SEBERANG PERAI, March 23 ― Almost a century ago, there was already a jetty in old town Butterworth where fishermen brought in their catch and boats ferried people to and from the island.
The whole area was a hive of activity with the wet market playing a central role as fresh vegetables, seafood, poultry and meat was sold here every day.
Sometime in 1928, a building was constructed to house the busy market and it stands till today. This is the Jeti Lama Market, its name itself a reference to the jetty and how it contributed to the growth of the little township back in the old days.
Today, the jetty is no longer there and wooden village houses surrounding the area have long given way to rows of brick houses and some mid-rise commercial buildings.
The most recent change is the construction of the Butterworth Outer Ring Road (BORR) which pushed the coast further off across the highway, effectively taking away the seafront of the area and closing the jetty for good.
The Jeti Lama Market building remains and over the years, it has seen renovated several times but today it looks old, tired and a shadow of its former bustling self.
Many of the first batch of traders at the market have died; some of the stalls were handed down to the next generation and some taken over by new traders and wholesalers.
There are now plans underway to give the market and the whole vicinity a much-needed facelift. The entire area has been identified as an urban regeneration project under the Butterworth Baharu Plan.
The project is spearheaded by Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) in collaboration with Think City.
Here, some of the traders share their memories of the market when it was a focal point for the area.
The vegetable sellers
T. Selloraji has been selling vegetables in the Jeti Lama Market for over 45 years but the past decade has not been good for his small stall.
“If you came here more than 10 years ago, there was barely any space to walk and the roads would be jammed from 5am onwards… this market was the main choice for most of the villagers and residents here,” he said.
The 68-year-old said those were the good days when he could earn a rather good income. “Look around… we barely get walk-in customers anymore, all the other bigger stalls still get business as they supply to restaurants,” he said as he gestured to the quiet market.
He pointed out that the villages near the market are now gone and most people have moved away; there are small markets in every new development project.
He doesn’t want to give up the stall despite the poor business in recent years. “This is all I know, I don't earn much now... maybe just enough to pay the rent for the stall and some pocket money... that's good enough for me, my children are all grown up and working so I don't have any other commitments,” he said.
Another seller, Ah Hooi, in his 80s, has been selling vegetables at the market for 52 years. Other than vegetables, he also sells other grocery items like packets of spices, sauces and dried condiments.
“I come here out of habit… I've had this stall for so many years,” he said. His daughter comes to help him nowadays but he doesn't have any plans to retire just yet because he does not want to “sit around at home doing nothing.”
There are very few fishmongers left in the market and one of them is Ah Hai. The cheerful fishmonger, in his 60s, gets his supply from local fishermen.
“Most of us have been here a minimum of 30 years… some up to 60 years,” he said. “You won't find any new traders in this market. What you see now are the old traders and if they die, their businesses either die with them or their children or grandchildren take over but nowadays, the younger generation don't want to do this... they have better, higher-paying jobs.”
He pointed to a stall near his where only a few types of fishes were left on display. “Don't think why they have so few fishes, they have a thriving fish wholesale business and they come in lorries to deliver the supplies and then send it off to customers like restaurants, hotels and hawkers.”
He said one of the fishmongers was so successful he had moved to a shoplot across from the market and dealt only in wholesale, supplying to businesses and even other smaller fish stalls in Butterworth.
“I have regulars from restaurants and nasi kandar shops so I have a steady income from them,” he said.
The mutton seller
It started with his grandfather, then his father took over the stall and for the past five years, Mohd Faiz Md Nasir has been running one of the only two mutton stalls in the market.
The 25-year-old had to take over when his 73-year-old father fell ill several years ago but now that his father has recovered, he is semi-retired.
“Now, he is in charge of sending supplies while I man the stall,” he said.
Mohd Faiz opens his stall at 7.30am and will close it by 11am each day. Like the other stalls, he too survives by supplying to regulars from restaurants and nasi kandar stalls.
He said the increasing cost of supplies is not helping either as local mutton prices have increased to a point that they can't afford to buy supplies from local farms.
“They are selling each goat between RM800 to RM900, how to buy? So we get imported lamb and it’s cheaper than taking from local farms,” he said.
The upgrading plans
MPSP is working with Think City to upgrade and improve the old market complex with a focus on improving facilities for wholesale business.
Infrastructure issues such as drainage, uneven flooring and water supply will also be looked into for the convenience of the traders.
Ramps and loading bays for lorries will also be included.
A cultural mapping report of the market site was recently completed and recommendations for improvements to the market have been submitted to MPSP for further action.
“We are looking at rejuvenating the whole area and the first two Butterworth Fringe Festivals held here in 2015 and 2016 were meant to create interest in this heritage enclave and help residents reimagine this place.
“One of the first projects to kick off here is the construction of the Jeti Lama Rain Garden which seeks to bring much-needed greenery and children’s play amenities to the open car park area in the foreground of the Sree Mariamman Temple just across from the market,” Think City Butterworth Programme Director Murali Ram said.
The market is open throughout the day from 3am to about 8pm at night where different stalls are open at different times of the day.
* Think City is currently undertaking urban regeneration programmes for Butterworth, George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Johor. Find out more about Think City and its projects at thinkcity.com.my.