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.