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Vestiges of Britain in Penang

6 minute read. Note: We are currently in Vietnam, even though this post is about the end of Penang. //

I am here on the balcony at the start of our last week in Penang. My cup of tea is light and milky in a Tesco mug that may break at any time. The handle sort of crackles when I pick it up and my morning cup of tea carries a new risk level that adds to the experience in the same way skydiving is more exciting when one person may not have a chute. My arms are a medium tan from hours riding in the sun with SPF 50; my skin could be much darker, but is far away from the pinkish translucence that Europe always caused.

[Caption: The view from our balcony at sunrise; the mountains are mainland Malaysia]

Looking out across the neighbourhoods and ocean and city stretched out below me, I feel happy and calm. Penang has been an easy adventure, filled with nice things and few surprises. The roads are smooth, traffic is moderate, the shopping malls are clean and cold with mostly the same brands as anywhere else in the world. Temples, churches and mosques are spread through the island in a demonstration of humanity’s willingness to accept one another when there are no resources at stake. The big shops are British (Marks and Sparks, Tesco, Debenhams), the road signs and rules are the same as London, and English is endemic.

Penang is the wealthiest state in Malaysia and is split between the mainland and Penang Island. A British man, Francis Light, leased the island from the Sultan of Kedah (the neighbouring state) in 1786 in exchange for British military support against the Thai invaders. However, he was basically a random man with no authority whatsoever, and was rebuffed by the British when he told them of the deal he had struck on their behalf. The military aid did not appear, and the Sultan launched an attack to re-take Penang; this is when the British East India Company got involved and ‘secured’ Penang against its landlord. The British government then took over completely in 1800 and increased the annual rent to the Sultan – but kept the land. (To this day, Penang still pays a peppercorn rent to Kedah although the British are long gone.)

Penang was the trading hub between Europe and Asia and the capital of the Straits Settlements for only thirty years before it was overtaken by Singapore. However, it remained a key port and became a full British colony in 1857. The Brits brought in many Chinese and Indian workers and a fusion of Straits Chinese-Tamil-Malay cultures was born. A new culture known as Peranakan was born, with Peranakan people being those descended from Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago and intermarried; it is most evident on menus and Nyonya cuisine is like a Chinese interpretation of the spices, flavours, ingredients and cooking methods from all across the region.

[Caption: The hub of the Peranakan community is at the Clan Jetties in Georgetown, Penang, where each Straits Chinese clan has a small village on their own jetty. Tourists are welcome, though I imagine it must get tiresome to step out of the shower and see five people peering in with cameras...]

The British left Penang in the middle of the night in 1941 without deploying troops to defend residents against the invading Japanese. (According to Wikipedia, “the moral collapse of British rule in Southeast Asia came not at Singapore, but at Penang”.) The Japanese began a ‘cleansing’ after the British surrended in 1942, and any resident considered to be Chinese by the Japanese soldiers was executed on the spot; the 16-day massacre resulted in the deaths of 70,000 people. Needless to say, sentiment towards the British rapidly soured and Great Britain granted Penang (as part of the Federation of Malaysia) independence in 1957, and it joined the newly formed Malaysia in 1963. Surprisingly, the winners did not write the history books here and people are actively pro-British and happy to members of the Commonwealth. One taxi driver told us he visited the UK and felt no culture shock whatsoever, and feels that this grants his children a leg up when it comes to making their fortunes. He is absolutely right that the mentality of Penang often feels quite British.

There is a profound love of animals, as in Britain, though this may be a chicken-and-egg scenario. Almost every excursion we’ve ventured on in the past two months has included the sighting of a cat or dog, and usually many of both but probably more cats. Yes, there is plenty of mange to go around. But no animals appear to be starving: homes and businesses seem to embrace their local street animal community with packets of Friskies and plenty of restaurant scraps. Cats in particular are not timid, and are quite happy to sleep in locations inconvenient to pedestrians. Several people told us, “Malays love cats!”

[Caption: A mosaic of Malaysian kitty cats. Click for full size images to see the full cuteness.]

Health and safety are also twin passions. Going one step further than perhaps even the British, Malaysian radio is intent on public safety announcements. In addition to the standard advisements, there are radio spots about very specific societal issues: last week I heard one about the Golden Rule and if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all, but specifically targeted towards friends visiting other friends’ terminally ill relatives. ‘Don’t say, “Oh, they look sick and are going to die soon” – say nothing at all.’ Another one was about staying within one’s lane whilst driving: ‘If your wheels cross over the lines, you are recklessly endangering yourself and others.’ Another was about how to stay relaxed during the day, and what to do if feeling stressed. And of course the classics about littering, jaywalking and not having one’s nails painted in order to vote in the General Election.

There is strict enforcement of rules, regardless of their relevance. For example, one day we needed to leave our key when we headed out for lunch, as the management had misplaced the master key for the cleaners. We asked the security guard to hold it until the manager came down to collect it (likely twenty to thirty minutes) and it was a very simple answer: Cannot.

“Can!” we said, holding out the key.

“Cannot,” he replied, and backed away from these rule-breaking mischief-makers.

What is not British at all are the thunderstorms. These are purely tropical. Every night there is lightning, whether or not there is a storm, and spidery bolts constantly smite the horizon, which for us is mainland Malaysia. When there is a storm, the winds starts to rise and the lightning bolts start advancing. When the rain hits it is like a physical blow, a boxing match against a waterfall. The streets instantly fill with water and the metre-deep open gutters next to the roads swell to the brim. When it is a dry sunny day I find it hard to imagine these egregiously deep gutters being necessary, and then it rains and I’m re-convinced.

[Caption: Approaching storm as viewed from our balcony]

The rain pummels down and the wind tears pieces off everything it likes, and the thunderclaps attempt to burst everyone’s eardrums. At a party to celebrate Harry and Meghan’s wedding, the thunder was so overwhelming that guests were shouting into each other’s ears to continue their conversations; my ice cubes clinked against the glass when one particularly close bolt hit. Two weeks ago, though, was the loudest: It was 5am, and V and I semi-woke, both filled with a deep sense of unease. V had had a dream that there was an enormous white target painted on the ground, and that something big was coming to blast it. As we tried to fall back asleep, we were slammed into the mattress by a building-shaking BANG as the whole apartment lit up. We heard shattering glass and some metallic thuds outside; we decided against going out onto the balcony to investigate what was clearly the start of WW3.

The next morning we asked the security guard about it, and learned that our building had been struck by lightning. Standing by the pool and looking up, we could see a large corner of masonry that was missing – it had fallen 41 storeys to crash into the car park, nearby roofs and pool decking, knocking a hole clean through the wooding slats and leading rubble everywhere. Not very British.

Penang also deviates from the UK methodology by being friendly and open, with generosity towards strangers (even tourists like ourselves), and by regularly serving up spicy food. (Not Indian spicy, but still hot.) And focussing perhaps too much on sweet-spicy prawn paste, which is stirred into every plate of food – including desserts. (Heko, I’m looking at you…) The desserts in particular seem reluctant to leave behind the savoury flavours of the main, with sweet corn and beans being predominant in the shaved ice everyone orders. Perhaps the compensation is in the drinks: sweet creamy carrot juice (note: carrots + condensed milk = YES), teh tarik (strong CTC tea with condensed milk), and gallons of Milo (the sugary malted chocolate drink adored by Aussies and always drunk in a plastic bag).

[Caption: The correct and incorrect ways to drink Milo]

Malaysians have also distanced themselves from the British by not killing every animal larger than a hedgehog. There are large families of monkeys that appear and vanish in the lush vegetation, with white and black faces and bright orange babies. We were cautioned about carrying plastic bags, because if a monkey sees you – well, there goes your plastic bag, and likely your dignity to boot. There are also lithe monitor lizards that patrol the streets and leaf litter, including one the length of a car who calmly tested each section of a fence guarding chickens and vegetables below the 5th storey swimming pool. It sauntered around the entire perimeter, nosing the wire mesh every metre or so and bouncing on it with its long claws. The stable where I rode had several smaller monitors, but they were still large enough to scare the bejeezus out of Scott as we trotted by; he escaped, leaving me sprawled in the sand for the first time in 16 years (in prime lizard-hunting territory, I might add).

[Caption: The enormous monitor lizard patrolling our car park and testing the neighbour's fence. This photo is from the 5th floor, and the white arrow gives some idea of its size!]

Now we are off to Vietnam, where we will be working our way down from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, via a wedding and the beaches of Hoi An. This will be the first non-British ex-colonial country we’ve been to for a while – let’s see how many Tescos, public safety announcements and lengthy lizards are there.


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