Just doing my bit to spruik the George Town Festival. In 2010, the festival will celebrate the city’s 2nd year as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The website itself is rather, er, in process, but the slightly rough edges are another thing to love about it, in my book. From the programme, I’ve gleaned a couple of movies that I’ve yet to see: The Red Kebaya (2006; Malaysian period film? I’m sold) and The Blue Mansion (2009; mixed reviews with ‘quirky’ as a descriptor, which always makes me hesitate).
I love Penang. Even in my angstful teen days of the 1980s when I was lamenting the social stigma of coming from an uncool country such as Malaysia, I still loved Penang. I’ve only been back there as an adult once, over Xmas/NY 2000. So, my childhood/teen memories are the mainstay of my affection for the place. Wading through theory and criticism about diaspora, identities, ethnicity, homelands, memory and nostalgia as I do in my everyday work, I usually overthink everything to do with my consideration of Malaysia (specifically Penang and Alor Setar, the towns I actually spent time in as a child). For the sake of this entry, and because I don’t want to add to half-arsed bloggy fictocrit that clogs the interwebs, I’ll be tending more towards stream-of-consciousness than crafted prose. Sadly/strangely enough, even my childhood memories of returning to Malaysia are based on perhaps one or two trips at the most.
As with many Malaysian emigrees, the heart of my memory and love of the place is grounded in food and culinary custom. When we arrived in Singapore, on our way to Malaysia, we’d be staying at a Holiday Inn type of hotel; there’d be one room for my parents and another for us three kids. The first evening, an elder uncle always came to visit us bearing a bounty of snacks we couldn’t get in Australia (this was 1980s-ish Brisbane I’m talking about): bakkwa, rambutans, longans, durian cake, and/or banana-leaf-wrapped parcels of nasi lemak. Once we hit Penang, we’re immediately on the rounds of eating out that define our Malaysian visits (and continue to define my mother’s visits ‘home’ these days). My favourite streetfoods – aside from the slick, smoky plates of char kway teow that inhabit many a dream – are ban chang kueh (closed crispy pancake with a filling of sweet crushed peanuts and butter/oil) and freshly made yu char kway (deep-fried dough sticks). The yu char kway are often eaten dipped in kopi oh (Malaysian coffee, served black), leaving radiant ripples of oil across the fragrant jet-black surface. When I was younger, I never drank kopi black; I loved it with heaps of milk (and it was always sweet). Now, I’d love nothing more than to dip those fresh dough-sticks in a mug of kopi oh. I do miss good Malaysian coffee. It’s something I hanker for if I haven’t had it for a while, but I couldn’t have it every day (the amount of sugar would put me in a coma, for starters…).
Food aside, other things that comprise my Malaysian memories?
Horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach, the heady combination of tinkling Cantopop and frigid airconditioning at shopping centres, thin stray dogs, restaurant renditions of “Tom Dooley” by the resident entertainer, the taxi aroma of baked upholstery and exhaust fumes, Komtar on fire, the madness of mixed traffic and the Asian ‘families on a motorcycle’ thang…
Considering the memories are dependent on one or two trips, that’s not so bad. I must admit, though, that I never think to go to Malaysia for a ‘holiday’. In my mind, visiting Malaysia is about visiting family more than anything else. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s not my first preference for a getaway holiday, which is more of the quiet, trundling-around-the-countryside kind of trip.