Penang used to be known as the Pearl of the Orient. Then it got dirty, messy and run down. But ever since it was granted UNESCO world heritage site, it has regained its lustre and become a favourite destination for local and foreign visitors.
Boutique hotels housed in heritage buildings have mushroomed, and the art scene has suddenly gained a life, boosted in no small measure by the murals of the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.
Some things never change though – bad traffic jams, motorcycles ruling the roads and taxi drivers who stubbornly refuse to use the meter. The famous Penang food remains unchanged, i.e. delicious but doled out grudgingly in small portions. I suppose there is an upside to the small portions. You don’t feel guilty ordering another!
There is a lot of write-up on where to visit, and what to see and eat in Penang. No need to regurgitate the same so I shall instead share my memories of the Penang I know.
The official language in Penang is not Bahasa Malaysia or English. It is hokkien. Even Malays and Indians speak it so be careful when you swear. The urge to swear is ingrained because Penang hokkien swear words are extremely colourful and trip off the tongue easily. Popular ones start with “P” and “L”. In the past, if you don’t speak hokkien, you starve but with the advent of Hong Kong dramas, Penangites can now answer you in cantonese or mandarin.
If a Penangite tells you a story in the Malay language, don’t get worried if he says, “Belakang mali (mari)”. No, nobody is sneaking up on you from the back. It is a direct translation of the hokkien phrase, “Au booay lai” meaning “after that” or “at the end”, natural phrases in story-telling.
Penangites have a reputation of being stingy. Whether that is deserved, I leave you to judge. Other Malaysians will quote this example to validate the reputation – Penangites bring their own egg for the char koay teow man to fry their char koay teow. Well, I admit that when I was young, my mother did send me to the stall with one egg in hand.
There are many colonial mansions in Penang. Some are abandoned and lie derelict. Quite a number have been demolished to make way for new development on the invaluable land. Just a few have been refurbished while maintaining their majestic facade. I used to live in one such mansion. The mansion was owned by a chettiar and my grandfather had the use of the house during his lifetime. Chettiars are Indians who were predominantly entrepreneurs in the money lending and property businesses.
My grandfather needed a mansion too! He had two wives living with him. We called them “Ah Tay Mah” and “Lau Teng Mah” for Downstairs Grandmother and Upstairs Grandmother respectively. My grandmothers were nyonyas. They spoke malay, rolled their own cigarettes and chewed betel nut. Really cool grandmas. They could out-spit any man. Phooi! Spittle stained red by the betel nut juice would come flying out landing a few meters away. Their Nyonya cooking too was something else. Acar, perut ikan, ju hoo char…The food preparation is painstaking. In those times before blenders, the spices had to be “giling-ed” (crushed and rolled on stone pallets) and pounded. The mansion is long gone and a hospital now sits on its site.
Now let’s address those motorcycles on Penang roads. Public transport is inconvenient and taxis don’t use meters. So motorcycle is the answer, convenient and don’t forget, cheap – a most important criteria for Penangites. Penang is also the only city in Malaysia where most girls have motorcycle licence. I rode a motorcycle to school. The Honda cub. Loh Boon Siew, the Honda motorbike king was a Penangite. As for Penang car drivers hogging two lanes, well, what do you expect when other motorists always inform us (albeit in a loud voice) that it is “our grandfather’s road”.
With the exception of Sarawakians and Sabahans, Penangites tend to have a better grasp of English than the average Malaysian. Penang has a high number of convents and missionary schools – Convent Light Street, Convent Green Lane, Convent Pulau Tikus, St Xavier’s, St George’s, Methodist Girls / Boys’ School. These used to be headed by nuns and priests from Ireland, France, and other parts of the Christian world. Although the textbooks were in the malay language, classes were conducted in English.
Butterworth was the base of the Royal Australian Air Force. As part of their service for the community and their personnel, they ran a radio station and we grew up avid listeners of Radio R double A F. They played international music, call-ins and dedications. Amazing that we don’t all speak with an Australian accent! Sadly, Radio RAAF Butterworth ceased broadcasting in 1987.
Penang has changed tremendously over the years. But it has many bits of history which will continuously reveal themselves if you look hard enough and surprise you, like the Jewish cemetery in the heart of Penang. Penangites though, remain the same – fiercely independent, proudly parochial, annoyingly stubborn, welcomingly friendly, and lastly, unapologetically gourmand.