The story of Sia Boey, as told through remnants from the past

Some of the artefacts recovered from the excavation site at Sia Boey. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Some of the artefacts recovered from the excavation site at Sia Boey. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

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GEORGE TOWN, March 10 — Walking into the now-empty market hall in Sia Boey you can almost “hear” the sounds of people buying and selling in this once-busy marketplace.

With work underway to turn the area into an open green space complete with majestic canopy trees and a crystal-clear canal running through it, the site holds many memories for those living in George Town.

Those who called the inner city of George Town home for decades will have stories about visits to the market, or tales of living in one of the shophouses in Sia Boey. They may even remember playing in the waters of the canal more than 50 years ago.

George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI) has been managing the site since 2016 and has plans to tell stories of the people who used to work and live here through a Sia Boey archaeological and interpretive centre at the site.

“We have dug up thousands and thousands of artefacts from the canal during restoration work on the canal, so we want to engage the community to tell the stories behind these artefacts,” GTWHI general manager Ang Ming Chee said in an interview.

Artist’s impression of the completed Sia Boey project. — Courtesy of BYG Architecture
Artist’s impression of the completed Sia Boey project. — Courtesy of BYG Architecture

She said cataloguing the more than 15,000 artefacts dug up from the canal over the course of nine months was an uphill battle as these were everyday items used by the Sia Boey community.

There were countless coins, some dating back to the Qing Dynasty and the Straits Settlement era, alongside common modern items such as porcelain cups, marbles, plastic toys, mahjong tiles and cassette tapes.

“The archaeology work here is different because it is not about items thousands of years old belonging to people long gone but it is about the daily lives of people who are still alive and able to tell us stories about these items, some of which are 30 to 40 years old,” she said while taking us on a walkthrough of the site recently.

So instead of making their own decisions on how to catalogue the artefacts, Ang said they will get the Sia Boey community to tell their stories and relate the importance of the artefacts found.

“We want them to work with us on interpreting what we found, we want them to tell us the stories of these artefacts, how to catalogue them and interpret them,” she said.

“Sia Boey was a place of everyday life for the people of George Town, it was the place that served the people at the entry point to George Town and we want to continue the legacy of this place as a gathering place by turning it into a park,” she said.

Once the whole project is completed, the market hall will be used as an event space. — Artist’s impression courtesy of BYG Architecture
Once the whole project is completed, the market hall will be used as an event space. — Artist’s impression courtesy of BYG Architecture

Other than turning the space centred on the market hall and canal into a park, Ang said she is proposing to turn a few units of the shophouses into the Sia Boey archaeological interpretive centre.

She said the focus is always on the local community, to get their involvement and to tell their stories to keep them alive.

GTWHI recently handed over the management of the site to project manager and lead consultant, BYG Architecture Sdn Bhd.

Ang said GTWHI kickstarted the Sia Boey Integrated Site Management Plan with landowner, Penang Development Corporation, back in 2016 to rejuvenate and revitalise the site as a vibrant social centre for George Town.

A George Town World Heritage Incorporated staff excavates an area at Sia Boey. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
A George Town World Heritage Incorporated staff excavates an area at Sia Boey. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Two main archaeological sites were uncovered at Sia Boey when they started work to clear the site.

Site A was a semi-oval canal lock that was composed of 35 granite slabs with a basin of stagnant water.

Ang said parts of it will be covered up for safety reasons but a small section will still be visible to the public.

Site B was a building structure that was previously a police barracks.

“The barracks will be left open for educational purposes so the public can learn about archaeology,” she said.

More than 15,000 artefacts were dug up from the canal over nine months. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
More than 15,000 artefacts were dug up from the canal over nine months. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

She said it can be designed for students to learn about archaeological processes and get hands-on experience in sifting and identifying artefacts.

Work to create a landscaped park and restore the market hall structure has already started and is expected to take six months to complete.

According to BYG director Michael Ong, the row of 22 shophouses will be restored under the second phase of the project.

Some of the bits and pieces dug up around Sia Boey waiting to be catalogued. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Some of the bits and pieces dug up around Sia Boey waiting to be catalogued. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

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