Sunday, April 26, 2009

1Malaysia Street @ Penang Old Town

Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (formerly Pitt Street) in George Town is A Street Named Harmony. And not without merit. It is one fascinating street and has all the ingredients to be the real One Malaysia Street. The street holds a special memory for Mama and Papa. More than a decade ago, both of them visited an old jewellery shop located here to choose the engagement ring for Mama. Papa was thoroughly bought over when Mama cajoled him that “Cikgu Z, toke mah di Pasir Putih, soho dok ghoyak kat semuo oghe, di Habib Jewels ada belana cicing, gele, ghata hok molek-molek”. And as serendipity would have it, on the day they spent hours choosing just that one ring, the famous couple from Pasir Putih were there at the shop ordering this and that to replenish their rapidly depleting supplies.

Along this multicultural street, centenarian and meticulously-preserved houses of worship comingle harmoniously. The street intersects with Lebuh Light (or Light Street) in the north and connects to Lebuh Cannon in the south which in turn intersects with Lebuh Acheh. At the top of the street, near the Court Buildings, is the whitewashed St George’s Church with its Doric columns and conical steeple. A rotunda was subsequently erected next to the church to commemorate the centenary of the founding of Penang. The exterior of the church looks like a replica of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, no?

As one moves further down the street, the next couple of temples one lays eyes on are the oldest Chinese and Hindu temples in Penang namely the Kuan Yin Temple, erected by the Hokkien and Cantonese immigrants from Southern China, and the Mahamariamman Temple, which is on the other side of the street. The grand procession during the annual Thaipusam Festival in Penang starts from here.

The next arresting landmark in Harmony Street is the flamboyant mosque with copper domes, for which the street is named. Masjid Kapitan Keling is one of the earliest mosques built in Penang and named after the leader of the Tamil Muslims community (aka Chulia). Scallopped archways embellish the interior of the mosque. Papa performed his Friday prayer here recently but couldn’t recall whether the sermon was delivered in Tamil. Hmmm ...

As one approaches the end of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, one stumbles upon two other Chinese temples located on each side of Lebuh Cannon; the Yap Kongsi temple and the Khoo Kongsi temple, which is the most opulent of the lot. The Street of Harmony is bookended by the Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh. The mosque, founded by a well-heeled Achehnese prince of Arab descent, has a charming octagonal minaret that tapers at the top, and was a centre of Hajj sea-travel during the 19th century serving Muslims from North Sumatera, Pattani and the Malay States of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. True to form, the Arab enclave in the vicinity of the mosque was formerly known as the Second Jeddah. The first Malay novel set in Malaya, Iakah Salmah, by Ahmad Rashid Talu, was born here circa the late 1920s. More on this HERE.

Parallel to Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling are two other enticing streets; Love Lane on the west and Lebuh Pantai (or Beach Street) on the east. Beach Street was the busiest street in Penang at the turn of the 19th century. A medley of handsome colonial buildings can be found here, as well as a slew of ongoing restoration work. Love Lane has rows of pre-war shophouses with butterfly-shaped air vents above the side windows on the ground floor. Some of these have been converted into cosy, delightful and hugely popular guesthouses. We were hard pressed to find a vacant room or two.

Psst, Penang was also a favourite pak tou haunt for my parents. The garden at Mutiara Hotel in Teluk Bahang (now closed) where long-legged pink flamingoes could be seen prancing around, and the poolside of Rasa Sayang in Batu Feringhi (now a superluxe resort) provided delectable ambience for them to engage in silly and idle chat. And whispered carelessly about “janji bara cinta”. Before both of them became an item, Papa also used to spend countless hours at the British Council Library in Green Hall (now closed), devouring the latest The Spectator, ILN, Country Homes and Interiors, Vanity Fair, Tatler etc before proceeding for a bowl or two of Laksa Wawasan (renamed Zaitun Famous Laksa) near The Esplanade. Penang sustains the impossibly romantic tag till these days, as witnessed by all of us one fine afternoon in the late 2007. This is what Papa previously regaled to Kak Teh, the blogger/writer famous for her lunak-merdu voice and being blissfully married to an ideal husband:

In Penang now. Bought GUIT at MPH Gurney Plaza. Couldn't find it initially. Checked with the Customer Service Manager. He's so on the beat .. he typed Growing up in Trengganu, and yes they have a few copies ... on the Hot & New shelf. Immediately after the purchase, I went to Kopitiam Cheong Ho (now closed) downstairs while the other family members loitered around the shopping and entertainment complex. Immersed myself in GUIT totally. Before I could finish my cup of Kopi Susu, a few tears were shed. Didn't want to create a scene, and so I left the cafe, and we then proceeded to Teluk Bahang. Found a picnic spot, and flipped pages after pages of GUIT. Oh Mrs. AG, it is impossibly romantic ... just like Penang.

At the Kopitiam, when I lifted my teary gaze away from the printed word to pause and reflect, I realized there’s a CCTV staring starkly at me. Instinctively, I thought “Oh No .. I’ve been captured at my most fragile moment” and left the place almost immediately to avoid further embarrassment. I then continued my foray into GUiT in a more agreeable surrounding, lying on a white sandy beach in Penang, and pausing after each segment of GUiT to tuck into the nasi bungkus bought from the Norman Nasi Melayu stall near the old Sheraton Penang or …to marvel at the sweetness and light spectacles unfolding infront of us involving a lovey dovey warga emas Malay couple who came all the way from Taiping. At one moment, we saw the lady scooped a handful of sand from the sea bottom, and loofah the bare back of her husband for the longest time. And the next moment, we saw her suap the husband slices of exotic fruits dipped in kuah rojak. Imagine all the frolics if she were to suap him lompat tikam ...

Last but not least, one of Penang myriad distractions is of course the majestic Eastern & Oriental Hotel, fondly known as the Grand Dame of Penang. The buffet lunch at Sarkies Corner is so agreeable. The lure of endless punnets of strawberries is enough to make me sits pretty on the high chair and behaves like a perfect gentleboy. My siblings adore the colourful marsh mellow dipped in fresh and thick hot chocolate. Suffice to say, the grilled seafood section is much frequented by my parents that it is sinful to talk about it.



Kak Teh said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane and especially Love Lane. Used to take that route back to the bus terminal. Light Street, oh Light Street - spent many hours under the big tree reading mails with London postmark.

and you bought GUiT again?

GUiKP said...

So, you must have walked past the majestic St. Xavier's Institution many many times. Love to read your “perasaan berbunga-bunga” confession while reading “Warkah London” at that café under the tree in Penang, just outside the courthouse. Must be Ho Peng Café in Light Street? Will go and look for it one of these days, IF it is still around.

Kak Teh said...

GUiKP, Ho Peng's glamorous name was Cafe De Paris!! yes, i just love those days in Penang. Alone, yes not alone - if you get my drift?

Kak Teh said...

i mean, alone, yet not alone.

GUiKP said...

Oh la la. Hundreds of letters from the young (and restless?) AG. What a privilege!