterworth to George Town and other towns on the mainland.
Butterworth also had an Air Force base where the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was stationed for several decades. The RAAF tried to counter Japanese air raids during the Second World War.
The base brought about more economic changes to the town as shops and businesses opened to cater to the influx of airmen and their families to the area.
These businesses continued to thrive for decades but slowed down when the RAAF left and the base was returned to the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
After that, the main government offices relocated to Kepala Batas. Today, the jetty is no more; a highway has become the main lifeline in the area and though some old businesses have remained, others have since shuttered.
The town was quietly forgotten but now efforts are being made to revive it through an urban regeneration programme called the Butterworth Baru Plan.
Undertaken by Think City and Seberang Perai Municipal Council, the project aims to improve accessibility while creating activities to revive the economy.
One of these is a walking tour of the old town. Like the Unesco World Heritage site of George Town just across the Penang Straits, Butterworth also has many heritage sites worth visiting.
Jeti Lama Heritage Enclave
This is the original site of the jetty where people used to take a boat to Penang and where fishermen brought in their catch of the day, thus its name — Jeti Lama.
There are rows of pre-war shophouses here, the Arulmigu Sri Maha Mariamman Temple and the Jeti Lama Market which is mainly a wholesale market today.
The Arulmigu Sri Maha Mariamman Temple started out as a small hut after the statue of the deity, Amman, was found by the seaside back in 1853.
A temple was then constructed in 1903 by Nattamai Ponnusamy Pillai before it was rebuilt in the 1980s and renovated yet again in 2002.
This is the temple where port workers and residents would make offerings to the mother deity Amman and pray for her blessings.
Along the same road as the temple is a row of old pre-war shophouses built sometime in the 1970s and 1980s.
Many of these shophouses, believed to have been built more than a century ago, have been left vacant and some are in various stages of decay.
Across from these shophouses is a red godown. It was previously a warehouse but has been left vacant for several years now.
It was recently bought by Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurant and is used for events during the annual Butterworth Fringe Festival.
Next to it is another temple, the Sri Patineetam Padi Karuppar Swami Alayam, for workers to seek blessings from the deity Karuppar.
A similar mix of heritage shophouses, some renovated and modernised over the years, and modern buildings stand along Jalan Jeti Lama itself.
Some of these buildings still house local businesses while some have been vacated.
Next to Jalan Jeti Lama is Jalan Pasar where there are more shoplots and the old Jeti Lama market. The market started out as a collection of stalls before a building was constructed in 1928.
Traders at the shoplots consist of those selling fishing equipment, sundry items and a number of vegetable and fish wholesalers.
Located along the main road of Jalan Bagan Luar is the Ambassadress Hotel which used to be the only “luxury” hotel in the area.
The hotel, which opened in the 1960s, has 25 rooms and is located above a coffee shop.
Famous singers and movie stars from Hong Kong like Chiang Kwang Chau, Jin Fei and Koo Mei used to stay here when they came for movie premieres and performances at the Rex Cinema next door.
Managed by Han Beeng Shoo, 70, till today, the hotel also used to host singers like the late P. Ramlee and Teresa Teng.
The cinema closed down many years ago and today, the Ambassadress Hotel continues to operate as a reasonably-priced hotel for travelling salesmen.
It has maintained most of its original decor from the colourful tiles on the floor and walls to the furnishings.
Behind the Ambassadress Hotel is Kampung Benggali which was a traditional village but it has since given way to development. However, a lone Malay-style kampung house still stands where the village used to be.
The kampung house has been vacant for many years; parts of its roof has caved in and the wooden floors rotted away.
Just behind it, accessible via a dirt path, is a small grouping of kampung houses. These were the last vestiges of the village that used to be on this site.
The shophouses along Jalan Kampung Benggali are also interesting as they have unique architectural features such as twin columns at the front inlaid with colourful mosaic tiles.
The frontage of these buildings that were not covered up by signboards also showcase similar mosaic tiles laid out in geometric patterns.
This is the road where you can find many old businesses such as a traditional chick blind maker, Bean Milk Trading that makes their own soy bean milk and soy bean pudding and old-style restaurants.
Masjid Abdul Kadir
Walking from Jalan Bagan Luar to Kampung Benggali, along Jalan Telaga Air, you will find a mosque that has been around since 1814.
This is Masjid Abdul Kadir. The mosque was named after the banana fritter seller who built it, Haji Abdul Kadir.
Also known as Masjid Keling or Masjid Bagan Tuan Kechil, most of those who came to the mosque then were Indian Muslim port workers.
Over the years, it was renovated and extended to be able to accommodate its growing congregation.The latest such extension was in 1980.
Along the road itself are small traditional shops and businesses like florists, hardware stores, a fruit stall and an old shoe store.
The Old Civic Enclave
Down the road along Jalan Bagan Luar are some old government buildings that were built in the early 20th century.
This area used to be where the British administrative offices were located and even after the Second World War, the area continued to be the government administrative centre.
These buildings feature a unique mix of colonial and Malay-style architectural features eg. the veterinary building, with its wraparound verandah, that was built in 1931.
Other government departments located here include the Agriculture Department, Health Department, Post Office, Pejabat Agama, a children’s clinic, a hospital, the police station, civil servants’ quarters and the local council headquarters.
Most of these departments relocated sometime in the 1980s but some continue to use these buildings as a branch office.
A walking tour to these five spots could take a couple hours or more. Other than the MPSP Field along Jalan Bagan Luar, the old town has very few trees for shade so it is best to start the walk early in the morning when it’s not so hot.
* Think City is also undertaking urban regeneration programmes for George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Johor. Find out more about Think City and its projects at thinkcity.com.my.