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The Secret Ingredient for Living to 100

A stroll through George Town and you will see it everywhere -

At Beach Street, where Chinese aunties dry blue pea flowers (bunga telang) along the five-foot-walkways, and then bundle them up to sell at Chowrasta & Campbell Street morning markets for the blue coloring in Nyonya kuih.  At China Street, where chilis and other spices are ground into a fine powder before being packed and sold to local restaurants in Little India.  At Queen Street, where Mr Kok engraves wooden signboards that adorn Chinese homes and businesses throughout the city.

It's everywhere.  Cultural interconnections.  Heritage value chains. 

But are they interdependent?  Kuih makers could easily buy blue food coloring to make kuih.  Restaurants in Little India could shop at Giant Supermarket to buy imported spices.  All the Chinese residents and business owners could purchase electronic signboards.

And the uncle in George Town, who fries up the best char koay teow could switch from the sweet, fragrant, homemade soy sauce he has been using for decades, to a bland, generic sauce that was fermented in steel drums in a factory. 

Maybe the uncle didn't have a choice.

Thin Seng Soy Sauce for sale at the outdoor factory

Thin Seng Sauce Factory on Kampug Malabar  is the last traditional soy sauce maker in George Town.

Started in 1912, the factory may not reach its 100th birthday.

Soya beans fermenting for months in traditional barrels from China
Soya bean cooker
Their business has slowly diminished from two dozen employees in the busy years, to now only Grandpa (Yee Saik Choon), two other family members, and two very sweet grand-kids who help out after school.  Even though their business has not been able to compete with the large scale production of its competitors, Thin Seng receives steady business from their loyal customers - the hawkers in George Town who continue to purchase Thin Seng's traditional soy sauce because they know that their dishes just won't taste the same without that homemade flavor.

Bean paste (tau chiau 豆瓣酱) - an essential ingredient in dishes such as steam fish and Teochew porridge
                 The highest grade thick soy sauce at the factory - sweet, fragrant...and I wish I had brought a spring roll to dip inside

Like many traditional businesses within the UNESCO World Heritage site of George Town, the family running Thin Seng does not own the property.  And now with tourism booming, they were recently informed by the owner of the property that they are being evicted, so he can sell the land to a developer.

The family would like to continue their business if they can find a suitable location.  But with the skyrocketing price of land in George Town, and almost everywhere in Penang, that might not be possible. 

When Thin Seng Sauce Factory empties the last bottles of soy sauce at the end of 2011, many people living in Penang, and visiting, may not see the difference in George Town, but they will taste it. 

Crystals forming on top of the fermenting soya beans


Rasa Malaysia said...

Argh, what is the development project that is so important? I thought UNESCO is about preserving this type of living culture? Don't tell me that they are going to build a high-rise that challenges the UNESCO restriction again in the core zone. Annoyed annoyed annoyed.

Reese said...

It will probably be another boutique hotel, which at this point is almost comical based on the number of them opening up in the heritage area. George Town might turn into the next Hoi An - a World Heritage site of...boutique hotels.

On a related note, Melaka is planning to build a Hard Rock Cafe on Jonkers Street. Nothing wrong with having one in Melaka, but it's right in the middle of the heritage area. Badan Warisan is fighting to prevent its construction, but it might be too late.

Reese said...


Owner Appeals To State Government Not To Demolish Factory

GEORGE TOWN, June 21 (Bernama) -- The owner of the Thin Seng sauce factory, Yee Saik Choon is appealing to the state government not to demolish his factory, located in the George Town heritage site, for the development of other projects.

The 74-year-old Yee, who is the fourth generation of operators of the factory which produces sauce using the traditional method, said the factory site belonged to the Boon Siew company which rented it to him for RM300 per month.

"In January this year, we received a notice to vacate the place by the end of April. After receiving the notice, I wrote a letter to the Executive Councillor concerned but had yet to receive feedback on it," he told reporters, here today.

He said that his factory had frequently become an attraction for local and foreign tourists because of the traditional methods used in making the sauce.

The Thin Seng sauce factory is located in Kampung Malabar covering an area of 4,274 sq. metres. It has been in operation since 1912 and is the oldest sauce factory in Penang.

stephen said...

You have to admit that rm300 for close to 4300sq.m or slightly over an acre of land in downtown penang is mighty awfully cheap.Why,you cant have a decent meal for a party of 4 with that amount.
I think the best would be to relocate elsewhere,make it a tourist attraction and get some funding from the local government.
I do have to admit that i have visited these places before as a young boy and have not been awfully impressed with the standard of hygiene practised. I also remember the itinerant peddler plying his trade with a myriad range of sauces in large containers on a bicycle and servants and ladies would bring their own bottles to fill up.

Reese said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We completely agree that the rent is far below the market rate, and the owner has every right to sell his property (it's not state land like Crag Hotel). This post was more about the general issues George Town faces. Is the city moving in the right direction? Are more malls and hotels the solution? Hopefully all parties involved can come together to discuss.

Think everyone can agree that George Town needs better planning (and yes, better hygiene).


Reese & Mark

Christina Schweighofer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Krista Goon said...

It's that tussle between development, family business and policies in place. Oh and of course hygiene. Sometimes I feel quite wistful too that these places will be the last of their kind. I was telling a friend recently that the hawker stalls (manned by 2nd generation but they are already in their 60s) may not be around in 10 years' time. Their sons and daughters will not want to stand at a hot stove and fry char kueh teow the whole day in the blazing sun. And yet.... we don't want the food court food because they really lack personality! My fave is going to Kimberly Street in the evenings and having a bowl of kuih chap laden with the sort of stuff kids will never eat these days. I wonder what will happen to these hawkers? Sure, the longkang is smelly, and we wish there was aircond but the heat, the onslaught of smells and sounds is what makes Penang hawker food so enticingly authentic and old world.

Maggie said...

Seeing the food makes me miss home. Sigh...