A Heart for Penang
On the last trip we were sucked into a few cities with an atmosphere and pace of life that none of us cared to escape from. Off the top of my head, Hanoi and Changmai are the first to come to mind–places we had planned to stay for a few days, but ended up spending over a week in. On this trip, mostly due to time constraints and our speed of travel, we have not yet had anywhere that made us say, “let’s stay here another day, blast whatever comes after.” Sure, we’ve had to add on more days to a city, but that’s only ever been due to Dad’s work (Athens), getting electronics fixed (Berlin), and failed attempts to exit (Bangkok). Thus, that Penang picked up a few days on account of its own good qualities rather than extenuating circumstances says something about it.
Penang is an island off the coast of the Malay peninsula with a long colonial history. Suffice it to say that, like so many parts of Asia, Africa, and the New World, its peoples fell prey to English colonialism and legal chicanery and found themselves a part of England’s ever growing empire. As the English were so wont to do, they tore open the local market and made the island a free trade zone, attracting merchants of all ilks and disturbing the historically Malay dominant demographic. The population remains rather different from the rest of Malaysia, with those of Chinese and Indian descents much more highly represented. This directly translates into a rather multicultural island with large ethnic centers. The diversity alone does not make Penang stand out, but when you combine it with the abundance of street food on every corner, the result is a gustatory playground. This street food culture was actually all we knew about Penang when coming in, partially because my dad’s friend who we would be visiting, Bee, keeps up one of the Internet’s most popular cooking blogs–which started with Penang street food.
Our first night in Penang was short due to how late our plane arrived, but my immediate perception was that English was much more prevalent here than anywhere else in Asia that we’d visited. The airport worker, taxi stand worker, taxi driver, and apartment host all spoke pretty decent English. At the late night hawker market we stopped by for dinner, the people working the stands all had good enough English to explain their dishes. After one night immersed in English speakers, I quickly realized just how much more rewarding and enjoyable travel can be when communication with locals remains on the table. Before we had spent 2 hours in Penang, we already had multiple local perspectives of the island’s political, cultural, and social situation and exactly-as-ordered fried rice to top it off. As I lay in bed that night, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a difficult stop to rival.
The next morning we awoke early to meet Bee and her family in time for breakfast at one of the larger hawker markets. She was a coworker of my Dad’s back when he worked at Myspace, though she currently splits her time between Irvine and Penang with her family. They spend their summers in Penang as both she and her husband are originally from Malaysia, and they both feel it is important for their son to have a connection and understanding of their home country. The market, from what I could tell, was made up of mostly Chinese stalls. Bee showed us around and found a stall for each of us based on our preferences. Benefitting once more from lingua franca privilege, I was able to order my meatless noodles, something I’m otherwise not able to consistently pull off. On top of ordering correctly, my medium portion of noodles came out to be $1.25. I really cannot begin to explain the feelings of joy and liberation when you buy a cooked meal for that price. Certainly, I should be feeling guilty that these stall owners are living off of so little, but it really is difficult not to think, “in your face, Oslo $15 entrees!” Bee also picked up a spread of local desserts and durian for us to try, though I could not indulge too much because my morning stomach wouldn’t hold much more than my noodles. After breakfast, the plan was to head back to their condo (they call high-rise apartments condos in Penang), but we were stopped short when they returned to their car to find it clamped. Luckily, the unclamping fee is only ~$15 in Malaysia, but we still had to sit around for a half hour as the parking patrol made his way back to us through the dense traffic. After dropping by the condo, Bee took the four of us on a little tour around the island. While the island is rather small, 30km x 10km, travelling around it can still take quite a long time due to narrow roads and traffic. Bee drove us around the coast for awhile, showing us the expat enclaves and communities as well as local fishermen ports and bays. From what we saw, the coast of the island has by far the most clearly demarcated communities. As we drove by I couldn’t help but think, “this is the new colonialism.” Wealthy outsiders come in and take what they want from the place–cheap living, beautiful scenery–and they don’t pay much mind to their impact on the society they’re joining–who gets displaced, where the island’s created value ends up. Seeing the gated communities, it’s not a far cry to compare them to the large, colonial estates still standing in the central city.
Following our tour, Bee took us to a more Malay hawker market for lunch. As with breakfast, the food was restaurant quality, if not better, despite costing no more than $2. This time for dessert, Bee drove us to a banana pancake stall on the side of a busy street. The man who owns the stall has been making his pancakes there for over 40 years, which explains his inhumanly precise and deft movements while practicing his craft. Bee then concluded our tour of the island with a quick drive through historic Georgetown, the main city on Penang. The entire city of Georgetown, in fact, is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She dropped us off near the seemingly inaptly-named Armenian Street (I saw no evidence of anything Armenian along the entire street, though I later learned that the street got its name from housing a large Armenian church that was demolished over 80 years ago), which is the epicenter of the UNESCO zone. We said our goodbyes and thanked her for the awesome experience. What better way to experience the island of gustatory delights than with its most renowned food blogger?
Before entering Armenian street, I had it in my mind that Penang was off the backpackers’ trail. Looking around the corner we got dropped off at, I have no idea how that assumption was allowed to flourish up until that point. Each passerby was some sort of foreigner, and though it was not crowded, it was by no means empty. Bee informed us there was wildly popular street art, but it seemed a bit odd that so many people would come here to see it. Until we started to stumble upon it, that is. I cannot do the creativity of these pieces justice in words, so I’ll just leave it to my dad to provide some images so you can see why it is that people would be attracted to these parts. At the time of writing, I’m unsure as to how much the pictures show, but the buildings the art is located on are also rather fascinating. They are indicative of the uniquely colonial and multicultural history that was the cause for the UNESCO-ification in the first place.
After visiting the Armenian Street information center, we found that the annual Penang Heritage Days were starting the next day. With the prospect of entire streets full of cultural food stalls, cultural centers stocked with cooking classes, and overall forecast of dense crowds and merriment, Kieran was immediately turned off. The rest of us were intrigued, though, so we resolved to come back the next night We then wandered about Armenian Street and some alleys in the downtown, looking for more of the street art previously mentioned. The street art, as is evident from the pictures, is not your usual conglomeration of tags, graffiti and a few murals, but rather almost entirely murals. From what we could learn, they were mostly done by the same 3 artists as part of a community effort to reinvigorate the cultural downtown. And telling by the large number of people walking through streets and alleys, street art map in hand, the attempt was a success. At the end of Armenian street there lies a harbor of sorts. The docks in this harbor are unlike any others you’ll see, because over time they became the permanent residences of different ethnic groups. I think there are 5 such boardwalks that have continuously been extended to incorporate new members to the little communities that they house. All but one of the boardwalks are closed off to the public to maintain people’s privacy, and the one that is open has become almost entirely tourist trap, though there are still a good amount of people who live on it.
Though it was not too far of a walk back to our Times Square apartment, we were all fatigued and opted to take tuktuks back. Sadly, the tuktuks were all pushed by bicycle manpower. I guess not being fully cognizant of what that meant, we split up and went with two eager old men. Though the ride was not far, the amount of effort the poor men had to put in looked like it would break them. Where their shirts opened on their chests, hard lines of bone and sternum could easily be seen. And there we are, getting pushed around through traffic largely for the sake of getting a tuktuk ride. I really can not convey enough how grossly colonial it all felt. When we got to the hotel we made sure to give them both 50% tips and all agreed never to do that again.
The next day we spent a good amount of time exploring the area near us. We found that Georgetown is a much more compact city than we assumed, as places that took 15 minutes to get to by car only took about twice that long by foot. Before too long, most everyone wanted a break from the heat, so everyone but me headed back to the apartment. I instead headed to the Hin Bus Depot Art Center, a contemporary art space that Bee had recommended I go to. The Depot was truly remarkable, chock full of massive murals by all the same artists that help make Armenian Street what it is today. As the name would suggest, the space itself is an old, converted bus depot that now has its permanent mural installations as well as a featured artist for each month. I was in heaven.
I met back up with the family before too long, and thanks to the oppressive heat we squalored most of our afternoon by hiding out in our air conditioned apartment. Though slow in leaving, we still managed to make it out of the house in time to enjoy many of the festivities. Along the walk to Armenian street, we came across a restaurant entirely dedicated to mochi. It was a surprisingly hip little place to find on a street with otherwise not much else besides moped mechanics. Always one for mochi, I pushed for us to go in. Though the cookies and cream wasn’t up to par, the rest were really fantastic. Please please please give them your business if you find yourself in Penang. I really am only mentioning this here because it had the feel of the ever-fleeting, very unique Berkeley restaurants and shops that disappear after one semester. Anyway, once we arrived at Armenian Street, the epicenter of Heritage Days, Asher and I nabbed shaved ice balls with your usual concentrated sweeteners. The Doop fell head over heels for the rose flavor, so much so that she searched for it every successive night in Malaysia. Exploring stalls and stations, we all learned how to make little balls of rice flour dough, boil them for a bit, and put them in sugar soup (apparently this is a traditional Chinese-Penang desert). Struggling through crowds to view the hundreds of carts and stalls selling the many different traditional and fusion foods that make Penang’s cuisine so unique, we each picked out diverse dinners for ourselves. Though my food tasted amazing, the girl who sold it to me drastically underplayed how spicy it was, leaving me to fight off an increasingly numb mouth. We wandered around a bit more, watching and participating in some more of the 20+ cooking stations they had scattered about. At the end of the night, it was very evident how good of a job the coordinators did in putting on the event. Certainly, aspects of Penang’s culture were exaggerated and contrived, but almost every station and stall was managed by young locals that seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves–like they were sharing something important to them. It really came across as about as sincere of a festival as you can put on at that scale.
Our 4th day was slated to be our departure day, but nobody really cared to leave this enrapturing little island. With the freedom of not having our departure bounded by flight dates, we were all for staying another day. As with the previous day, we spent a fair portion of it hanging out around Armenian Street, enjoying the Heritage Days Festival. On this day we also opted to explore the part of the festival that stretched into Little India. Along the thoroughfare I came across arguably the best veggie samosas I’ve ever had. For a quarter. A quarter! They really were so good they put the rest of my Penang meals to shame. We closed off the night with a viewing of the Heritage Days Film Festival set. The films were all short films, ~7 minutes in length with a focus of the food of Penang. Though the caliber of filmmaking was not the highest, the shorts gave some good insight into what it is to live in such a heavily multicultural society.
On the fifth day, with the Heritage Day Festival coming to a close, we left Penang on a bus, crossing over the bridge to the mainland and heading south far down the Malay Peninsula. After just 3 full days in Penang, I could feel that a part of me was being left there. On the first trip, Southeast Asia stood out as my favorite place in the world. For a moment our visit to Penang gave me that feeling of being an eleven-year-old deeply enamored once again. To be given the chance of briefly reliving the first trip, I really am grateful to Penang, and it is one of the first places that when I think back on, I feel nothing but positives. Thank you Penang, and thank you Bee for helping us get to the heart of it.