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

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