Few places in Penang have seen as many changes as Gurney Drive … even its name has changed many times.
It went from New Coast Road to Gurney Drive, was Merdeka Drive and Casuarina Drive for awhile, almost became Avenue of Unknown Soldiers, Half Casuarina Drive and Durian Drive.
“This road began life in 1936 as the New Coast Road before it got its present name in 1952, after Sir Henry Gurney, the High Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya, was assassinated,” reminisced Think City chairman Datuk Anwar Fazal, who was the assistant secretary of the City Council of George Town.
In 1957, it spent a short stint as Merdeka Drive but after discussions with Lady Gurney and cost considerations over the construction of a bust for Sir Gurney, the municipal commissioners kept the old name, he said.
In 1962, Anwar said the authorities planted grand casuarina trees along the eastern stretch and agreed to rename it Casuarina Drive.
For some reason, however, none of those names ever stuck and Gurney Drive remains its name to this day.
Change, however, has always been part and parcel of Gurney Drive.
Depending on how old a Penangite is, he or she may remember the road differently.
Those in their 70s and 80s speak with a deep longing for a paradise beach with clear water. They would recall bringing home small mussels harvested from the beach by the pails as kids.
Those in their 40s to 60s would mark the stretch with hawkers monopolising the seaside promenade.
Those in their 20s and 30s probably think of Gurney Drive as a shopping heaven, with the two large malls there. They would have no idea that palatial bungalows once lined the street.
Gurney Drive itself, said Anwar, was the product of a 1940s reclamation project.
The crescent bay between Tanjung Tokong and George Town was once called Teluk Ayer Rajah and the British colonialists reclaimed the land with plans to build a coastal road between Tanjung Tokong and the Esplanade.
Reclamation is coming again today. There are excavators, barges and trailing suction hopper dredgers working between 100m and 500m from shore.
They herald change that will transform Gurney Drive.
Tanjung Pinang Development, a subsidiary of Eastern & Oriental, is reclaiming 53ha along the shore here and out of that, the state government will build the 24.28ha Gurney Wharf.
This is to be a world class “Park-on-the-Sea” with seaside retail, F&B, water gardens, beach and coastal grove.
A little further up the coast, the company is reclaiming another 307ha – a man-made island – off Seri Tanjung Pinang and this will someday be connected to the “new” Gurney Drive, if the road could still be called that after everything is said and done.
It had been reported that about 20ha of the reclamation area will be given to Consortium Zenith as compensation in kind for building three paired roads on the island as part of a traffic dispersal system in readiness for the proposed Undersea Tunnel, which will start at the beginning of Gurney Drive near the Pangkor Road junction.
Disclosure of these plans, coupled with the sight of several million tons of sand and granite filling the sea since March, has become rich ingredients for local activists to spell environmental disasters and bemoan the excessive development.
Some are calling for the area to be viewed as a heritage spot, even though the road was built only shortly after World War II.
Others want the state government to give assurance that only low density development will happen here.
But the people who possibly made Gurney Drive famous in recent decades do not seem worried at all.
Whatever will become of this locale, its brand as a hawker food hub seems to be the strongest.
“We were unlicensed hawkers when we started selling along the seaside promenade. The municipal council regularly fined us and we all just paid.
“But we gradually became so many that the council issued special licences for us,” said lok lok seller Lai Seng Huat, 63.
Lok lok is skewered food blanched in pots of boiling water and then eaten with groundnut, chilli or sweet sauces.
Lai began selling lok lok about 40 years ago at 30 sen per skewer. They are RM1 each today.
He harbours fond memories of his trade.
“Gurney Drive was world famous even then. Taiwanese, Japanese and Europeans came by the hoards to eat.”
Lai’s sister, Yuen Thoe, 60, admitted that Gurney Drive hawker food is a little costlier than elsewhere in Penang.
“It’s the location. We are a hawker centre near the sea catering mostly to tourists, so our prices won’t be the same as a coffeeshop in, say, Air Itam,” she added.
Pasembur seller Sharibudeen Mohd Ibrahim, 53, recalled moving from the seaside to the open air hawker centre near the roundabout 18 years ago.
“I think pasembur became famous here first. This is my father’s recipe from long ago. The secret is in our sauce,” he declared.
Most of the hawkers interviewed spoke of operating there for 30 or 40 years, a fact confirmed by Penang Island City Council Licensing Committee alternate chairman Ong Ah Teong.
“There are 112 Gurney Drive hawker licences and the majority have been operating since the site was by the sea.
“Only a handful got the licences a few years ago,” said Ong, with a tinge of respect for the hawkers’ resilience.
Do they fear being knocked out of the way by development?
Lai said he was too old to care.
“But I don’t think you can change Gurney Drive as a hawker food paradise.
“Maybe my children will take over my hawker licence. After they build Gurney Wharf on the new land, I’m sure there will be a hawker centre too.
“We’ll just move over there.”