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.

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