Campbell Street, within George Town's UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a one-way street within the city's Chinatown. It runs straight between Penang Road to the west, and the junction with Carnavon Street and Buckingham Street to the east.
Created in the mid-19th. century, Campbell Street was once a red light district. Since the end of World War 2, it used to serve as Penang Island's 'Fifth Avenue'. To this day, shops selling jewellery, bags, textiles and Chinese natural remedies still line the street, although most of the other retail businesses here have been taken over by wholesalers.
In addition, a handful of famous restaurants and hawker stalls are located along the street, serving anything from Indian Muslim to Cantonese cuisines.
Campbell Street was named after Sir George William Robert Campbell, who served as the Penang Inspector General and subsequently, the acting Lieutenant-Governor of Penang between 1872 and 1873.
When the street was created in the mid-19th. century, it was known as Sin Kay and Sin Kai in Hokkien and Cantonese respectively. Both terms meant 'the new street'.
However, Campbell Street gained a seedy reputation soon after that. By way of pun, both terms, Sin Kay and Sin Kai, came to refer to the fresh 'chickens' (prostitutes) brought into the courtesans quarters along the street. Another Cantonese term used to refer to the street was Fa Kai, which literally meant 'Flower Street' - also an euphemism for the prostitutes along the street.
For similar reasons, the Malays called the street Jalan Nona Baru and Jalan Makau. Jalan Nona Baru meant 'the street of new maidens', while Jalan Makau referred to the coastal city of Macau in China, where most of the Cantonese prostitutes came from.
Campbell Street was laid out in the mid-19th. century and named after Sir George William Robert Campbell, who was the Inspector General of Penang and, subsequently, the acting Lieutenant-Governor of Penang.
The street quickly became part of George Town's New Chinatown, as Cantonese immigrants flooded into George Town towards the end of the 19th. century. The new Cantonese arrivals, who mostly worked as coolies, tailors, goldsmiths and ironmongers, populated the area around Campbell Street.
Concurrently, Campbell Street became a red-light district, with mostly Cantonese prostitutes being brought into the courtesans quarters, marked with red lanterns at the doors, along the street. Campbell Street continued flourishing as a red-light district until the Japanese invasion of Penang during World War 2.
Meanwhile, at the eastern end of Campbell Street, Campbell Street Market was built in the early 1900s. That particular location was formerly part of the land owned by the nearby Kapitan Keling Mosque. Today, Campbell Street Market is one of the only two operational wet markets within George Town city centre.
After the Second World War, Campbell Street was given a new lease of life; it became Penang Island's answer to New York's Fifth Avenue. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the place to be to shop for shoes, bags, watches and other forms of textiles.
In the mid-1970s, the retail businesses along Campbell Street began to suffer dwindling numbers of customers. With the mushrooming of departmental stores and shopping malls continuing to this day, Campbell Street is now past its prime. Nonetheless, several shops selling jewellery, textiles, bags, watches and traditional Chinese medicine, as well as apparel wholesalers, still operate along the street.
In 1999, under the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, the then Penang Island Municipal Council built a walkway at the western end of Campbell Street, complete with an arch gate and benches. However, its poor planning is obvious, as the benches were haphazardly installed at this particular unsheltered stretch of Campbell Street without considering the hot, humid climate. The walkway also narrowed the western end of the street, creating a traffic bottleneck.
The 'Retail Paradise' wrought iron sculpture has been put up at Campbell Street as a nod to its past as the 'Fifth Avenue' of Penang Island.
Its description is as follows.
"Campbell Street is Penang's Fifth Avenue, a retail paradise where shoppers can stroll along the row of shophouses and feast their eyes on an array of goods."
Well-known for its Indian Muslim cuisine is the Hameediyah Restaurant, near the western end of Campbell Street. Established in 1907, it is also one of the oldest operational restaurants on Penang Island. It is the place to be to sample Indian Muslim dishes like nasi kandar, nasi briyani and chicken murtabak.
Also near the western end of Campbell Street, one particular hawker stall stands out for serving among the best breakfasts on Penang Island. Toh Soon Cafe, which sits in a nondescript alleyway, serves one of the best Penang coffees, as well as standard local breakfast fare such as kaya toast and nasi lemak.
In addition, Tho Yuen Restaurant, at the mid-section of Campbell Street, serves Cantonese dim sum in the mornings, while a chicken rice stall takes over during lunch hours.
Other eateries along Campbell Street are as follows.
- Yee Heong Restaurant
Penang State Government
N.26 Padang Kota State Assemblyman : Chow Kon Yeow (Democratic Action Party)
N.28 Komtar State Assemblyman : Teh Lai Heng (Democratic Action Party)
Malaysian Federal Parliament
P.049 Tanjong Member of Parliament : Ng Wei Aik (Democratic Action Party)
- Khoo S.N., 2007. Streets of George Town, Penang. Areca Books.