Penang’s Chemical Brother

Liantraco - Penang's Chemical shop

On Chulia Street, Georgetown’s busiest thoroughfare, sits Ong, this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s most famous resident. Under one of the area’s characteristic covered walkways — squeezed between a workshop refurbishing engine parts and a knick-knack store selling over-priced antiques — you’ll find his shop, Liangtraco (chemicals and apparatus).

Typical covered arched pavement in Georgetown, Penang

Liantraco chemical shop on Chulia Street

You have to search for it. Tourists come to Penang for the architecture, food and culture. The only significant shop front on this tiny block of five buildings is a tired, turquoise hotel that looks like it’s not been painted since its art-deco façade was erected years ago.

Sky Hotel on Chulia Street, Georgetown, Penang

And yet Liangtraco is firmly on the tourist map, not least because it is featured in guide books as a must-see attraction. This isn’t how I discovered it, though. For yachtsmen, Liangtraco is the place to buy those difficult-to-find noxious chemicals we use all the time on our boats. I first met Ong when I went to pick up some acetic acid to clear my blocked loo.

Phuket Sailing Club sticker on Liantraco's shutter, Georgetown

At 3pm Ong raises his shutters for just a few hours of trading; stuck to the bottom is a ‘Phuket Sailing Club’ sticker, hinting at the relevance of this curiosity shop. Piles of plastic bags stuffed with white, crystallised powder and bottles of brown liquids labelled with familiar-sounding contents mark the narrow entrance.

The narrow entrance of Liangtraco

Eucalyptus oil, sulphuric acid, iodine, solvents, chlorines… it’s every little kid with a chemistry set’s dream. The place is stuffed with so many ingredients the only way to enter the shop is to cat-walk, one leg in front of the other, along an oily floor blotted with old sheets of newspaper. The smell is surprisingly refreshing.

Entrance to the chemical shop

Bottles of acid

Single walkway through the shop

Shelves of test-tubes, bulging ancient rusty filing cabinets, half open drawers revealing pots of chemicals, and cabinets crammed with Bunsen burners lead you towards the back of the shop.

Stacked shelves of acids and chemicals

Chemical apparatus

Rusty filing cabinets

Drawers full of chemicals

A ceiling fan revolves in lazy circles, beneath which stoops Ong, the ninety year old proprietor.

Ong, the propritor of Liantraco chemical shop

Despite his appearance, Ong is sprightly, bright and accommodating. He has an easy grin and welcomes conversation on just about any subject. On a previous visit I asked him how he stayed so young.

‘Be nice to everyone’, he said. ‘Treat everyone as if they were your friend.’

He has plenty of opportunity to practise this philosophy. He imports his chemicals from all over the world and supplies hospitals, universities, students, artists, traders and yachties.

Ong supplies to many people around the world

On this visit, however, he told me that after over 60 years of trading from the same shop it was time to move.

“They’re tearing this block down and building a new hotel.”

Surely they’re keeping the shop-front, aren’t these buildings listed?

“They lifted the protection on these buildings recently, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe they’ll keep the front and just develop behind, maybe they’ll get rid of the whole lot. I have to relocate.”

The idea that anyone would make a 90 year old man shift tons of bottles of dangerous, flesh-eating acids baffled me.

Pictures of yachties, including Behan and Jamie of sailing yacht Totem, are attached to the shelves

We chatted some more as I eyed the photographs of yachties and tourists pinned to a shelf of acetone, appropriate considering the amount of acetone I’ve used in the last ten months on our boat refit. Behind Ong, above some empty plastic bags, hung a painting of a sail boat.

“I’ve never been on a boat. Only as a child playing in canoes.”

Ong in the back of his shop

More customers entered the shop and with space for only three people it was time for me to move. A storm was approaching and the mid-afternoon skies had darkened.

“Got anything to keep me dry in the rain?”

“I’ve got some silicone. Rub that in your hair, it’s completely waterproof.”

Ong relaxing in the back of his shop





13 Comments on “Penang’s Chemical Brother”

  1. June Cluett

    Good God! What a horror his shop looks!!! Forgotten things piled on inaccessible crumbling rusting shelving. A nightmare….. but possibly he knows where everything is and as far as he is concerned everything is in its place – oh my!!!!! Jeez! and now to relocate???? A haz-mat team would be needed for that job. But wait! This man is 90 ??? He looks a LOT younger than that. Even Chinese people who generally look younger than we Westener’s do at quite an advanced age should look a LITTLE older than he does…. My MY, UNESCO you say, Jamie…..

    1. Jamie

      He’s young in appearance and young at heart too, June. To think he’s exactly twice my age is pretty incredible. Hope you are keeping well.

  2. Angel Koh

    What a great post! I’m a Penangite and even I did not know about this place. How sad it is that Mr Ong is being forced to move out. It really makes one question whether Georgetown’s UNESCO World Heritage Site listing has actually helped preserve local heritage, or simply turned Georgetown into a gentrified tourist attraction. The Penang state authorities have a lot to answer for.

    1. Jamie

      Indeed, Angel, though the UNESCO ‘perimeter’ does fall just outside his shop. Even so, it’s a great building and Chulia Street is a popular spot, so to see this block go would be terrible. Progress, eh?

  3. then

    Wonderful article Krista and the team. ..Great pictures too.

    Mr Liang has immense knowledge about the stuff he hosts. ..I was amazed. ..once I noticed an university student trying to figure out all the details for his final year project…chatting with Mr Liang

    I am a frequent visitor to his shop. ..I dont know if he knows me. ..but. ..He always continues to impress me. ..

    Rgds
    Then

  4. Daniel

    Uncle Ong is a good friend. He is moving to his office in Jalan Pantai Tali (Rope Walk). Less than 30 seconds walk away. He has to move as the owners want the property back to do renovation and claim a much higher rental than what he’s paying now.

    A man with a vast knowledge of chemicals, formularies and he can tell you how to solve your chemistry problems…but it’s all about attitude…be respectful or you’re not going to learn anything.

    His shop may look like a disaster, but actually, it’s organised chaos…he knows exactly what and where everything is. If you have been to his shop as often as I have…you too will know where everything is…it’s all divided into different raw materials…

    He maybe 90 (I celebrated his birthday with him in March), but don’t underestimate him…sharp as a nail…he knows his stuff and he can’t easily be bluffed. He’s very young at heart. He knows where all the great restaurants are and he is not afraid of anything…very adventurous and kind hearted…just wish he’d let me pay the bill at dinner sometimes…lol…always fighting with me for the bill.

    Just a note…he’s the oldest working man in Chulia Street…but I can believe that it stretches as far as Georgetown.

    So, if there’s anything you need chemical wise, feel free to pop down to see him…he normally opens from about 3pm to 7pm…otherwise, you’ll have to see his office which is open from 9am-5pm.

    Daniel

     

    1. Jamie

      Thanks for your comment, Daniel. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say his shop is organised chaos. He knows exactly where everything is and, as you say, he’s on the ball too. He’s a fantastic character and a pleasure to talk to. Please send him our regards when you next see him.

  5. Sam

    What a fantastic post! This is by far my favourite format of yours. Multiple photos interspersed with a few words that tighten their grip on your hand as you are led further along the steps of Jamie Furlong.

    Definitely top 3! What an incredible chap!

    1. Jamie

      Hey Sam, thank you for your kind comment. I had a lot of fun putting it together and would like to do more like this (a bit more like what FTB used to be like before we became so busy) but time is a problem at the moment. I have another one planned about a Buddhist buat (ordination) that I attended last month, which you should also find interesting.

  6. ONG LIANG CHING

    We have moved to 22, ROPE WALK (LEBUH PINTAL TALI) 10100, PENANG a road diagonally opposite our old location, about 50 meters from the junction on the right on the ground floor of a 4-storey building.

    Also we are now registered as LIANGTRACO & SONS SDN. BHD. Tel:604-2621610, 2629642.

    Fax: 604-2610694, Email: liangtraco@gmail.com

    1. Jamie

      Thanks for the update. Let’s hope the yachting community continues to buy its chemicals from Mr Ong and Sons. Yachties, please note the new address!

    2. Lee

      Hello,Is the shop still up and running?I would like to buy some stuff but I called both the phone numbers and no one answers

    3. Jamie

      Hi Lee. The shop has moved location. It’s down the side street on the other side of the road (so SW from the old shop), which has the Fujifilm shop on the corner. Unsure about the phone number.

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