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.