Uncovering The Hidden Surprises
At Penang Flea Market

Lorong Kulit - A ragbag and jumble of odds and ends

Love it or loathe it, Penang flea market at
Lorong Kulit has gained quite a reputation
among Malaysians and tourists alike.

Whether or not the Penang flea market is
similar to (or different from) other flea
markets around the world is a matter of
personal opinion but it definitely fits in with
the description above, which was taken from
the American Heritage Dictionary.

Penangites will tell you that shopping at the
Penang flea market cannot compare with
shopping in a megamall or modern shopping

Although both are in their own way -  Interesting and colourful, shopping in a modern complex somehow lacks the excitement of uncovering hidden surprises - like discovering a long lost and forgotten treasure under a pile of throw-aways.

The saying that "East is east and west is west and
never the two shall meet" holds true when you talk about flea markets and shopping complexes in the same breath. Interestingly, some shopping complexes in Malaysia have introduced the concept of the flea market into their premises, two examples being our very own Prangin Mall (every Sunday from 1 to 8pm) and Amcorp Mall in Kuala Lumpur. But I digress…

I'm not sure when Penang flea market started.

As far as I can tell, the place started from humble
(and shady) beginnings at Rope Walk, off Prangin Road. Since then, Penang flea market has grown and
expanded into a semi-legitimate gathering of peddlers selling everything from discarded things to mundane household paraphernalia to genuine antiques and curios.

Why semi-legitimate you ask. Well, the Penang flea market (known to locals as Lorong Kulit, after the road where it is now situated) did have (and still has, I hasten to add) a reputation of being a thieves' market.

If that last bit conjures in your mind images of Scheherazade and a colorful Middle Eastern marketplace filled with scoundrels, thieves, magicians, pirates, princes and treasures, you've got another thing coming.

The only thing reminiscent of Ali Baba and the Thousand
and One Nights in Lorong Kulit are old and tarnished
brassware, the occasional snake in a basket, old coins
and maybe a hookah.

For the record, there occassionally are stolen goods in
Lorong Kulit, but they look no different from other used
goods on sale. Case in point – a friend who once lost a
pair of stilettos was told that she could probably get
them back at the flea market!

So off she went with some mean looking relatives
(for protection) and lo and behold, there were her
shoes, which were returned to her after some heated
threats were exchanged!

Some of the things you get there look too good to be discards, although they are all lumped together. If you look carefully enough, there are bargains to be had -- for
example, I once picked up a full 1 ounce bottle of L'air du temps perfume.

It would've cost a couple of hundred ringgit on the market, if you can find it, but I paid RM15 for it. And take it from someone who knows what the real thing smells (and looks) like, this was the real thing, right down to
the gold painted doves on the flacon. At those prices, you don't really care to know where the seller got his stuff!

Then there was the time I picked up an old record for RM3. A few months later, it sold on ebay (an online auction site) to a buyer in the UK for US$115. I still have an Indian pressed 78rpm shellac of P. Ramlee and Saloma singing Gunung Payong (from the classic Malay movie Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup) on one side and on the other the more upbeat Chiki Chiki Boom, which I found several years ago at the Penang flea market. The reason why I haven't parted with it is because:
a) P. Ramlee is the most endearing personality in the entire history of Malay cinema.
b) There was a picture in The Star, not too long ago, of Dr. Mahathir dancing to the same record which was spinning on an old fashioned horn phonograph.

There's no telling what you will unearth at the Penang flea market. You may be looking for a particular thing, but come across something else that strikes your fancy, which you were not looking for in the first place. Isn't that the essence of serendipity?

Record collectors will squat patiently while flipping through a pile of dusty, moldy and scratchy records. Behind him, other collectors patiently await their turn. Better to wait than to come back later and find that the best have been taken by another sharp eyed collector.

Looking for an old copy of Female Annual from the 70s or the Straits Times Annual from 1963? Old copies of the Straits Echo? Here's where you might find one, if you are
lucky, for as little as RM2 or thereabouts. Prices vary.

Some sellers who think they know all there is to know about antiques demand ridiculously high prices for their wares, which includes photos of Chinese film stars
and divas from a bygone era.

Rusty and faded sign boards with drawings of Chinese damsels in cheongsams advertising cigarettes and soft drinks stare out forlornly at passers-by. I once
overheard a seller offering for sale a rusty and tatty looking keris for RM1,500, which I thought was
ridiculous. On your lucky day, another seller who might not know the value of his merchandise may part with something valuable for a song.

It all boils down to how much you are willing to pay for something, regardless of its market value – or as some would say "being at the right place at the right time". When something catches your fancy, there really is no time to think about the actual value of an object, unless you are an expert. On the verge of indecision, you do what every self-respecting Penangites does best – you bargain and you wheel and deal until some deal is struck and a satisfactory price arrived at!

Medicine men peddle everything from creams to get rid
of fungal infections to live eels, dhabs (a large lizard found in Saudi Arabia) and oils and potions that just might remove flagging spirits and grant men the
opportunity to rise to the occasion. Forget Viagra.

A talkative and loud personality with a microphone and cheap PA system and rapid-fire lecture on the
importance of libido, peppered with double entendres, and a stash of naughty photos, definitely draws a
male-only crowd like nothing else can.

Some 80 per cent of sellers and stalls in the Penang flea market are permanent fixtures, the rest operate on an ad-hoc basis -- here today, gone tomorrow, back again a few days later.

Regular vendors sell things like handphones and related peripherals, gemstones, fake watches, spectacles and inexpensive electronic accessories (I actually found a new remote control to replace the one that broke for my 12 year old Sony TV, for RM12!). Cheap and awful sounding "hi-fi" components blast away the latest and
most popular nondescript dance music with incomprehensible foreign lyrics.

A common sight in the Penang flea market two years ago were the pirated VCD and music CD stalls. Since the government's efforts to wipe music and movie piracy off the face of Malaysia, nearly all the VCD stalls have ceased operations and former VCD sellers are now selling handphones, aquarium fish and bric-a-brac! Used VCDs are quite easily available still and one or two pirated VCD and music CD sellers are making a modest comeback.

Bargain price fruit stalls attract the most Penang flea market customers who go there in droves to buy apples, oranges, plums and other local fruits by the cartload.

Suffice it to say that whether you are looking for new
and used clothes and shoes, an old gramophone or a charcoal iron, porcelain lamp shades, used and new
counterfeit VCDs, official papers issued by Penang's
pre-Merdeka government, pungent attars, sex toys, decorative bottles, comics old and new, furry and scaly pets, plants and short of nearly everything under the
sun, you'd be hard pressed to find another place in Penang that will have it all.

It just takes a certain amount of perseverance, patience, leg work and sweat!

A haughty visitor from Kuala Lumpur, having heard quite a bit about the Penang flea market at Lorong Kulit, decided to pay the place a visit to shop for books. He wasn't at all happy with the place, the crowd and the wares.

He compared Lorong Kulit to some of the flea markets in England (where he had obviously spent some time) and scoffed that those places sold real treasures all organised in a neat and proper manner.

It may be that the flea markets in Europe are far more attractive than Lorong Kulit, or for that matter, other flea markets in Malaysia. True, you're bound to find
something that is of value and aesthetically beautiful,
like a gown made of old Victorian lace or an early edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in pristine condition. You'll meet people who would never, under any
circumstances, sell you something defective or heaven forbid, stolen. All well and good, you might say.

And yet, there is a certain je ne sais quoi charm that imbues Penang's one and only flea market. A feeling of kinship with the, dare I say it, heart and soul of every
Penangites? The innate ability to know a good thing when they see it?

The love of bargaining? The joys of indulging in inexpensive pleasures? The thrill of uncovering little gems?

Where else but the Penang flea market in Lorong Kulit can one indulge with abandon?

Written by Raja Abdul Razak and William Chow
Article courtesy of www.tourismpenang.com.my © All rights reserved