Top 15 Cultural Street Arts in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia
Kuala Terengganu, the state capital of Terengganu, on the East Coast side of Peninsular Malaysia, may not be popular for street art like Penang. That, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any good ones. Personally, I love it when a street art showcases the locality’s traditional way of life or culture, as it exposes us, at least a bit, to what we might not be able to see or experience in person during our short visit to a place. I’d say Kuala Terengganu has a few of these, and I’m happy to share my personal top 15 cultural street arts that can be found around the town.
They are, in no particular order, as follows:
Being a popular quick stopover for island destinations like Redang and Kapas, many visitors to Kuala Terengganu would have been familiar with the old Pasar Payang, the town’s central market, due to its close proximity to the Shahbandar Jetty, the main jetty for Redang Island. While the old market building has recently been torn down for new development, the market’s car park building is still there. On the two corner-ends of this building block, there are cultural street arts that are rather hard to miss, unless if you walk along the five-foot way of the building.
The first one showcases two popular varieties of Terengganu’s batik, i.e. batik terap (block stamping batik) and batik canting (free-hand batik painting), while the second one illustrates a brass tray of ‘tepak sirih’ (betel box), a traditional container for ingredients of betel leaf relish, which among others include betel leaves, areca nut, lime, gambir, tobacco and spices. A complete tepak sirih that also comes with a nutcracker like shown in this street art is often associated with local Malay custom and traditions, and plays a significant role in various stages of traditional Malay weddings.
This row of beautiful street arts is another one that is hard to miss, especially if you arrive in Kuala Terengganu by bus and get off at the main bus station. Located at PB Square parking lot just across the street from the station, they illustrate some of what Terengganu is generally popular for – Sekayu Waterfall, traditional boat making, batik painting, traditional kite making/flying, Gamelan/Ulek Mayang dance, and turtles.
Hidden in an alley behind a branch of RHB Bank just about 200m away from the bus station is this Tok Menora street art. It is a tribute to, I presume, Pak Chum a/l Chadi, a leading performer and trainer of Menora dance-drama, which traces its roots to Southern Thailand but used to be widely performed in Terengganu and its northern neighbouring state of Kelantan. Despite its Thai origin, here, Menora is performed in Malay and incorporates a Mak Yong-style dance, which is often considered as the “most authentic and representative of Malay performing arts” and which has been declared by UNESCO as a “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Notwithstanding this, menora these days is, sadly, a dying art.
Terengganu used to be popular as a turtle destination – so much so that turtles have often been used as the state’s mascot – because of giant leatherbacks that chose to land and lay their eggs in the sandy beaches along Rantau Abang, a golden hotspot some 45-minute drive from Kuala Terengganu. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore, although other smaller types of turtles like green and hawksbill turtles do still come and lay their eggs in some parts of Terengganu. This small alley, dubbed as Turtle Alley, in Kampung Cina – Kuala Terengganu’s very own China town that is located next to Pasar Payang – is a community effort to create awareness and educate both locals and visitors about these unique and endangered sea creatures.
Talking about Kampung Cina, one cannot help but appreciate the rustic beauty of the colonial-style buildings that incorporate local motifs and cultures, which line up on both sides of the main road there. Hidden towards the backend of an alleyway of this cultural enclave is a street art which brilliantly showcases this scene using one of the batik painting techniques.
This is not the only street art that can be found in Kampung Cina, though. In fact, the area is dotted with so many street arts that all you need to do is walk along its many alleyways and you’re bound to find plenty in each of them. Personally, I think there are now too many street arts in the area and I find some of them to be out of place or even a bit tasteless, which I believe somehow degrades the area. An example of this is Marilyn Monroe street art, which while beautiful and looks great for an Instagram shot, what has she got to do with this historic place? But then, I guess, at the end of the day, it all boils down to personal preferences. Art is subjective, after all, and you know what people say, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, anyway. But still…
Having said that, here are some of my favourite cultural street arts in Kampung Cina:
Located right opposite the above street art in Tauke Wee Sin Hee Cultural Lane is this old well, known as Syed Abek’s Well, which is named after the original owner, a Muslim scholar who arrived in the area around the mid-19th century. On the wall behind the well, there are several poems from the Han Dynasty era, written in Chinese Hanzi calligraphy, which look simple yet beautiful.
A fact that not many people know is that while Penang, Melaka and Singapore (the old British Straits Settlements) are well-known for their Peranakan Chinese, Kuala Terengganu also has a small Peranakan Chinese community, local Chinese who have resided in the area for generations (some of whom can trace their history in Kuala Terengganu for up to 9 or 10 generations) and have adopted local Malay cultures while at the same time retaining their own. The mixture of these two cultures has resulted in a somewhat distinct and unique culture that stands out on its own. So if Penang, Melaka and Singapore have their Baba and Nyonya, Terengganu also has its very own Mek (for the ladies) and Awang (for the guys). These are what is illustrated in the two street arts, in the photos above and below, where the Mek is outfitted in an embroidered kebaya dress while the Awang is dressed in a plain t-shirt and batik sarong, typical traditional attires of the local Peranakan Chinese.
The ‘Mek Kebaya’ street art can be found on Payang Memory Lane while the young Peranakan Chinese couple can be found on the main road of Kampung Cina.
One well-hidden street art is this lady in cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress for the ladies. I would have missed it if it’s not for the nearby old trishaw that is used by many for a photo-op spot. If you’re looking for it, it’s located next to the public restroom near Uncle Chua Signature Café.
This street art may look pretty simple but I love the portrayal of this trio of friends of different races, bumping into each and ending up going for a meal together, all the while conversing in a local dialect. It highlights two main factors that unite the locals, language and food. And talking about food, if you ever find yourself in Kuala Terengganu and have no idea on what to eat, you can just repeat the last scene in the photo above to order your meal the local way. 😉 Alternatively, you might also want to check out this blog post – What and Where to Eat in Kuala Terengganu, as recommended by a local travel blogger.
This street art does not exactly portray a traditional culture but more of local pop culture. Second, from left is the late P. Ramlee, Malaysia’s legendary actor/director who’d won multiple awards for his acting and films at Asian Film Festivals throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a feat that, unfortunately, has not been repeated by any other Malaysian until today. The words ‘Teng Lang Po’ means Kampung Cina in Hokkien, by the way.
Lorong Eko (Eco Lane) in Kampung Cina is dedicated to nature and batik. Here, there’s a street art of a young lady in beautifully detailed batik clothes, sitting by the door of a stilted, wooden house that reminds me of the old Malay fishing village in Tanjung, located probably just a hundred meters or two from the Shahbandar Jetty. This village settlement by the beach, however, is no longer there today, having been replaced by concrete buildings.
Right next to this “girl in the wooden house” is a big mural of a bird and a goldfish in batik motif. Lorong Eko used to be gorgeously covered by a canopy of batik sarongs that were hung above the lane – in a way not dissimilar to those colourful umbrellas on Payang Memory Lane – to protect visitors from heat and direct sunlight, but when I went there recently, those batik sarongs are no longer there. Despite this, the lane is still worth exploring.
Last but not least, is a street art of another trio. This time, it is of a Malay trio carving wood, painting batik and selling sate ikan (fish meat on a skewer) – a personal favourite from my primary school days – that can be found on Lorong Haji Awang Besar, one the alleyways in Kampung Cina. I had previously wondered why there is a Malay lane in Kampung Cina. Apparently, there used to be a small Malay community who lived in the area and this lane, as well as the street arts here, serve to remind us about this part of history.
I realise that I’ve mentioned that this post is about my personal top 15 cultural street arts in Kuala Terengganu but I feel obliged to add this last one as a bonus to the list. I took this photo of the local shadow play of Wayang Kulit during my visit to Kampung Cina a few years back and I totally loved it. However, I’m not sure if it’s still around or had been painted over or perhaps, just hidden behind some makeshift stalls as I couldn’t find it when I revisited the area recently. Either way, it’s rather disappointing because this street art would have easily topped the list.
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And so, that’s it. My personal top 15 (or rather, 16) cultural street arts in Kuala Terengganu. Which one is your favourite?