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