“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;
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.