Tuesday, December 9, 2014

5 major language anti-patterns

I’ve noticed over the years a few common misconceptions people (especially me, until I learnt better) have with languages they’re not familiar with. Like computer programing antipatterns, these bad ideas can often be grouped and given a funny name.

Imagine a sailor on the Spanish main who accidentally dropped a waterproof bundle of his possessions over the side of the brig and expected to find the same bundle years later at that exact same spot, bobbing up and down, without having moved in the interim. That would be bizarre, you might say, while also observing that it’s quite improbable such a thing would ever happen given that a sailor, of all people, would be expected to appreciate the power of wind and ocean currents. Never mind that for now.

If it was just one sailor you might think that they were affected by some mysterious ague and forget about it. If it came up again and again though you’d probably want to put a name on this pattern of behaviour, something like 'St. Tibald's Fever', just to make it easy to refer to it now that a few people were afflicted with it. You might even call it an ‘anti-pattern’.

Anti-patterns are a thing in computer programming and web development, my particular field. They are wrong ways of doing or thinking about things, commonly done. They often have vivid, descriptive names like 'lava flow', 'cargo cult programming', and 'golden hammer' that make you want to find out more. When you do you realise (if you're in IT) that not only do you recognise the problem, you're actually 'lost in the weeds' yourself, or, worse, in a 'death march', with ‘God objects’ and 'poltergeists' everywhere.

When we programmers get together, we find it useful to refer to these bad practices by name like this to spare our friends having to listen to a five-minute tirade about the messy code at work, where you can't find anything and things are just put anywhere willy nilly, and why is that file there, and this interface here, and ... "Oh you mean it's 'spaghetti code'?"

It seems to me that this convention would be useful in the similar domain of language learning. If the same mistakes, broadly, are made over and over by people, then a nomenclature system can be useful to help identify them, or at least to shortcut the process of talking and writing about them. In case this already exists and I'm coming late to the party, I apologize. In case it doesn't, splendid, let's continue. In either case, here are my proposed anti-patterns.

Howard Clifford running off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge during collapse, Tacoma, Washington
Howard Clifford running off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge during collapse, Tacoma, Washington, Flickr

1. Argumentum ad Exoticum, or "Those Crazy Chinese"

Faced with a deeply unfamiliar set of characters, like Chinese ones, people begin to form some strange ideas that borrow heavily from craziness. Just because the building blocks are a different type to our own doesn’t mean that most of the basic concepts of communication, like words for example, don't exist. Yet this is exactly what I've heard from someone I know, someone interested in languages, namely that Chinese doesn’t have words, and I’ve argued against this if only just to keep the net amount of sanity of the universe from dwindling more than it has to. Not on my watch and all that. "I just read on Wikipedia (an attempted Appeal to Authority right there) that they don't have words, just characters. Just because we have words doesn't mean every language has to have words you know."

I asked my friend to think of a bazooka in his big fat head, and imagine two Chinese people discussing whether they should purchase a new bazooka. What in God’s name did he think they use when they’re talking to each other about shoulder-launched munitions if not some word thing corresponding to the word thing we’d use in our language to mean ‘bazooka’? Do they whistle instead? Or mime? Or all jump up and down at the same time and cause a tsunami? Chinese has words in the same way we have words: arbitrary assignments of sounds and signs to represent things in the real world, often made up recursively of more basic sounds and signs.

Or do they? The strangest thing was that even though I had been studying Chinese for a while, I began to doubt my own certainty that Chinese had words, such was the vehemence of my friend’s objection. Because we trade in words in English, had I simply assumed that things like 孩子 (child) and 你 (you) were “words”? They don’t look like words, really...maybe they’re not. I was feeling the cold hand of exoticness on my shoulder.

I shrugged it off. Of course they effing well have effing words! They even have a handsome word for word: 词. I have since decided that I should have more faith in my own studies, and have sadly given up on my friend as being willfully obstinate and abstruse when it comes to unfamiliar concepts. Chinese will stretch you as a language learner if you’ve only done Indo-European tongues before. Don’t be put off by appeals to exoticness from a starting point of ignorance, and above all use your common sense.

2. La Carte et le Territoire

I read a book a few years ago in French by the bête noire of belles lettres Michel Houllebecq called La Carte et le Territoire, whose title I want to use here to highlight a confusion between a map and its territory. For example, just because in Spanish they use the word “gerundio” doesn’t mean that the word “gerund” maps to the same thing in English. If you think this, as I did until recently, then your map is slightly out and you need to redraw it. I got into a kerpickle on Duolingo about this very misunderstanding. I thought the map was the territory. But there are kinks; it’s not a straightforward mapping at all.

In English a gerund is more than just the form of a verb ending in “ing”. It’s only a gerund when that word becomes a noun, like “The Taming of the Shrew”. “Taming” here is a verby noun. By the way, don’t use that term (“verby noun”) around language people. This sentence, this one, on the other hand, as well as being a bit contrived, does not in fact have a gerund. In Spanish however, las cosas son distintas. Even though the word gerundio also refers to a verb in “ing” mode such as “esperando”, or “andando” it doesn’t need to be a noun to be a gerundio.

I got schooled on Duo by people who knew this when I didn’t. I naively assumed that gerundio was the point on the Spanish map corresponding to the concept of an English gerund, and that therefore they were conceptually identical. Maps are handy, but they’re not the territory.

3. Function doesn’t always follow form, or "It may well walk like a duck and quack like a duck but it’s actually a rhino"

Have you heard about those Myrmarachne jumping spiders that have evolved to look like ants? They resemble the little critters to such an extent that they insinuate themselves into the ants’ business and then turn on them, all unbeknownst like. In the animal kingdom that’s called Batesian mimicry. In Greek it’s called ‘deponent verbs’. You have this species of verb which has evolved to pass itself off as a reflexive-looking verb, complete with pronoun suffix at the end à la decidirse in Spanish. In some cases it has a passive, or reflexive meaning, as in ‘I am loved’ but all too often that’s a red herring and it‘s just a normal, active, common-or-garden verb. Έρχομαι means I come, χρειάζομαι, I need. No reflexivity or passivity there.

I got into a bit of a ding-dong with my Greek teacher Kelly when she tried to explain all deponent verbs like this to us as being somehow passive in meaning, if only in some cases in an underlying, implicit kind of sense. I pointed out that no matter how you slice it “I come” is not passive in English, and hard to see how it could be passive in Greek. Same with “I need”.

Confusion reigned, and she probably felt her authority was being undermined by an Irish smartarse, which it was. I felt the others’ annoyance from then on when I stopped the class and demanded to know more about stuff that didn’t add up (for all that, I was the only one who finished the course: the others had all dropped out by the end.) I wrote to the guy who wrote our textbook, Theodore Papaloizos, feeling that this particular aspect of Greek needed to be spelt out very painstakingly for English learners in particular. He wrote back "All languages have their peculiarities and Greek of course is not an exception. For a student of Greek it is difficult to understand how a verb looking and conjugated as a passive voice verb has an active meaning. Most of these verbs come from ancient classical Greek." It might be easier in other language pairings, but deponency is just cruel and unusual for us anglophones. Just because something looks a certain way, doesn’t mean that it behaves that way.

At one stage, in a bold manoeuvre by which she sought to outflank me, Kelly came in and told me that she had confirmed such and such a point about deponency or passivity by checking with her husband, who is also a Greek speaker (and in IT as far as I remember), therefore QED and shut up. She had unwittingly plunged headlong into the abyss of anti-pattern no 5...

4. Argumentum ad Naturalis Omnisciens

...which is the mistake of thinking that native speakers have some innate handle on the grammar points of their mother tongue. If you suffer from this delusion, turn to the person beside you at work and tell them you’ve forgotten when to use the subjunctive again, would they mind running you through the rules? And the forms the words take too. If they wouldn’t mind, like? Seeing all too clearly where I’m going with this you might say, alright, they may not know all the stinkin’ rules, but they’d surely know whether something sounded right. Ah, would that this was true, or..hang on... is that ‘were true’? I’m not sure.

And that’s English, with the world’s tiniest subjunctive and verbs that hardly move at all. Greek verbs flex like a prepubescent Russian gymnast, so the idea that Greek speakers can rattle off the rules of irregular verb formation, or the subjunctive, or the deponent stuff, I have found to be, well, laughable. My wife, with respect, rabbits away to her Mum in Greek. She proved to be of little or no use to me, God love her, when I was hitchhiking through the badlands of Greek grammar and got waylaid by delinquent local constructions.

5. Meaning, meaning, everywhere

An overarching misconception, common to several of these anti-patterns, is born of a failure to grasp just how arbitrary, random, and plain ol’ in flux much of language is. This anti-pattern manifests itself in the form of the old Platonic chestnut wherein, say, the building blocks of Chinese characters are seen to have such a rich, meaning-laden storytelling role in the language that when they are used as part of a character they bring that semantic basket of goodies they have preserved intact through the centuries with them. They might tell a little cautionary tale here, or proverb there, like the one my brother-in-law told me about the compound character where two of the ‘building block’ characters which ‘stand for’ a woman, all under a roof character, means strife or conflict. Because, you know, the wily old Chinese realised, chuckle chuckle, that having two women in one house would be like having a bag of cats. This I grandly call The Raconteur Theory of Chinese Characters. Alas, there is no deep insight into Chinese or the human condition to be found here: words and characters are just tools, not lessons.

Subscribing to 'Raconteur’ you are like someone who thinks we’re referring to horses when we talk about someone’s chivalrous behaviour simply because cheval means horse in French. Many a word’s meaning has moved on over the years in a process of analogical extension, blurring and Chinese whispers. You are like the sailor who expects to find his bundle bobbing in the same spot if you believe otherwise. You, sir or madam, have St. Tibald’s fever.

As anyone who’s studied the origin of Chinese characters knows, “there has been a progression from pictographic, writing the picture; to ideographic, writing the idea; and then logographic, writing the word” to quote James Gleick in The Information. Nowadays we’re just writing words, not necessarily ideas. Which means that in many cases, much as you might invite an acquaintance along to a party simply because he has a guitar and can sing, part of a Chinese character is there just for its sound: it’s as semantically void as a waffler’s promise.

There is a very human tendency to overexplain or retrofit explanations to try and justify something that’s actually just the way it is for no better reason than euphony (it sounds better) or historical contingency. You don’t want to confuse a mem, a way of remembering something, often involving a story, with the ipso facto thing itself. We like stories, but beware the Narrative Fallacy which says that stories are often the wrong causal explanation for something that may be better ‘explained’ in statistical terms. In fact, as far as learning words is concerned, the best explanation is often “that’s just the way it is.” Let it go at that without burdening a language with the naive expectation of logic everywhere, and be happy that they’re much more idiosyncratic and poetic than that.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

JayJayWords, a new language learning site

Welcome to JayJayWords. This project, this website I've been working on for the last 18 months is born out of my interest in languages.

Languages and computer programming go very well together, at least as far as the bit that's analytical, grammatical, and, frankly, robot-like is concerned. Then there's the whole other side of language-learnin' - the one that has nothing to do with that, like when your teacher is asking you something in Chinese and has finished the question, and now its your turn and you have two and a half seconds to say something to quell the growing suspicion that you have failed, once again, to comprehend what was said and you're hectically scanning the context, her expression, your friend's expressions, the stuff you've all just been talking about, to guess, frankly, what the question was, never mind compose a sensible answer. You're on your own there muchacho: computers can't help you with that. But give a computer a chunk of text and watch it roll up its sleeves and get to work. And that's what we have here.

James Joyce/Trieste, Italy

James Joyce/Trieste, Italy, by thom trauner.

It all starts with a piece of text and the burning question: what is its structure? That, to me, is the most interesting question. What the meaning of the text is is obviously important too, but once again, that's hard for computers to work out, whereas structure is a more tractable problem to solve. The meaning can end up becoming (sorta) clear quite quickly a lot of the time anyway, with a few naive word substitutions, especially in pairings like French/English and Spanish/English. If you didn’t speak French I bet you could still work out what a recent Le Monde headline like “Plus de 2000 soldats déployés à Ferguson.” meant. Or here’s one from El País: “El presidente catalán y líder de CiU, Artur Mas, desveló ayer su plan para proclamar la independencia de Cataluña” which if I told you that "desveló" meant "unveiled" would probably be sufficient to make sense of the rest of the sentence.

So to tease out the structure of an article or any chunk of text you might start by breaking it into sentences. Easy, right? Fullstops. Pas si vite! In Greek, a sentence can end with a question mark, naturally, but what is unnatural is that their question marks look like our semicolons. Wtf; Of course in English a semi-colon that only means that the sentence is having a little rest, but otherwise is still alive and kicking, whereas in Greek that sentence is finished, has expired, and is generally considered a dead parrot. So you can’t rely on a question mark to divide stuff up into sentences, not if you're not making any assumptions about the language the text is in. Which I’m not.

Go down to the word level and things must surely be simpler, you'd think. Why's that? Because words are unequivocally, universally, and pancosmically separated by spaces. NotinChinesethey’renot, ah!

So, just to spell it out if it’s not already clear: almost everything you know about how words and sentences go together you've learned by speaking one language, your own. But that won’t do in a noisy multilingual world.

All this programmatic shenanigans in JayJayWords is just my way of helping myself learn languages by taking arbitrary bits of text in different languages and analysing them to reveal the underlying building blocks. Text such as news feeds, emails from language teachers and friends, or class notes from those same teachers that I've otherwise had to keep in Google Docs, which, for all its virtues knows as much about the contents of that text as I know about the history of Mongolia. And obviously what's good for me, pedagogically speaking, is good for you too, because I’m normal, just like you.

Meeting native speakers and having classes, all that, is expensive. You can only do so much of it, and often have to pay for the privilege, even on great sites like italki. Computing power, on the other hand, is cheap. Looking up words one at a time in a dictionary, even with a Smartphone app, is expensive in terms of your time, your patience, your willingness to go on. Having a computer do it and present it to you in a nicely formatted way, inline, alongside the text, is (relatively) cheap.

And that's where you come in, dear reader. You can help me by picking words and telling JayJay the meaning, part of speech (if you know whether it’s a noun or a verb, etc), even exciting stuff like whether it's masculine, feminine, a Traditional Chinese character, or just a plain old ipso facto Latin phrase. Or even if, like the French word 'constitution', we don't need to do anything with it. This is the 'contribute' feature, and it's nearly ready on JayJayWords.

In honour of that great word-messer James Joyce I have named the app JayJayWords. If that also makes it sound like it has something to do with a bird, then I'm happy. Even though birds don't use words (that we recognise anyway, and they certainly don’t write - again, that we know of. No, no, no, that’s just silly, birds don’t write, end of story), far less worry about the structure of Greek sentences, they do plenty of other praiseworthy things in their own peculiar way. But like I say it’s really named after James Joyce, who made up a lot of his own words, and certainly took pleasure in playing around with classical Latin and Greek terms. Plus he was from Dublin, like me, so that’s nice.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Malaysia diary 10: KL, Petronas Towers

The party's nearly over, but I still haven't found what I'm looking for, a copy of "The Malayan Trilogy" by Anthony Burgess. Actually, I did, in Penang, but I can get that Vintage edition in Brisbane for around the same price, believe it or not. No, I'm hanging out for something more authentic, but I've only two days left.

(In part 9, we arrived in this, our final destination, Kuala Lumpur, and once we'd settled in our Airbnb condo unit we made for the hawker stalls of Jalan Alor, "Eat Street", where you hear great examples of Manglish - Malaysian English.)

Petronas Towers, KL
Petronas Towers, view from the skybridge

¡Al tajo! To the task: a last-ditch forage for the Trilogy. Apparently there's a place on Jalan Tun H S Lee near the Central Market called The Junk Book Store. Our well-read and helpful taxi driver knew about it, and for a mere 15RM we traversed the city from east to west, from Bukit Bintang, through Bukit Ceylon, a Bukit list if ever there was one, to the central area, what we'd call the CBD in Australia. This is where the Sungai Gombak and Sungai Klang rivers come together, the eponymous muddy estuary, which is what Kuala Lumpur means in English. KL's rivers are hard to appreciate, though. You'd hardly notice them. It's not a town through which you'd say a river runs majestically; no Seine, Thames, or Singapore here.

Now how hard can it be to find a book called "The Malayan Trilogy" in the capital of Malaysia, by an established British author, in a bookshop where they stack 'em high? I'm not exactly searching for "Spoondigging in Etruscan Paintballs, 1926 edition". Crossing the threshold into this claustrophobic kedai buku, I was instantly whisked back like an egg through time to the book stalls of Chowrasta Bazaar in Penang. There was order here, yes, but there was also the unmistakeable signature of entropy: this particular shop, the Junk, like the Earth's crust, is on the cusp of chaos. It's metastable, as the fluid dynamics honchos say. In fairness though, Auntie running it knew her bisnis. When I asked her for anything at all at this stage by Anthony Burgess, she rummaged with great purpose behind a stack of cellophane-wrapped potboilers, and pressed several second-hand, shrinkwrapped Burgesses into my hungry hands.

It's funny how in this country they shrink-wrap books so much, even in second-hand shops: it's not just the big chains like Popular or Kinokuniya that do it. In fact, you'll often find a bundle of second-hand books shrink-wrapped, with a bow tied around it in coloured twine for good measure. Which is just plain annoying. All this bibliosanitary safe sex is something you want to see practiced somewhere like Kinokuniya, where you might feel like splashing out on a pristine copy of a handsome coffee table astronomy tome, for example, but not in The Junk Book Store. Anyway, sensing my disappointment at not finding the Trilogy, Auntie decided to escalate the matter upstairs. She sent me to the Keeper of Wisdom.

The Junk Bookstore
The Junk Bookstore.

On the first floor - or what Americans correctly call the second floor, regaining the kudos they lose on account of their confusing date notation - I interrupted this old boy deep in hibernation. The septuagenarian (and that's giving him the benefit of the doubt) gamely roused himself and shuffled around behind me, like my future shadow, a premonition of me in thirty or so years but with Asian features, unaccountably, and he let me know with taps and points that he could open any of the locked glass presses if the need arose. He himself is probably immortal, but I thought that in the case of one of those cases being opened I might well be overwhelmed by the must of centuries escaping like a well-read ghost. (All this wonderful book lust reminded me of The Name of the Rose, which I tried reading again recently only to be swept away in my chair by the tsunami of religious nonsense it's obliged to describe. It was nearly the same with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the invocation of old Dublin town kept my head above water, and I managed to get to the other side.)

If Auntie's English was halting, 爷爷's had stopped a while ago. Impressively hitting him with some Liffey-scented Mandarin to no effect whatsoever, I was left - not for the first time this holiday - marvelling at the chasm in comprehension between my patient Chinese teachers in Brisbane, and the mulish, stubborn, 中国人 I met here. What's wrong with these people?

Despite the efforts of all concerned, I would achieve no satisfaction in the Junk today. This goal I have harboured since I arrived in Malaysia two weeks ago, a humble, attainable goal I had fondly thought, to buy an old copy of "The Malayan Trilogy" in a second-hand bookshop, preferably at the end of a robust but nonetheless mutually satisfying haggle with a shop owner whose eyes would signal more than a hint of begrudging respect for my command of the moment, an opponent worthy of the game, that and all imagined variations collapsed like a quantum wave function into one discrete, concrete event the next morning when I gave in and bought it in the last place I had wanted to, the sterile Japanese book hypermarket Kinokuniya from an impassive teenager locked in mortal combat with the zit. Ah well, tida' apa.

Petronas Tower with Menara KL
Petronas Tower with Menara KL. It was a bit hazy alright, but some of the 'haze' here is caused by the thick glass.

I considered it my solemn duty to round off our Malaysian stint at the very pinnacle of Malaysian/Islamic techno-achievement, the Petronas Twin Towers. 13 years ago, when Tina and I stopped here en route to Australia, where we used to spend our Winter, or Summer, depending on your perspective, before going back to Ireland, we missed our chance with the towers. Closed: the King's birthday or something. In any case, the highest you could go then was to the sky bridge on the 41st floor, a trifling 170m above the ground. Nowadays, you continue on up to the observation deck on the 86th floor, 360 metres above the ground, after 15 minutes on the skybridge.

With the echoes of Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer', played by a live jazz band in the concourse of the Suria KLCC, the shopping centre that the Twin Towers grow up and out of, in my popping ears, we ascended the north tower. In the elevator, our group of 30 or so fellow travellers included a couple I found quite interesting. She wore a niqab, the black full-body veil which leaves only the eyes visible; he just looked like an average guy. We had seen plenty of women (one presumes) wearing those - this is after all a Muslim country - but what made it strange was that she was attracting attention to herself, the more so since the lift was pretty full, by taking photos of herself. Reaching up above her with her phone, angling it down at her and her man, hopefully getting a nice view of Lake Symphony and the KLCC Public Park out the window of the lift in the background. Selfies, in a word. In a niqab. We all smiled pleasantly, we're all on holidays, taking photos of yourself, that's nice.

I cast my mind back to Langkawi Bird Park where I first remembered seeing niqab-sporting women doing the same thing. I remember facetiously wondering how the face-recognition software works in cases like that. Is there an extra mode on cameras sold in some parts of the world to take account of the fact that faces are routinely covered up? I suppose it didn't sink in then because they weren't in a crowded lift with me at the time. What totally bizarre behaviour! I mean, Can you credit it?, as my grandmother used to say.

But the more I thought about it - you really only need 3 minutes of observation on the skybridge, not 15 minutes, so I got some work done - I considered that all the people we'd seen on this trip adopting fixed, selfie faces - and there were loads - were doing something that was just as concealing in its ghastly way as a niqab. If you're determined not to reveal yourself, it doesn't really matter what you're wearing. I remember two young Asian women posing at the Boh plantation in the Cameron Highlands, a world unto themselves amongst so many other people, unselfconsciously doing duckface selfies on the balcony area overlooking the beautiful scenery they presumably had paid to come and see. As soon as they were finished, others stepped up to the lookout area to take their place. More fixed grins.

Why do so many people need to have themselves in the photographs of all this wonderful scenery, doing their utmost to look the same in every one, while they Have a Great Time? The selfie stick was a narcissistic leitmotif of this holiday, one you saw everywhere: you know them, the sticks that attach to your phone and help you obscure some world heritage site in a photograph with your head. Ok, we had a few photos taken of us posing, it's true, but the majority of the pictures I took were ones where I tried to get people behaving normally. It's hard with kids though, because kids behaving normally is not always something you want to immortalise with a photograph. But jeezus, so many people's first reaction is to turn their backs on something, take a photo of themselves in front of it, and walk on, barely registering the thing itself.

As if in recognition of my puzzlement, and to show how normal the whole thing was, which it undoubtedly is, the guy with the niqab girlfriend/wife approached me while we were all still on the skybridge and asked if I'd take their picture. I complied with a smile and handed the camera back, but still I found the whole thing strange and sad. It's as if the women don't actually realise that they're hiding.

Bullfrog porridge
Bullfrog porridge.

It's Saturday night, our last night, and I gaze down from a couple of hundred feet up into the side streets between us and Jalan Bukit Bintang; at Restoran Bidara Bistro, at the Chinese lanterns on the corner of Jalan Alor where the foot massage boys and girls importune the passersby 24 jam, and faraway, on the southern edge of the bukit, at the blue neon of the Times Square Mall. Looking straight down at the foot of this condominium, 18 floors below, I notice that a side street has been blocked off with a black 4WD angled across the opening and on a stretch of material laid out on the road about 150 people are praying. It can't smell too good down there behind all those restaurants. The rooftop bar right across the street that I could hear till late last night has started up again. But the devoted have started, let the disco beat pulse at 180bpm and the rubbish stink to high heaven, they have work to do.

Fighting off a chest infection that's leaving me slightly feverish, I watch them for a while, synchronised in their activity, bowing down, sitting up, all more or less in unison, the only coordinated human activity in the whole vista. Tomorrow is the 30th of June, the start of Ramadan.


Of course you know what happened. I finally found the edition of “The Malayan Trilogy” that I wanted all along, the Penguin one from the ‘80’s, the one on the Wikipedia page, the one called “The Long Day Wanes” (a title which comes from a poem by Tennyson, by the way) about a week after I got home to Brisbane. I had dropped the kids off at Ninjutsu on a Saturday morning and was browsing a second-hand bookshop near where I live, the Mount Gravatt Bookshop, when I found it. As the Chinese say, “计划赶不上变化”: jihua ganbushang bianhua/plans can’t keep up with changes. It was great to have a holiday goal, something to get me out and about and scouring the bazaars and stalls, a conversation starter, an expedition from the hotel room starter. I gave my brand new Kinokuniya-bought version to my book buddy Pat, and switched to this older one to finish the job of reading it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Malaysia diary 9: Kuala Lumpur

As I write this on the top floor of the Bidara Condominium in Bukit Bintang (Bintang Hill), KL is begrudgingly getting a few drops of rain, the first in a couple of weeks. Certainly we haven't felt the wetting effects of anything other than our own sweat out and about the few days we've been here. Our travels through Malaysia have been, at times, torrid, in terms of humidity. Although we live in Brisbane where things get fairly humid, you can usually hide away from the worst of it like a cat in the shade of a verandah or a web developer in a Queensland Health office. But in the big Malaysian supermarket of experiences, we feel like we have to shop till we drop.

(In Part 8, we got driven around the Cameron Highlands, into a magical mossy forest, and had the steamboat everyone says you should have when you're there.)

Bukit Bintang view, KL
Bukit Bintang view, KL.

Our two weeks in Malaysia have almost come to an end. A decent four-day coda here in Kuala Lumpur and that's it. So far the smog we constantly were warned about, as if there was anything we could do about it, hasn't been much in evidence. With today's sightseeing over with, we're back in the condo. I could go down to the pool on the 2nd floor now and join Tina and the boys but if I want to be a writer, something's gotta give. Going to the pool now has to give. I surrender to writing.

After two mercifully cool days (mid-20s centigrade) in Tanah Rata, we endured a four-hour coach trip down off the Cameron Highlands, descending from the mountainous north-south spine that runs from the Thai border down to KL, which wound for a full 90 minutes past frequent roadside workers' shanties and occasional waterfalls too quickly-passed to photograph, until finally, with bladders and Alexander's sick bag to empty, we reached the western coastal plain.

Yep, Al’s a barfer: he pukes on planes and he pukes on coaches. With planes it’s because his fussiness, paradoxically, makes his stomach cast out, much like one of the sacred volcanos of Bali we were probably in the proximity of at the time, to an uncaring world what precious little it has, the only means at its disposal to protest against the oral blockade. This always spoils a good eight-hour budget airlines flight for us, but we’re used to it. With coaches it’s motion sickness. This descent from the highlands was one I respected for its potential to make me sick too, holding off from reading, and admiring those seasoned co-travellers with their heads down, headphones in, browsing the Lonely Planet KL section. A straight run in on the highway meant we could all read again, although practically within sight of our terminus, Pudu Sentral, Al hurled for the second time. He's a game little traveller though: he knows the drill with the bag at this stage.

Jalan Alor
"Eat Street" - Jalan Alor.

Up at 6 next morning, I pulled open the curtains and looked out over the low-rise restaurants and corner shops beholding not a nitrogen-blue Greek sky, but not a wall of haze either. Well, that's a plus: we can see the neighbourhood. I became fond of the conservative old Capitol building (in the left in the photo at top) a few blocks away, a throwback to a time when flamboyance was expressed by a slight enlargement of the windows of the topmost floors. Nowadays every new skyscraper squawks its individuality like a chook on the chopping block. But not the Capitol.

We had found this Bukit Bintang pied-à-terre on Airbnb. Unlike most places on that site, it's not a residence that the owner lives in. In fact, I don't get the impression that this condo unit is anything other than permanently given over to renting out to pelancong dari Australia, tourists like us. I'm delighted though, as it gives us a flavour of being in KL à la bourgeois Malaysian. Bigger than a hotel room we could afford, and having just the right amount of lived-in wear so you don't feel you have to be too precious about the kids on the furniture. God bless America, God bless Airbnb.

That night, sporting our crisp new Langkawi batik gear, we did battle with the heat on our local centre of gravity, Jalan Alor, the road-long foodcourt also known as 'Eat Street'. "Sudah makanan!". "Already eaten!" A lie, of course. I didn't care, they were magic words that got the menu-toting young guns harassing us every few yards to back off with a sweet smile. Now I know how my kids feel every night, harangued relentlessly to eat. You have to marvel though at the stripped down Malay/English these guys use. Since we're travelling with kids, we often end up asking whether kuai teow goreng, which is the Malaysian for char kuai teow, is spicy or not.
"Spicy can, not spicy can!"
I love Chinglish, Singlish, or Manglish, whatever it's called here in Malaysia.

Jalan Alor
Hawker stall, Jalan Alor.

The kids spotted something on one of the stalls' menus which set us back in our quest to have them see Asian street food in a friendly light. Menu guy spotted us.
"Spicy frog porridge, very good pak!"
'Pak' is short for bapak, which means 'sir'. You'll hear it in situations involving restaurants and taxis. But we shan't be having the frog porridge today, makasih. For the second time in a day, we ended up in Restoran Nagasari, extremely cheap and cheerful. On this holiday, the liquid part of the meal, Guinness or Tiger, has always been the most expensive. Without Guinness or Tiger our meals would be a downright steal. But it's not a corner I'm prepared to cut, and Tina respects this, in the sense that she knows it, but by no means considers it respectable.

Traveller tip: acquaint yourself with the nearest 'landmark' - read big - hotel. Don't expect your average supir teksi to know every condo in KL. I know, it’s obvious. But it’s funny how it always takes you a while to remember the obvious things. They'll know the big hotels of course. Like mobile phone UI designers, give your punters big fat targets to hit. Actually, the taxi drivers are better here than in Australia: quaintly, they seem to know the lay of the land in their head, something you're not guaranteed to encounter in Brisbane or Sydney. And Melburnian taxi drivers are a breed unto themselves in terms of sheer, blank-faced ignorance, from what I read.

A taxi to the condo we're staying at cost us RM15. In fact every teksi trip we get here will end up costing that amount, funnily. The taxis say on their door that they're metered, and by law they have to be, but the drivers must just find that so mechanistic, so depressingly deterministic, that they ask you where you want to go and, with a hard-won knowledge of the topography of KL that could never be gainsaid by no stinkin’ meter, come up with a price of 15 ringgits, always. "Selamat jalan!"

Foolin' around, foodcourt, KL
Foodcourt, Bukit Bintang Plaza

A few days in, and I feel like I'm adjusting to the rhythm of Kuala Lumpur, if only by tripping up over one less broken piece of pavement on Jalan Bedara every time I leave the condo. The familiar faces of the guys tending the woks in the kedai makanans around the corner on Jalan Nagasari, the bored girl in the window of the corner shop, even some of the menu guys on Jalan Alor, are all emerging as individuals, and will no doubt pop into my head some day in the future, maybe at my desk in the office waiting for my web project to compile, or triggered by a phrase in a book on a Sunday afternoon that has nothing whatsoever to do with Kuala Lumpur.

Of course it's tough foregoing the relief of the swimming pool, but there are plenty of them in Brisbane. Far better to write while my memory of events is fresh, while I can still remember the bits and pieces of words and phrases that I've heard out and about. The mighty tide of Chinglish sweeps us all up, and the language aficionado has to adapt to it on every excursion. The question is: are you ready to order now?
"Order-lah sekarang, pak?"

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Malaysia diary 8: Cameron Highlands

The most important fact by a long shot about the Cameron Highlands is that it’s a good bit cooler than the rest of Malaysia, by about 10 degrees celsius or so. That small number is a big deal coming, as we were, from the punitive heat of Georgetown by way of Ipoh. All the other facts you read about this area, such as that it was mapped out by surveyor William Cameron in 1885, often on an elephant, or that they make a lot of tea here, more than enough to keep an Irishman satisfied, are not nearly as important as that single statistic.

(In Part 7, we arrived in Ipoh to a warm céad míle fáilte, that’s Irish for a hundred thousand welcomes, courtesy of Isobel and her Dad, who have Irish connections, and not something you expect to find in a Chinese tin town, but sure no matter. 在怡保,来自爱尔兰的友好欢迎。 )

Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation, Cameron Highlands.

From the Shamrock Inn in Ipoh we struck upwards and eastwards into the heartland of the Malaysian tea industry; Cameron - a name you become familiar with if you’re a tea drinker because of the ubiquitous ‘Boh Cameronian’ gold tea packets you get with the complementary tea- and coffee- making stuff in the places you stay. We were on a winding ascent to a town called Tanah Rata, the main settlement in the Highlands. A long-awaited threshold was crossed with great relief an hour or so into our taxi ride when the driver said right, I’m turning the aircon off, you can open your windows if you want.

Tanah Rata's not too big, and once ensconced in our guesthouse we easily found a kedai makanan, a place to eat that could have been custom-built for us: pizza for the kids, regular Indian curries and naan for us, Guinness tallies - everywhere in Asia like backpackers - and world cup highlights. This was before Suarez had been sent home, and England were still in the running. The only kedai buku/'bookshop' I found was a mini-stall a German woman had, at which she also sold cheap sunglasses and trinkets: no Malayan Trilogy here. She agreed second-hand English-language books were very expensive here, but then got distracted by a backpacker enquiring about a plastic bracelet, so I left it at that and walked away, getting harrassed en route by a giant moth being shooed away by a shopowner with a broom, a memorable image.

Giant moth
Giant moth.

It won't do to just drink the stuff, you must get a tour of the tea plantations while you're here. Considering the oceans of teh I've poured down my neck in the course of 47 unremarkable years here on Earth, I thought a tour of a plantation was not at all out of the question. In fact, to show an interest in the very stuff that had long nurtured me, very frequently saved me from a few blessed minutes of homicidal office drudgery, on rare occasions surprised and thrilled me, but mostly just quietly satisfied me, was the very least I could do. To which end the next morning, a fine one to boot albeit misty, we were driven around in an ex-army Land Rover Defender by our 'Eco Cameron' guide, a tall, affable, bullet-headed, Highlands-born, durian-hating, Tamil guy called Appu.

Ol' Appu had some choice observations about Singaporean tourists. He claimed to have met some that had never seen a chicken that wasn’t on their plate as one of the main ingredients of a Kung Po dish, which made them hard to convince, the people, not the fowl, that they, the fowl, not the people, were in fact chickens that were running around that day in front of them, the people. But he confessed (well, he said it without the slightest discernible contrition, but I sensed deep, deep down, as a Malaysian, it was a confession) that he couldn't get into durian. Inside, I high-fived myself. I felt I'd achieved a minor sensational victory. I'm Irish, barely in the country a week, but I beat him at durian, and he grew up here. In fact, I'd be having some later that night in a tea-shop on the main strip, battered - the durian, not me or the tea shop, although now I think about it it could have done with a lick of paint.

Nepenthes plant
Nepenthes plant.

Meandering between the towns on our way to the hills around the Sungai Palas Boh Plantation, I reminisced about the last time I was in a Defender. One sunny afternoon 18 years ago I had been taking turns driving with Naomi, going from New York to Niagara Falls, when, having succumbed to mid-afternoon post-prandial fatigue, we rolled our borrowed Defender, writing it off and earning ourselves an overnight stay in a hospital somewhere in Massachusetts. You'd think I'd be more nervous about sitting there in the front of one of those things again, but I was fine. That time, a seat belt surely saved my life. There were none in this car. Tida' apa, who cares, I’m invincible in these things, that’s just how it is. The New Zealand couple with an infant we picked up at another guesthouse didn’t feel that way and asked to change cars though.

They missed the mossy forest walk, with its nepenthes plants, cinnamon trees and God knows what else; I work in IT, don't expect a biodiversity report here. It certainly was unlike anything else we'd done in Malaysia, and considering KL is our next and final destination, anything else we were bound to do. Silly as it might sound, barring the nepenthes, it all reminded me of the cool, mossy, ferny hills I grew up surrounded by on the south side of Dublin. Near Bono's house, actually. It seemed that every second plant Appu stopped us to look at was an unsung panacea, the juice of whose leaves if crushed to pulp would repel mosquitoes, soothe burns, or just raise the dead. I felt like saying "We have stuff for that nowadays. It's enough that they look nice, really." But it was obviously a meaningful part of the guides' shtick that these plants be seen to dispense salves to the bitestruck wanderer as well as be delightful to behold.

In the mossy forest, Cameron Highlands
In the mossy forest.

Appu could speak English, Tamil, and Malaysian, as we soon found out from the phone calls he fielded. Effortlessly multilingual. But he admitted to not being able to write his second languages too well, or at all, which made me think about my own struggles with languages like Spanish, Greek, and of course, Mount Everest, Chinese. As well as having different career trajectories - he used to be a programmer, but his office now is a Land Rover and a forest, mine's still an office - he and I have different needs, desires, and approaches when it comes to the whole multilingual thing. I do want to be able to read and write my secondary languages. Reading in a foreign language, like stargazing or Indian and Chinese takeaways in the suburbs, is one of life's great pleasures, is it not? But at the same time, meeting guys like this, finding out what they use their knowledge of languages for, is a salutary part of the travel experience. He said he just got tired of the push and shove of KL; well, that's where we were heading next, the last part of our wonderful two-week trip.

But while I'm not suggesting that I think people like Appu only learn languages because they have to, that there's no love of words there, at the same time surely at some stage you'd want to pick up a book and read, or pick up a pad and write a few words, no? He reminded me of a guy called Johnno I met in (where else?) Brisbane who could speak Chinese. I was, as I always am in these cases, full of envy and admiration. Johnno was full of excitement about something he'd recently learned, that this very basic character or that means this or that, and that by combining them you get these new meanings. Yep, I knew that, have known that since day 1 of my Chinese language studies, because I came by that road, not by working in the lumber industry in China like Johnno had. I tend to do a lot of learning on my own, and at leisure, since I don't have to learn any of these other languages I learn, and so I go the scenic route, via books and symbols rather than direct communication with others.

Touring the Cameron Highlands
Appu drives us around.

Dutifully, Appu was keen to have us understand at least a modicum of Behasa. "See those road signs saying AWAS! ahead? Know what Awas means?" Of course I did. For a start, you didn't have to be a genius to associate the word Awas with road works, or a junction, or something you should exercise caution about. Moreover, it always appeared on an International Red of Imminent Danger-coloured background. Besides, I'd read it in the Rough Guide quick language section. Awas: danger, caution. I'd done my research. "Nope. Asian Women Always Shopping! See, the Stroberry Market and Souvenir shop. Asians like to shop here!"

At the end of the trek through the forest, he was contractually obliged to convey us to the summit of Gunung Brinchang even though it was all misty on top that day and useless to look from. It was satisfying though, from the vantage point a few hours later, of our Arundina Inn second-storey balcony, book in hand, the day's work done, to gaze out at the summit a few klicks due north and know, By God, we had tamed it.


We kept hearing that we should try steamboat, that’s the plat de l’endroit here in Tanah Rata. Spicy, abundant, and good exercise, you just keep loading this food into the hot pot, there to simmer in the soup for 5 minutes or so. This place we were in, Ferm Nyonya, seemed little more than a canteen but darned if this wasn't the tastiest thing we'd eaten in days. Now for a coffee and dessert.

The trick with coffee is to get a Malaysian coffee (as opposed to a Western one), but without milk and definitely without sugar. Unless you like sugar, of course, but in that case you don't really like coffee. The milk they normally give you is sweetened, probably condensed, from a tin, and thus ruins the coffee. Fuck it, I just want a coffee! I popped into the Starbucks thinking I'll get something there I'm more familiar with and immediately regretted it. RM9.90 for an American. They must think I’m made of uang. In a café a few doors down we got two Malaysian coffees (that's what the guy called them) instead, for lima ringgit, RM5, a quarter of the price. Get them black, ask for fresh milk, and pour it in yourself. I don't get my coffee at Starbucks in Brisbane and I'm not about to start halfway up a mountain in Malaysia. Counting out 5 big ones:
"Lima ringgit... terimah kasih." (5 ringgit, thanks)
"Sama-sama." (Don’t mention it).

It looked like England were on their way home from the World Cup. Their nemesis Chavez was definitely out anyway. I wrapped up the evening at the cafe with some fried durian on a crispy lettuce bed. Is there nothing you can't do with this wunderfruit? Tomorrow we'd begin our descent from the Pahang mountains south to the muddy estuary, Kuala Lumpur.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Malaysia diary 7: A warm Irish welcome in Ipoh

在怡保,来自爱尔兰的友好欢迎。 We arrive in Ipoh to a warm céad míle fáilte, that’s Irish for a hundred thousand welcomes, courtesy of Isobel and her Dad, who have Irish connections, not something you expect to find in a Chinese tin town, but sure no matter.

(In part 6, we found that Peranakan culture, composed of Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women), is alive in Penang, or at least has a magnificent mansion of a museum. Later on I found out that even though you might want to buy something sometimes you need to be sold it. But it was time to weigh anchor in Georgetown and press on south.)

At Queensland Health I worked with a Malaysian Chinese guy from Ipoh. He gave me my Chinese name: 威锐夫, Wei Ruifu, the second word of which was his version of Ralph, and at “ruay fu” actually sounds a bit like Ralph (pronounced “rafe”). The first word, wei, obviously doesn’t have much to do with Lavelle, but rather is abstract in this setting, having the flattering meaning of “prestige”, or “power”. I can live with that. And that was all I knew about Ipoh by the time we pulled into the bus station.

Old town graffiti, Ipoh
Old town graffiti

Our taxi driver into town was Malay.
"Are most Malaysians Muslim?" I asked.
"Most Malays are Muslim", he said.
I read an article that very day about identity and religion in the New Straits Times, a good paper to get during the World Cup by the way. According to the constitution of Malaysia a Malay is one who professes Islam as a religion, adopts Malay customs and culture, and converses in Malay. In Malaysia, Indians are Muslim (Tamils) or Hindu. Chinese are Buddhist and Christian. The indigenous Malay people are mostly rural, and have an animistic culture when it comes to religion. The notion that a person's religion is not solely determined by their ethnicity or that there might be some benighted individuals, hiding perhaps in caves in the Kinta valley, who might not be religious, didn't really come up.

If only people would get on in their work - the Malays in the kampongs and in the paddy-fields and the Indians in the professions and the Chinese in trade - I think all people would be quite happy together.”, Sundralingam (Tamil character), in The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess.

We passed a big Hollywood-style Ipoh sign as we entered the town through the Kinta valley cliffs. The haze was bad because of the illegal burning of forests, exacerbated by a prolonged dry spell caused by El Nino (they don't seem to spell it 'Niño' here, which is a shame pues es una palabra española so we should pronounce it thus).

Shamrock Guest House, Ipoh
With 爸爸 outside the Shamrock Guest House, Ipoh

"The Chinese have done well here. We Malays missed out on the riches because we're lazy", explained our driver. This is the Myth of the Lazy Native, or the Malay Dilemma. Although there is a quota system in place to ensure Malays enjoy the economic progress of the country (Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia, Malays will not be lost in the world), over the years that has caused friction with the non-Malays, mainly the Chinese and Indians.

Naturally I started telling him about The Malayan Trilogy, the book I've been looking for in one form or another on this Malaysian trip, but he stopped me quickly and with a touch of self-reproach admitted to not being much in the habit of reading. I hadn't really pegged him for a major Anthony Burgess fan, I just wanted to know if he'd heard of it, and whether there were any decent bookshops I should know about in town. He sighed and lamented that he didn’t read more, and we left it at that. It's only a taxi ride, we don't have to beat ourselves up over life goals not achieved, over what could have been... A bit like me and upper body weight training or learning the subjunctive in Spanish: two things that just sit there and fail to get achieved on a regular basis. I felt his pain.
“In Melaya Baru, in the new Malaysia,” he said, “education and reading is all-important. Otherwise, Melayu lekas lupa, Malays will be quickly forgotten.”

Shamrock Guest House, Ipoh
Isobel with traditional Ipoh Hokkein headdress, which looks familiar.

If you’re Irish, and you’re casting about online for places to stay in a forbiddingly alien city like Ipoh then a place called the Shamrock Guest House is going to jump out at you like shorts at a wedding. It was only when we got there that I realised how dialled up to 11 the strangeness would be, though. A large framed poster explained shamrocks in English and Chinese (apparently they're known for bringing "good luck, health, and happiness largely due to their colour, as green is typically a brain trigger for refinement, wellness, and satisfaction"). Inside were maps of Ireland, Irish blessings, framed Irish soccer shorts. We were booked into the Kildare room. I’m a Dublin man meself, but no matter, I always meant to spend more time in Kildare.

“What’s the story?” is something you hear said a lot in Dublin. As unlikely as it seemed to me, the owners of the Shamrock - Isobel and her 爸爸 (baba, Dad) - was that the rest of the family was holed up in Finglas (“I’ve never been but I hear it’s a kip.” I commented helpfully) in Dublin's northside, working in the family Chinese takeaway, the Hoi Wun (小事情). Isobel herself had previously studied in Dublin, and goes back in the off-season to help out. Hence all the Irish stuff. And if I was astonished to find all this charming paddywhackery in a town famous for rich Chinese (although the more we wandered around, the more Irish places we saw), she was pleasantly surprised too that I knew any Mandarin at all. So we chatted mostly in English, but had a bit of crack in Chinese. She found my English easy to understand, which is probably because I've had the rough edges of my Irish accent smoothed and mellowed by the southern hemisphere sun for the last 11 years.

The wealth of Malaya was always in the hands of the Chinese.” (The Malayan Trilogy). We got chauffeured from the Shamrock to the old town, which is where you go in Ipoh, in 爸爸’s black Mercedes. I forget the model, not that it would mean much to me, but I remember he proudly told us exactly which one it was. Lacking Chinese slightly less than he lacked English I really had to reach deep in and put in some hard yakka, 工作, to communicate at all with the man. But you know, someone who’s determined to show you the sights of his town can be a very effective communicator.

In the old town we strealed around aimlessly and took in some more of the same style of street art/graffiti we’d seen in Georgetown (it’s done by the same guy), old Peranakan architecture, shophouses and mansions, colonial eye candy, etc. Setting the boys down on a wall opposite a famous piece of graffiti of kids in the paper airplane, I thought I’d go one better than the tourists who were just pointing the cameras at the wall by having real kids in my photo too (see picture above).

Dim sum!
Dim sum!

Speaking of brain triggers, I half-heartedly tried to score a Guinness to smuggle back to our room, but I needn’t have worried: as soon as we were back in the door of the Shamrock, 爸爸 pressed a couple of Tigers into our hands and took us to their rooftop bar. We chatted a while with Isobel, 爸爸 regularly nursing our half-full glasses back to health again from his stash of Tiger, joining in the chat with a well-chosen phrase in 汉语 for Isobel to translate for us, and for us to agree with and maybe laugh at or nod solemnly at, depending on the seriousness of his expression. Ah, but this was mighty! It was obvious we had the run of the place, no-one else here but us, and the kids were tucked up in bed, or reading, or playing computer games, who knows what kids are doing half the time these days? We talked on into the evening, me shoehorning in the odd word of Chinese for practise, and they happy enough, I suppose, to have an Irish person here to appreciate the Celtic smorgasbord they had laid on.

And so continued the hospitality the next morning in a dim sum joint belonging to a friend of the family; theirs, not mine. Isobel showed me the characters for dim sum on the wall: 点心, which are pronounced "dian xin" in Mandarin. I wonder why we call it dim sum so? Ah well, one more Chinese word with a nice holiday aide-mémoire to settle in the memory. I’m unlikely to forget how to say that in Chinese now. And very unlikely to forget the friendliness of these people. 爸爸 was pouring me more chysanthemum tea; I did the quick index finger-tap one-two on the table which means 谢谢您, thank you.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Malaysia diary: The Georgetown Peranakans

Peranakan culture, composed of Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women), is alive in Penang, or at least has a magnificent mansion of a museum. Later on I found out that even though you might want to buy something sometimes you need to be sold it. But it was time to weigh anchor in Georgetown and press on south.

(In Part 5, we found that Georgetown has much to wonder at: ancestral Chinese temples, a grand seafront hotel by the Sarkies brothers to rival Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and decrepit trishaw riders. An orgy of durian was just what I needed to settle in.)

Lebuh Penang, Georgetown
Lebuh Penang.

Malaysia is a meal with many ingredients: in Penang, the recipe is more complicated still. The Peranakans are a community of Chinese who have long been resident there (as well as in Malacca and Singapore). These three places, to quote Anthony Burgess, are “the only ones which flew the British flag”, and their collective name was the Straits Settlements, hence "the Straits Chinese", a different name by which the Peranakans are also known.

Even though Kuala Lumpur was the centre of British administration, the mainland of Malay was never actually ruled directly by the British. When the English finished up in Malaya in 1957 (or when ‘The Long Day Waned’ as Burgess had it, so titling his “Malayan Trilogy”) Penang and Malacca defaulted to the Federation of Malaya, later to be known simply as Malaysia. The Peranakans, though, have always loved English quintessence like Pears soap and roses, and there is still plenty of artefacts of anglo dominion in Georgetown, its name for one, which honours King George III, the then Prince of Wales.

Fort Cornwallis, built on the spot where Captain Francis Light stepped ashore in 1786, is another. Light founded Georgetown as a base for the British East India Company. When we got around to visiting the fort, which is right on the apex of the whole island of Penang, we sensibly stood in the shade watching hundreds of people out on the padang doing synchronised Bollywood-step-aerobics madness in the Andaman heat. You guys are crazy. Other than some old cannons pointing out at the ghosts of the French who never came, the fort is as bare as a bachelor's pantry, and marching around any longer in the heat would have been a madman's charter - at least the aerobics aficionados got some disco-Indian music to go with it - so after a restorative dragonfruit juice and wifi, we walked down a road, Lebuh Pantai, that, pleasingly to the imagination, used to be a beach. We were bound for a taste of the old world of the Peranakans, Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Penang Peranakan Mansion
The Peranakans used to get baked on opium in this exact spot.

Funny: despite being choc-a-block full of great old stuff, I couldn't get much photographic satisfaction there. Even funnier is that the website for the mansion says "Videography and photography are not allowed within the mansion." a stricture extravagantly ignored from what I could see. I mean seriously - try telling Asian tourists they can't take photographs. You may as well say No Drinking at an Irish wedding. But I did manage to share a moment with a tall, bored man serving behind the counter in one of the memorabilia shops. I don’t know how we got chatting about languages, but he estimated that Penang folk speak five common languages (collectively, not each person, mind): Malay, English, Mandarin, Hokkein (sometimes also known as Teochow, and spoken by the Peranakans), and Chinese.

“Chinese? Aren’t Mandarin and Hokkein Chinese? What do you mean, Chinese?”
“In the home.”
“Is that what's meant by a dialect?”
“Yes, dialect.”
I've worked it out, it's an Asian thing. You can speak a language really badly as long as you claim it's a "dialect". I haven’t been struggling with Mandarin for the last eighteen months, rather it’s a dialect I’ve been speaking, a cross between Irish-English and Mandarin. That’s it. To be serious for a second: one of the books that has most influenced me of late is You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene in which he asserts that they are not dialects that are mutually incomprehensible but languages. But for political reasons, and also because they are all underpinned in written form by the same character system, what from a spoken point of view to others would appear to be separate languages are merely “dialects” to Chinese. As long as you remember that fact about 中文 you'll be alright. We left the tall man's shop not with a nice book on Peranakan history which we would never have read, but with a pack of Spiderman playing cards which the boys got great enjoyment from not half an hour later. Such is a typical visit to a museum shop for me nowadays.

Guy on Lebuh Armenian
Guy on Lebuh Armenian.

Penang was the first British trading post in the East, but in fact it had already been well-established as a major emporium of trade with travellers and seafarers. I was keen to do trade here too; when in Rome and all that. However, in Sam’s, a bookshop cum cupboard on Lebuh Chulia, I prematurely ended any chance of a successful literary transaction by inadvertently insulting Sam, offering chickenfeed for his wares when he was expecting more substantial tiffin. “The Malayan Trilogy” was bundled, second hand, with "Earthly Powers" (also by Burgess) in a two-for-one RM120 package that he had knocked down to RM100 for no particular reason other than that I had expressed some interest. I have come to the conclusion that the prices on books in Malaysia are for those not interested in them. Once you ask about the book and have thus shown an interest, the actual price is duly revealed by the owner to be actually lower, leaving the stated price for lesser, uninterested browsers. But in this particular case I only needed one of the books in the twosome - I couldn’t get with this two-for-one business - so I offered RM70.

"It costs me too much to have them shipped from England..." Mr. Sam said, shaking his head sadly and packaging the two Burgesses up again. Maybe I should have taken a different tack. I described this failed negotiation on Google+ and got a comment from local G+ user Mal Ziz: "be smart and gently talk to the dealer ... tips: sometime you got to praise and reconcile with them ... that's the way our culture is here." In fairness, I hasten to point out that just about every place I visited I left with something - a kids' book or comic, a copy of Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' - I wasn't going to totally waste their time on some quixotic literary whim.

Mrs Sam, 'Sam's Collections'
Mrs. Sam.

But there’s more than one trading post in this entrepôt, and there was more than one Sam’s on this stretch. “Sam’s Collections” sold batik clothing, the distinctive, wax-drawn patterns that abound frequently on the Malaysian body. Batik in fact means “writing in wax”. While I was wilting in the heat, like a Royal Guard on parade at Buckingham Palace, the formidable Mrs. Sam was the very engine of commerce, dispatching minions to fetch shirts she knew I'd buy. She knew it, I knew it, and like a seasoned midwife in the midst of a stressful, confusing time, she kept her head and delivered us of our lucre. After a few amateurish faux pas on my behalf in various kedais on this trip it was a relief to be handled by a professional.
“Sam's Collections? Like Sam’s bookshop around the corner on Lebuh Chulia?”
“Oh no, different caste.” she said with less enthusiasm than the word ‘dismissively’ would connote on its own.

The next morning we weighed anchor and left Georgetown. On the coach south to Ipoh, I stared out the window at the Kinta valley jungle, trying to ignore the bus rock with its filibustering guitar solos in every single song. This exact area is the setting for a novel I'd read, as a kind of literary research, just before coming on this trip, "The Harmony Silk Factory" by Tash Aw. It was set during the Emergency when Communists roamed them thar hills. Not a bad book, but not at all alive to the country in the way "The Malayan Trilogy" was, and worse, it was bereft of humour.

Durian seller, Georgetown, Penang
The durian man on Lebuh Kimberley.

The lulling monotony of the view out the coach window allowed me to drift pleasantly back to Georgetown, to last night's meander home to the hotel. At our intersection, the junction of Lebuhs Kimberley and Cintra there was a humming night hawker market which had exactly what I wanted. I sent Tina and the boys home and approached the durian man. If I was as happy in my job as he was, I'd be selling durian at nighttime too. For a trifling 3 ringgit, I got an evening snack of the yellow stuff, and sat on a box near his cart. That time was when the hawker stalls around there came alive, nocturnal flowers opening up to attract the creatures who will sustain them, and who in turn are themselves sustained on nectar of durian and char kuai teow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Malaysia diary: Georgetown, Penang with the Chinese

Georgetown has much to wonder at: ancestral Chinese temples, a grand seafront hotel by the Sarkies brothers to rival Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and decrepit trishaw riders. An orgy of durian was just what I needed to settle in.

(This is part 5 of the diary: in the previous entry we left Langkawi and arrived in the UNESCO World Heritage Historic City of Georgetown, Pulau Penang. If anything it was muggier than Langkawi, but I felt like I might score some decent books here in some poky old kedai buku.)

Old temples are normally quiet places, but something was happening in this one. The sign outside gave its name in three languages: 韓江家廟, Tokong Han Jiang, Han Jiang Ancestral Temple. You’re supposed to check stuff out like this on holiday, especially since it’s the only existing example of traditional Teochew architecture in town, apparently, so we stole in like Bugis bandits, into a roofless courtyard full of Chinese people too busy enjoying an orgy of durian to notice us. My kind of orgy, I thought. Tina and the kids hung back, profoundly disgusted. She had trained them to hate the king of fruit: poisoned their innocent minds. More for me, so. A pretty woman laden with durian offered me some. I knew I’d like Georgetown. “谢谢你!” People were gorging on the stuff: I had no idea what was going on. The Chinese like this fruit, that’s something I’ve learned on our trip, but I like it too, and the Chinese are surprised at this. With my hands smeared with pulp, I looked up to see a couple of excited gamers with cameras in my face. I imagined myself shared all over WeChat like a puppy.
“You sure you want more?”
“Yes, please. I actually like durian. See? I’ve just eaten loads.“
Let them take photos of me. I knew I’d be taking a few myself in a minute.

Want some durian?
Durianfest at Han Jiang Temple.

Getting around Georgetown we walked or got a taxi, but never a trishaw. Taxis got us in and out of the area around our hotel which lay just outside of the UNESCO World Heritage zone, the central area of Georgetown where all that heritage jazz is. Once in the zone, you’d miss too much if you weren’t on foot. You’re going to have to have a shower when you get back home, so you may as well walk, that was what we found. As far as a trishaw ride was concerned, well, it we were thinking about it until we saw the trishaw riders. They were so old and scrawny that as conscientious westerners we thought the best we could do for them would be too spare them any further exertion in the heat. That they need the money I’ve no doubt, that we didn’t do them any favours, no doubt there either, but you know, as anyone tempted to continue a street snack of durian back at the hotel will also sadly confirm, you can't take it with you. It might sound silly, but I just didn’t think it was a good look for us to be conveyed to our next destination, the 5-star Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel, by some emaciated old boy busting a nut in the heat while we languidly took photos, barely moving. And perverse as it seems, under those circumstances the temptation to horsewhip him to get a move on (“Chop chop old man!”) would have been hard to resist.

The E&O had been on the bucket list too, but unlike the trishaws we managed to tick this one off. The first thing you read about when you look this storied hotel up on Lonely Planet is the list of greats who stayed here, and indeed the photos are there in the lobby too. Let’s see: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and...ah, Hermann Hesse. When I was a teenager I went through a pretentious Herman Hesse phase, reading, but not really comprehending, Das Glasperlenspiel, Steppenwolf, and Siddhartha. So I was impressed. And a little disappointed. A bit like bumping into Kafka at the Sheraton. I don’t need all my favourite writers to live penniless, consumptive lives or anything so ghastly cliched, just my early-twentieth century central European ones. It’s how I always imagined them; certainly not whooping it up in the "The Premier Hotel East of Suez".

Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Eastern & Oriental Hotel seafront walk, the "longest in the world".

Out on the seafront side, away from the superannuated trishaw chauffeurs, there's not much breeze, nothing really to signal to any of the senses other than my overstimulated eyes that I was by the water, the Andaman Sea. I reminisced about another colonial-era 5-star place like this I was in a few years ago, Raffles in Singapore, also condemned to a very humid environment, also constructed by the brothers Sarkies. We walked along the seafront, "the longest of any hotel in the world". I use skeptical quotes because I’ve only ever read that in Penang-related promotional literature. It reminds me of the chorus of “fastest-growing city in Europe” blather you used to hear about Galway, but only in Ireland, and mostly in Co. Galway.

No, evening, you bring us no reprieve from the humidity, not even in the Kedai Makanan dan Minuman, the big food hangar where Lebuh Armenian meets Chew Jetty. The Sarkies were Armenian, so I'm guessing that this prominent street which we crisscrossed several times in our stay might be so named in their honour. Anyway, this place, most important for the month that's in it, had hanging TV screens showing World Cup highlights. The trick is to order a 640ml bottle of Guinness Export Strength (6.8%) in a bucketful of ice as soon as you sit down. Thus provisioned, you can walk around and order from these small, hawker-type stalls all around, which was as close as we got to the famous "hawker", authentic, street cuisine. The food here is a steal like the Great Train Robbery. A serving of Taiwanese noodles or kuai teow goreng (which in Chinese is char kuai teow, which should sound more familiar) cost RM5/6. That's circa AUD$1.60.

Street art on Lebuh Armenian
Street art on Lebuh Armenian.

That night most memorable, we'd worked up our appetite walking through Chew Jetty, an accretion of dwellings around the jetties facing east towards Butterworth on the mainland, like an outdoor museum with real exhibits who compensate for their loss of privacy by selling ice cream and crisps on their front porches. Several times my eye would be caught by a TV and I'd steal a glance at a domestic tableau of Chew Jetty clanfolk fanning themselves in front of the box, totally unconcerned that they were de facto exhibits in a UNESCO World Heritage Zone, granting total strangers such as us license to look at them watching Malaysian Idol. Or maybe they were watching a documentary about Brisbane, or Ireland - wouldn't that be funny. Or about voyeurism. Or, and I admit this is a stretch, about Chinese Ancestral temples like Han Jiang Ancestral Temple, with its fructophilic flock.

Built in 1870 for the settlers who came from the Teochew, or Chaozhou, district in Guangdong, China, to Georgetown, Han Jiang is right on the edge of Little India, which is where we started our evening's stroll. I’ve been to Greece: take it from me, I know how frustrating it can be to read a word and have no idea how to pronounce it, so I should say that Chaozhou is pronounced “chow-joe”, with the emphasis on the “joe”. It’s a large city north-west of Hong Kong. Teochew is just the old way to say and spell Chaozhou. Like Peking and Beijing. And the get-together that we stumbled upon was apparently for the local Teochew clan - that’s the word the guy I spoke to used, ‘clan’. Whether the king of fruit is the usual guest of honour, or this was a once-off and next week it would be back to bananas, I have no idea, but it was a scene positively Roman in its debauchery.

Communal selfie
The Chinese have taken the idea of the selfie to a whole new level.

So not only did I get as much durian as I wanted, which was a fair amount, but someone then handed me a plastic bottle of warm nutmeg and lemon squash, whereupon I noticed that everyone else was drinking that too. It tasted as odd as it sounds, but by this stage I was too blown away by the hospitality of these very friendly Teochewers to care. Aware that it was only a matter of time before the more astute clan members noticed that I probably didn’t come from Guangdong province, in fact they may well have even got the impression that I had never even been there, would have to look it up on the map to find out where it was, would have trouble pronouncing it with the correct tones (wrong!), and would moreover be ignorant of the connection between Georgetown and this southern city, I melted into the throng, Cartier-Bresson invisible behind his camera.

謝謝潮州大家族﹐你們讓我有了個開心的夜晚。Thank you, friendly Teochew clan of Georgetown: you made my evening.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia diary: Georgetown, Penang

Having left Langkawi we're now in the UNESCO World Heritage Historic City of Georgetown, Pulau Penang. If anything it's muggier, but I feel like I might score some decent books here in some old poky kedai buku.

Georgetown, like durian, is a thrill you experience nose-first. You could call the smell of either of them fascinating or just, as some do, offensive. It's an entrepôt, or a bitser as we'd say in Australia, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian culture and architecture, atop an English colonial base (1786). According to UNESCO Georgetown and Malaka (further south, below KL) are "forged from the exchanges of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures and three successive European colonial powers for almost 500 years, each with its imprints on the architecture and urban form, technology and monumental art."

A weakness for Chinese, a beginner's interest in Bahasa Malaysia, a city whose streets were alive with my languages: circumstances conspired towards a famous time being had in Georgetown. I'm still ploughing through Teach Yourself Indonesian, each taxi ride a validation as I tried this word or that word out ("Apa ini Lebuh Carnarvon?" "Ya, betul."), though I never managed to connect with "baiklah". Due to the contingencies of travel, I've actually managed to practice more Chinese than Malaysian so far. No new books yet though, and I've nothing left to read.

Lebuh Armenia
Trishaw, Lebuh Armenian.

We were staying in Noordin Mews, a classic Straits-style shophouse converted by hotelier Christopher Ong, whose shtick is 'East-meets-West'. The brochure blurb is "Boutique accommodation for today's flashpacker". I felt like a fraud, not being (I strongly suspect), nor even knowing the meaning of, a flashpacker, but then some of the other guests at the breakfast table didn't look so flash either, especially the ones - like us - with kids. I think they're trying to flatter the guests, calling us flashpackers. 'Flashpacking' is "a neologism used to refer to affluent backpacking." Not to be nitpicky, but there was nothing backpacky about this place; it's downright toney. Then again, we stayed in the best room; there was a framed cheongsam on the wall, two bathrooms, our own balcony overlooking the pool, and a coffee-table book about the good ol' days in Georgetown en français! A far cry from the places in which most backpackers would be bedding down that night.

But first, there’s the books swap shelf to inspect. I'm not a stealing man, but the sight of a book I value on the house book swap shelf, languishing amongst clearly inferior material, arouses a base, liberating instinct in me. Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore is such a book, and to quote uncle Monty in Withnail and I (under different circumstances, granted, but the underlying sentiment was the same): "I mean to have you, even if it must be burglary!" Disingenuous as it seems I did offer to buy it, but not being in the bookselling business they graciously let me have it. And why not? Someone's finished reading it, plonks it on the shelf, and you can swap it for anything else no questions asked. Let’s say I swapped it for a minor Dan Brown, not even The DaVinci Code. Is that a fair swap? For "The Fatal Shore"? Gwanourrada'!

Lebug Penang, GeorgetownWaiting for the bus, Lebug Penang

On this matter, Tina gave me a traveller tip, too late for Noordin Mews, but truly crafty nonetheless. Buy a book, any old Tom Clancy, Dick Francis or Harry Potter, in a secondhand kedai buku, and keep it as a sacrificial offering for swap opportunities, swapportunities if you will, like this. I started reading The Fatal Shore pretty much immediately, and relentlessly miserable it is too: wonderful stuff. It even smelt like I like a book to smell like. Incidentally, it was an ex-library copy, with the word "Withdrawn" scrawled across the inside front page. It's over; you’re coming home, son.

Outside the rarefied oasis of the Mews, Georgetown was even muggier than Langkawi. Large frozen shopping malls rise above the sweatshops you pass by to get to them, a man or a woman hammering a motorbike wheel back into shape for hours, cigarette after cigarette, or hunched over a sewing machine beside a dog. Some smile at you as you look in, some don't. But you really shouldn’t look in: you should keep your eyes on the ground or you may disappear into the occasional abyssal sewage tributary between the road and the pavement. These ‘5-foot ways’, the covered walkways in front of the shops, should be called ‘50 ways to die’. When they don't trip you up on account of the abrupt changes in level, or the busted paving, they force you out onto the street again, on account of the fact they're mainly used as motorcycle parking spots. I'm sure Raffles didn’t mean it to be this way when he planned them (one of the big differences between South East Asia and Australia is that the word ‘raffles’ is more likely to be preceded here by ‘Sir Stamford’ rather than ‘meat’.)

I say, there’s a Dickens Street (Lebuh Dickens) around the corner. I have a feeling I might be on fertile ground in my search for decent, chappish books although I might skip that particular street. There are plenty of places I’ve seen already with fancier names that could be described as dickensian, so when a lebuh advertises itself with the great author’s name, I consider myself warned, thanks. Anyway, surely my quarry - “The Malayan Trilogy” - must be close to hand. It’s got to be somewhere in Malaysia other than Kuala Lumpur. It's a book about Malaysia by a prominent British writer, the author of A Clockwork Orange, which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick, director of Dr. Stangelove and Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise, the biggest movie star of his day. By extension, it shouldn't be this obscure. The trilogy’s Wikipedia page, in the section on “Availability in Malaysia”, makes no mention of it being traceable anywhere other than KL. Or at least it didn’t until I edited it as soon as I found out that yes indeed, there are copies on sale here in Georgetown for the tenacious bibliophile.

Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown
Lebuh Armenian.

Don’t waste your time, as I did, in the anodyne ‘Popular’ bookshop in the KOMTAR Centre. Life and interesting books is and are not there. Go to the down-at-heel Chowrasta Bazaar which has several joyously, dingily crowded book stalls. You'd be hard put to find them unassisted: you’ll need a local guide in the form of one of the guys you'll find sitting outside their stalls at the junction of Jalan Penang and Jalan Chowrasta boredly dicking around on their phones and picking their noses. “Kedai buku?” They'll cheerfully direct you to the book part of the market, up a staircase of dubious integrity. Books stuffed on shelves and in free heaps, up, new and old, to the ceiling, and down to the floor again, bound up carefully in bunches of 5 or 6 in pink twine, sometimes just thrown on the floor. Two Indian stall owners hovered:
"He also wrote a book called 'No Mon No Hon'."
"I also have no mon and no hon."

You will never acquire mon, or a hon, in this market with this stuff, my man. But, celibate and impecunious, you will have the eternal gratitude of people like me who could happily spend all day here if I didn't have a wife and 2 chizzlers to return to and only 3 days to see Georgetown in. I hit paydirt in another stall, finally. The owner, an importunate type who never once left me alone, produced the Vintage edition of "The Malayan Trilogy" from inside a black plastic bag, claiming it was to prevent people idly soiling it with street-dirty fingertips. Funny, there were plenty of other brand-new specimens out on display for people to thumb up nicely without the protection of a bag. I suspected pusillanimity on the part of this vendor, kowtowing to putative censors in deference to the book's banned status. In any case, RM50 was too much wang. I can get the exact same edition in Dymock's in Brisbane for less.

The next vendor, ballsier by far and with a shrewd, academic mien, had it out on the shelf, the brazen bastard, but it was still RM35. In the time it took me to respire in contemplation it was RM30. Second-hand but looking good, that was by far the best price I'd get all holiday. I don't know now why I was so fussy. It's true what Daniel Gilbert says in Stumbling on Happiness: we are terrible at knowing what makes us happy, we really haven't got a clue. I had to leave, but I knew at least that this was a reading town. I left with a dual-language book on Chinese Culture, and a Murakami. 1Q84 has made me want to read more of his, maybe without the little people this time, and maybe not so big.

Durian coffee, every day at four by the pool, with a book: that way happiness lies. That much I do know. We oscillated like a pendulum between eating fancy western (because of the kids) and eating local. Yesterday was a good example: after a muggy rectilinear traipse along Jalan Cintra whose one-time camera shops once doubled as safe houses for Japanese spies, we emerged finally onto Jalan Campbell, and allowed ourselves the luxury of lunch in Campbell House. To judge by the vintage black and white photos on the walls of this upscale Italian eatery of chaps and chapettes in suits and ties, either global warming has really changed Penang in a short amount of time and they had to dress like that to keep out the cold, or they were genuine martyrs to the suit, hat, and tie combination, marching out each day in their battle dress to face the humidity. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that.

And so the pendulum swung from a Western lunch to an Eastern dinner, via a durian coffee of course. The Chinese say 人山人海 (ren shan ren hai) to mean crowded, full of people. The Malaysians directly translate it into English and say "People mountain, people sea", a bit like how we get "Long time no see" from 好久不见, a word-for-word translation. Acting on a tip from Chef (from Fox Hill resort, Langkawi) we got a taxi to Kapitan restaurant, fearing Little India's mountains and waves of people. In the event it was fine, a molehill rather than a mountain (unlike the time we went to Little India in Singapore on a Sunday night on a previous trip). All these Little Indias and I still haven't been to the big one. But for the time being, the Mountain had come to Mohammed in Georgetown, Penang. Time to eat.

(This is part 4 of the diary. In part 3 we got a ferry from Langkawi to Kuala Kedah, a taxi to Penang...and so began a most fascinating three days in Georgetown, a sweaty mix of English colonial, Chinese and Indian. We were staying in a converted longhouse in the famous Noordin St.)

Temple at Lebuh ChuliaTemple on Lebuh Chulia, Little India