Before the mansions on Gurney Drive or Kelawei Road, there were the townhouse residences on China Street. these were the 'mansions' of their time.
China Street, or Lebuh Cina, is today, one of the commercial streets in George Town. It is located within the core zone of the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site and is right on the edge of Little India. Busy during the weekdays but quiet after office hours and at weekends, it does however, come alive during all the cultural and religious festivals that take place in the city. China Street connects two major roads, Beach Street and Pitt Street, and is intersected by Penang Street, King Street and Queen Street. Land reclamation toward the end of the 19th century extended China Street, creating China Street Ghaut.
Today it is identified by the impressive Customs Building and Clock Tower (formerly the Malayan Railway Building) on the Weld Quay end, and the busy Kuan Yin Temple at its head. China Street is one of the oldest streets in George Town and was within the area developed first after Francis Light landed in Penang. It was laid down within a few years of his arrival, as documented on the Popham Map dated 1798. China Street was so named because it was the street of Penang's earliest Chinese traders and the Hokkiens called it Tua Kay (Main Street) because it was laid out by Francis Light with the help of Koh Lay Huan, the Chinese community leader and pioneer settler who had arrived with Francis Light when the latter landed in Penang in 1786. China Street was laid out just after Light Street and Beach Street.
Koh Lay Huan brought 500 Chinese from Kedah to settle in Penang and Light appointed him Kapitan China of Penang .The Koh family featured prominently through the 18th and 19th century history of Penang. Koh Seang Tat, the grandson of Koh Lay Huan, presented the Municipal Fountain to the government in the late 19th century, on the occasion of the construction of Town Hall.
The Hokkiens and the Cantonese jointly established their earliest place of worship at what was then a mount at the head of China Street. This was the beginning of the Kuan Yin Teng Temple (or Goddess Of Mercy Temple) , the oldest Chinese temple in Penang. With the Kuan Yin Temple at the head of the street, it must have been a lovely sight looking down the street from the sea. China Street used to end at the sea until the end of the 19th century when land reclamation extended China Street, creating China Street Ghaut.
George Town's oldest 'elite shophouses' or townhouses are found here on China Street. No. 25 is one of these, important in that it marked the residence of one of the first Chinese immigrants and businessmen to settle here. The house has a second frontage on Lorong Chee Em but this is less impressive today because of extensions made by the neighboring buildings. China Street had many elite residences in its heyday and these houses are still visible now, awaiting restoration by others who would be inclined to live again in this very charming and lively street. One very attractive little house is No. 15, the first 'Tan' (Chinese name) house to be built in George Town.
Note: Read all about the history of George Town's streets in 'Streets of George Town, Penang', an illustrated guide to Penang's city streets & historic attractions by Khoo Su Nin.
The detail of the Popham Map below is reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew Barber.