In Penang, there are many household names. Many old shops. Many old trades trying hard to keep up with modern times. There are of course thriving ones. Cheng Woh Medical Hall is one of them. Today if you visit Cheng Woh Medical Hall, you may be greeted by a good-looking young man. I say young man because this man is younger than me and I still consider myself young. This is Cheng Woh Medical Hall’s story as told by the current and 4th generation holding the fort, Xi Wen.
We, Cheng Woh Medical Hall have been here for 81 years, since 1933. We have witnessed 8 decades of property changes in Campbell Street a bustling street full of commercial activities here within Georgetown. These shop houses are called “shop house” because then, people carry out their businesses on the ground floor and the whole family would then stay on the 2nd/3rd floor. ‘Shop House’ is thus both commercial and residential. For over 100 years this is where the action is, a street filled with shopping and food and many other retail businesses.
There were no Gurney Plaza or Queensbay Mall then and Campbell Street was the “shopping street” of Penang. This continued up till the 1990s, right before the era of shopping complexes. Then the new millennium came and with the repeal of the Rent Control Act, people started moving away. People felt that shopping in huge air-conditioned departmental stores were much more comfortable and convenient. This brought a massive drop in traffic in Georgetown and the property prices stagnated.
From 2000 to 2007, prices of properties here were around RM400 per square feet. Rentals were priced around RM1000 for a 1200 sq feet shop lot. Yes, so cheap and yet plenty of empty lots. There were very little demand and plenty of supply. With this, the buildings started to deteriorate as white ants build their colonies and literally eating up the city bit by bit.
Two significant changes came in 2008 which transformed the city. Number 1, Georgetown became a UNESCO Heritage Site and number 2, there was a change in the state government. Tourism began pouring in, the city becomes cleaner and foreign investors came well versed with commercial investment saw the opportunity and came in a big way. Naturally, the locals did not know what happened until after the prices jolted them awake.
Today, in 2014, property prices are now hovering at around RM1600 per square feet, 400% higher than 2007. Rental rose to RM4000 for a 1200 sq feet shop lot. Luckily for us, we bought one side of the shop back in the 1940s and the 2nd unit adjacent to our shop in the 1980s. If there were no foresight then, we would be paying least RM8000 per month just for rental and 5 years from now, it will definitely continue to go up. The massive change in the property prices and overall business of the city truly amazed us. Back in 2008, we predicted tourism will improve and property prices will increase but not at this rate, surely not at this scale.
Few things continue to be work in progress around areas of Campbell Street and Penang Road. By mid-2015 we will see the completion of Chowrasta market plus some modifications to Campbell Street pedestrian walkways and parking lots. Boutique hotels, cafés, restaurants and even museums will continue popping up making the city more and more a truly must-visit world destination. Even Cheng Woh is playing our small part. We are renovating our shop (last major renovation was back in 1988), riding on the wave of tourism and continuous improvement.
We will probably mark our 100 years anniversary in Campbell Street, in the year 2033. We are very optimistic Georgetown will continue to improve, to be cleaner and greener making the city the number 1 destination of the world.
Written by Lee Xi Wen on 3 May 2014, edited by charles.
Next suggested article: Penang Boutique Hotels, must they be so expensive?