Sunday, March 7, 2010

Penang: Little Japan

The Japanese community had contribute to the early Penang development. The Japanese residents in the old days of Penang formed a vibrant community providing entertainment, western-style medical care, hotel services, skilled labour and brought in the latest technology for portrait photography & silent movie to Penang at a time where the society was made up of a predominantly male migrant force. Later Japanese migrants were more traders and professionals,including pharmacist, dentists, doctors.

The current Japanese community are mainly businessmen or retired who opted for 2nd home program. They are more educated and financially sound, compared to early Japanese community.

The Little Japan at Cintra Street & Kampung Malabar

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The Chinese in Penang call Cintra Street as Jipun Kay & "Jipun Heng Kay"(日本橫街) - the Little Japan Street and the nearby Kampung Malabar as Jipun Sin Lo(日本新路) - the Japanese New Road. A reference to the presence of a sizeable Japanese community operating brothels, grocery shops, pharmacies, hotels in that area at the turn of the century. In 1915, the Japanese Association was officially set up in Penang to take care of their communal affairs. The building location could still be located be in an old wooden bungalow nicknamed "Jipuna Kong Kwan", 日本人協會(日本人會)presently situated in between Kampung Malabar and Chulia Street.

There is also spill off of Japanese community to Leith Street.

Kampong Malabar Road

The road connected Cintra Street to Penang Road. Kampong Malabar Road, named after the Malabarese inhabitant in the area. Malabarese or Malabari are the Indian from the Malabar region, Malabar coast. Malabar Region (Malayalam: മലബാര്‍) is a region of southern India, lying between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. The name is thought to be derived from the Malayalam word Mala (Hill) and Puram (region) derived or westernised into bar. This part of India was a part of the British East India company controlled Madras State,when it was designated as Malabar District . It included the northern half of the state of Kerala and some coastal regions of present day Karnataka. The area is predominantly Hindu but the majority of Kerala's Muslim population known as Mappila also live in this area, as well as a sizable ancient Christian population. The name is sometimes extended to the entire southwestern coast of the peninsula, called the Malabar Coast.The Malabar Coast, in historical contexts, refers to India's southwest coast, lying on the narrow coastal plain of Karnataka and Kerala states between the Western Ghats range and the Arabian Sea. The coast runs from south of Goa to Cape Comorin on India's southern tip.

It was named after Malabarese because in the early period of Penang, the Malabarese was spread from Chulia Street(which was formerly known as Malabar Street in the late 18th century) to Kampong Malabar area, Chowrasta Markert area, Transfer Road area. In 1788, Capt Francis Light built some attap shops at Kampomg Malabar, but the shops were all destroyed by fire in 1789. Thereafter the building of shops with attap leaves was prohibited in Georgetown. The remain of the Malabar village can be seen in Tamil Street of Chowrasta Market, Dato Koyah Road, and Transfer Road. May be it was after the fire, the Japanese and Chinese moved in.

The Chinese called it Jit-pun-sin-lor(日本新路),literally means the new Japanese road. In 1915, the Japanese Association was officially set up in Penang to take care of their communal affairs. The building location could still be located be in an old wooden bungalow nicknamed "Jipuna Kong Kwan" presently situated in between Kampung Malabar and Chulia Street. It was once occupied by many tenants after the WW2, but recently it had been destroyed by fire.

Opposite is the soy sauce factory, Seong Heng Soy Sauce factory is on 18, Kampung Malabar, 10100 Penang. It is now rare to see soy sauce factory in town, except at Jelutong area. The factory must be around for some time. Please visit blog for some pictures.

Today, there is no Malabarese or Japanese in Kampong Malabar Road, it has become a Chinese residential areas, mainly Cantonese. Recently some shops are opening in the area. At the both end of the street are popular coffee shops/restaurant. At Penang Road end, Ho Ping Kopitiam, actually located at Penang Road is popular with food variety. Kedai Kopi Kean Lai Seng, is a popular kopitiam(coffee shop)at Kampong Malabar Road. A curry mee stall beside the coffee shop is popular choice. A lane from here lead to the lane which house famous Toh Soon Cafe(多春茶座) between Kampong Malabar and Campbell Street. Famous for its roti bakar(toasted bread), the breads are charcoal toasted in traditional way. Toh Soon Cafe is opened from 8am-6pm Monday-Saturday, closed on Sunday. At the other end, off Cintra Street, is KIM MAOU CAFE, actually located at Cintra Street, beside famous ba chang or rice dumpling shop. Fried Hor Fun(Sa Hor Fan)and Snakehead Fish Rice Vermicelli Soup (Lay Hoo Bee Hoon Th’ng)are popular there.

Cintra Street
Cintra Street,named after the Portuguese town of Cintra. It may indicated that the Eurasians(may be Portuguese or mixed Portuguese) lived and traded here in the 19th century. It is a street connected Kimberley Street to Chulia Street. Today the street is popular known as Jit-pun-hang-kai in Cantonese(日本橫街), name taken from Kampong Malabar Road. The Chinese divided the street into two parts;

(i) North of Campbell Street is called Ji̍t-pún-ke(日本街) by Chinese, which literally means Japanese street. Before 1900, there were already Japanese geisha houses. Many Japanese prostitutes operated their business in the brothels there. In the early 20th century, there were many camera shops were opened along Malabar and Cintra Street. Many of these shops had been a cover for spying operation for Japan. Today, the part of the street is mainly restaurants, and shops operated by Cantonese Chinese. The famous rice dumpling shop(日本橫街粽子專賣店) is at this part of the street.

(ii) From Kimberley street to Campbell Street,which is called Sin-ke-hoâi-ke(新街橫街)which literally means the side street or cross street of Campbell street. They also called it Phah-phaù-ke(拍袍街), the street for brothel, in the old days the prostitutes of the lower types were operating in the brothel there. The street is now mainly Cantonese style restaurants, pastry shop, and retailers, operated by Cantonese Chinese, especially at the Campbell Street end. The Cantonese restaurant, the local called teh-lau(literally means tea house), similar to dim sum shops in Ipoh. The famous are Tai Tong(大東酒家) and Foo Heong(富香酒家), their sha-hor-fan and steamed buns(pau, 包) was once the most popular. There were the restaurants the old Penang come for yam-cha(飲茶), literally means drinking tea, but it is going to dim sum restaurants. In the early Penang, there was no fast food, the most was to have pau or sha-hor-fun from teh-lau, especially at night ; the kids will be very happy when parent buy these food for them.

In the old days, rice dumplings or zong(ba chang, zongzi(粽子), not jiaozi(饺子)), pa-tong-kor(white sugar cake), ham-chin-peng(咸煎饼),leng-teh(herbal tea,涼茶) at the street side stalls were also popular, especially at night. The herbal tea stall(松鶴軒涼茶), which was opened since 1953, has moved to Kimberley Street.

No 76, Cintra Street was famous for yu-char-koay(油條). The Hainan chicken rice at 文昌茶室, located at the corner shop, beside the pastry shop(伍記餅家)which is located at 61, Cintra Street, at the entrance to People Court flat.

The street was also famous for its Chinese barber shops. In the peak days there were 12 barber shops at the street; but now only two are surviving. The last to close was Mido(美都理髮廳)closed on December 2009. The business sector was affected by the cheaper Indian barber shops and the modern hair saloons.

The People Court(生活公市)was Penang first government public housing project, built by Socialist Front(leftist socialist political party) controlled City Council in 1961. One of the old Chinese pastry shop(梁池記老餅家)is located at 8-C,People's Court,Campbell Street,10100 Penang. There is also one yu-cha-koay wholesale shop at People's Court.


There is one Japanese cemetry in Jalan P Ramli. There were 56 tombstones found in this cemetery with the earliest one dated back to 1893 (Meiji 26th Year). Contrary to popular belief, this cemetery is not a burial ground for the Japanese soldiers killed during the Second World War. In fact, only one tombstone dated 30.7.1942 belonging to one Kataoka from Troop 5174. All the other 55 tombs are dated between 1893 - 1926. The majority of the Japanese who were buried or commemorated here consist mostly the Karayuki-san who died during the Meiji Period (1868 - 1911) and a number of Japanese Navy officers who died in the sea waters near Penang during the Taisho Period (1912 - 1925 ). So the early Karayuki-san come to Penang prior to 1868.

In 1910, the official census counted 207 Japanese residents in Penang alone. Unlike the present day Japanese expatriates living in Penang, those early-day Japanese settlers were much poorer in comparison and in fact more than half of the Japanese residents then were involved in the 'flesh' trade. The Japanese prostitutes were Karayuki -san (overseas Japanese prostitutes) who are from the Shimabara Peninsula, which is located in Nagasaki Prefecture, and the arid mountainous Amakusa islands, which lie opposite the Kumanoto Prefecture in Kryushu, produced the highest numbers of Karayuki -san. These are the poorest region in Japan at the time. Since these areas are close to the seaport of Nagasaki which has good connection to travel to the Asian continent and S.E. Asia, the peasants and fishermen who were poverty stricken and facing the threat of long-term famine had little choice but under the persuasion of the prostitute racketeers called Zegen, to sell their daughters to work as Karayuki-san or prostitutes overseas. These karayuki-san operated their trade in Cintra Street in early Penang.

However, it was not until 1920 that Japanese Government, in collaboration with the British administrators who was concerned about the epidemic spread of the venereal diseases, began to abolish this 'flesh' trade and forced the Karayuki-san to leave the Straits Settlements and the Malay states. Most of them were sent back to Japan for good and for those who refused to do so, they either went 'under-ground', married the locals or tried their luck in the major cities of China.

After 1920
Ever since a large number of Karayuki-san returned to Japan in 1920, the number of long-term Japanese residents in Penang reduced significantly but the number soon recovered by other professionals who came in. In 1925, the Japanese population in Penang stood at 166.

In the 1930s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China sparked a series of anti-Japanese campaigns by the Chinese community in Malaya. In 1935, the Japanese Club in Singapore was ransacked by about 200 Chinese rioters. In Penang, in-line with the anti-Japanese campaigns in China, Chinese leaders actively instigated the people to boycott Japanese goods and services. In 1937, sensing the tense and dangerous situation, the Japanese wives and children living in Malaya & Singapore were tacitly advised to evacuate and return to Japan by their authorities and the community leaders and this evacuation intensified just before the War in 1941. The Chinese had long suspected all the local Japanese were spies for the Imperial Japanese government but only a handful of Japanese residents that remained behind were true collaborators to the Japanese invaders. During the War, the main informants were the Chinese merchants who traded Japanese goods before, the Taiwanese who could speak both Hokkien & Japanese and the Chinese police inspectors who pleaded their allegiance to the new master.

Some shops operated by the Japanese just before the war included a dental clinic owned by Mitsutake family at the junction of Muntri St and Leith St, a crockery shop named Nagoya sitting beside the Odeon Theatre and a toy shop in the Tong Aik Building at the corner of Hutton Lane and Penang Road. The Asahi Hotel at Transfer Road was an officially appointed hotel by the Japanese Government and it was suspected being used as a base for the Japanese espionage activities in this region.

Japanese community today
There are around 1,300 Japanese expatriates working for Japanese factories in Penang and there are about 360 Japanese retirees under MM2H program. There is one Japanese school for Japanese children. Furthermore, there are about 30,000 to 40,000 Japanese tourists coming to Penang every year. Penang has been one of the most well-known beach resort among Japanese people for the past 30 years.

Penang Japanese Association(ペナン日本人会) 
256 Jalan Air Itam,
10460 Penang, Malaysia.
Tel : 04-229-3635
Fax : 04-229-7157

The Penang Japanese Association is an association located at 256, Jalan Air Itam in Penang. The location is near to Methodist Boy's School and Suffolk House. It was founded in 1977 to promote greater understanding and friendship between the locals and the Japanese community in Penang. The biggest social event organised by the Penang Japanese Association is the annual Bon Odori Festival, which is usually held at the Esplande field.

Consulate General of Japan(在ペナン日本国総領事館)
Level 28, Menara BHL,
No. 51 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, 10050 Penang
Tel: (604) 226-3030 Fax: (604) 226-1030
web site:

Related articles:
1. FROM MALABARIS TO MALAYSIANS:The Untold Story of Malayalees in Penang, by Professor Suresh Narayanan, USM, Penang,
2. The Prewar Japanese Community in Penang during the period 1880 – 1940, by Clement Liang
3, From amakusa to Bugis junction, A similar area in Singapore of Japanese community)


  1. Hey. I'm interested in how you found out the population of Japanese community today? I need the statistics as I'm doing my assignment. Would you please share with me please? Thank you.

  2. If you need reliable data, the best source is statistic department. If you need the estimate of the population, the Japanese Embassy or The Penang Japanese Association should be able to help.