On the Road in Penang

“To be honest, I don’t see what’s the big deal with this tiny island. Every holiday, tourists would flock in from all corners of the world as though it has so much to offer. Many of these attractions are deliberately overpriced – the museums, the parks, the tours… tak ada apanya sebenarnya. Tak lah sehebat mana pun. If the attraction is not making money, it will close indefinitely. Nak kata murah pun, ah, tanyalah orang yang duduk kat sini. Rumah mahal, makanan pun tak lah murah sangat. Truth is, when the food bloggers and food critics touted Penang as having the best street food lah, food paradise lah, how many of them are halal sebenarnya? No doubt, I’m grateful for the progress this city is making. It took us a long time, but now kita dah boleh lihat improvement. Still, many of us are so resistant to progress. Stubbornly refusing to adapt to the necessary changes. Reflects our people’s mindset, kan?

Taxi drivers have a way of seeing and saying things as they are. His thoughts about his homeland mirror that of mine. Penang is so redolent of everything that is the city I call home. And his lament isn’t anything new. Being tourists, we tend to put on a pair of rose-tinted glasses to see a city bathed in romantic light. But to be a citizen, a dweller, truly knowing the city inside and out like a lover, it takes a certain kind of patience; the willingness to embrace both the good and bad, the skyscrapers and ruins.

“The roads are still the same as it was 30 years ago when I was here for a work trip. The road leading up to to Batu Ferringhi is still narrow and winding. I’ve driven past the shophouses at Georgetown. Semua masih sama eh, macam tak ada perubahan,” quipped dad.

I caught the first glimpse of Penang from the passenger seat. I thought about its deserving recognition as a world heritage site. The streets and the shophouses could certainly do with a bit of repainting. And from its antiquated facade, it seems like the city is not in much of a hurry to decolonize its architectural landscapes. The realisation of how our cities are an outward manifestation of the people’s beliefs sinks in slowly. Perhaps I am only here to open my eyes in order to return with a luggage full of gratitude and patience; the kind a lover tries to embrace.

a trishaw rider pedals on

in the languid sun

with one hand while

licking melted ice-cream in

the other, casually looking on

the throngs of tourists waiting

in line for a picture with a mural

by a Lithuanian artist;

now commodified

on bags, mugs & fridge magnets.

a kaleidoscope of cultures

painting the town with nostalgia,

a cosmopolitan colour, a historical

charm through the eyes of curious

visitors. vestiges of a colonial heritage

permeate your names;

Armenian Street and Chulia,

City Hall, the Esplanade.

it lives on in peeling, rustic walls

of watermarked Chinese shophouses

in muted hues, interspersed

with modern cafés at every lebuh.

temples, churches & mosques

conglomerate on harmony street.

quaint & unpretentious shopfronts

like stories unread, left behind

in the seventies, cradle your every corner.

every nook & cranny soaked with

memories of your past. your road uphill

remains unchanged; narrow and winding,

unaltered for years. once a free port,

part of the straits, now preserved;

a world heritage. a stall owner

wipes his sweat after serving three

hot bowls of assam laksa,

a tour guide welcomes passersby

in a language so familiar.

a lone bookshop hides by the sidelines

like a spectator. an old man writes poems

on scraps of papers every night. a cab driver talks

of home. we nod and laugh as he does.

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