Jalan Raja Uda
Of divine Emperors, Jade tapestries and Dragon's beard candy
Jalan Raja Uda is veritably the Chinatown of Butterworth. Among its biggest displays is the spectacular stringing of 10,000 silk lanterns over the entire artery in conjunction with Chinese New Year celebrations every year. The red lanterns, all custom-made in the city of Tianjin in China, are suspended in a picturesque manner across the 3.5km long road like a never-ending canopy for motorists and pedestrians alike.
The area is also seeing the emergence of trendy bars, cafes and artistic and creative projects which have helped to generate enthusiasm and allure for the public, especially among the younger generation.
FROM SMALL VILLAGES TO PROMINENT INDUSTRIES
The enclave began with the emergence of a cluster of villages and sparse settlements west of the Prai River before the Second World War. The residents were mainly those worked in estates and plantations.
It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the area began gaining prominence as industries started emerging here. Most of the early factories were meant for processing wheat, grain and rice. There were also a number of biscuit manufacturers. The Quaker Oats plant set up nearby in the 1960s still exists till today.
The area also thrived due to its location, mid-way between the predominantly agricultural area of Permatang Pauh on the east, and the port and railway town of Butterworth on the west.
In fact, the administration of Penang’s first chief minister, (Tan Sri) Wong Pow Nee, had plans to set up an industrial hub for the state of Penang near Raja Uda. The plan saw the development of the Mak Mandin Industrial Estate, today the oldest existing industrial zone in northern Malaysia, established in 1961.
Interestingly, Mak Mandin was once notorious for the gangs that dominated over the area, but this social menace has since been inhibited by national law enforcement officials. Raja Uda and Mak Mandin were also badly hit during the recession of the early 1970s.
Few people today area aware that the area was also considered by the administration of Wong’s successor, (Tun) Dr Lim Chong Eu, as the site to build a free trade zone geared for international electronics manufacturers in the seventies. Such a hub was laid out in the proposals of the Nathan Report for the future development of Penang.
Had Dr Lim chosen Raja Uda and Mak Mandin as the site for Penang’s electronics hub, the future of the state and in particular mainland Seberang Perai would be very different today. As fate would have it, Dr Lim’s administration opted not to do so and chose instead the vast tracts of paddy fields at Bayan Lepas on Penang island where the world-famous Free Trade Zone materialised.
THE ILLUSTRIOUS GOVERNOR RAJA UDA
The importance of the area is underscored by the fact that it was christened after one of the most distinguished and eminent personages in the period before and after independence from Britain in 1957.
Jalan Raja Uda got its name in honour of the first Governor or Yang diPertua Negri of Penang, Raja Tun Sir Uda bin Raja Muhammad.
Raja Uda was Governor of Penang for ten years, starting his term on the very day Malaya gained independence from the British on August 31, 1957. He was among the few Malayans knighted by the queen of England when conferred the Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1953.
He was also Mentri Besar of Selangor for two terms – from September 1954 to August 1955 and from 31 August 1957 to 30 August 1967. Between these two terms he served as Speaker of the Federal Legislative Council following the country’s first general elections in 1955.
Raja Uda had also served as Malayan High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, and was involved in negotiations with the British in the 1950s on governance issues in preparation for independence.
THE QUIET FORGOTTEN WATER-WELL
One unassuming and little known artefact of the past with special historical significance is an old well. Most people pass by it today without realising its meaningful heritage value.
It is located at the crossroads where Jalan Raja Uda intersects with Jalan Permatang Pauh, Jalan Siram and Jalan Telaga Air. The well was dug here many decades ago because the site was central between the old villages scattered around the interior area and the town of Butterworth on the coast.
It was actively used in the days when there was no piped water. The road on which it stood came to be called Jalan Telaga Air ("Road of the Water Well") and the name has stuck till today.
Local Chinese folks called it ‘ang mo cheh’ or English man’s well, because it was dug by the British colonial authority for the people. While its water was used for homes around the area, the very existence of the well is an indication that the earth here was fertile with plenty of groundwater
The water was also used for ceremonies like the fire-walking festival near the Sree Maha Mariamman Temple at the far end of Jalan Telaga Air.
The well has now been filled with concrete and cannot be used anymore. It lies as a showpiece at the busy junction amid the swirling traffic all around, a quiet reminder of a past that is long forgotten.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs by Adrian Cheah
Photo of Wong Pow Nee from The Star
Photo of Raja Tun Sir Uda bin Raja Muhammad from https://wangsamahkota.wordpress.com