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.