a tale of 2 cities (Part II)

You could say Singapore bears many resemblances to Penang.

Both islands were important pieces of the British empire's economy and both cities today wear their colonial past without any complicated postcolonial unease. In the case of Penang, many of the colonial structures remain government offices. This used to be also the case in Singapore, but we have succumbed to their more lucrative use as hotels, restaurants and - or the simplistic re-use of monuments as museums. Theirs line their esplanade. Many of ours, too, used to line our esplanade - but not since our esplanade has been redrawn post reclamation.

In a region where the Chinese and Indian are not native, both cities' population are represented disproportionately by these 2 ethnicities. The "fusion" shophouse architecture of both cities bears the complicity of this migrant population with the colonisers. But of course, being migrants, both populations also found the need to stake out their respective enclaves. The Chinese heritage in Penang is visible in the number of kong sis - clan complexes anchored usually by a temple/ancestral hall and surrounded by self-contained courtyards with homes and a school.

J, Ma Y and I spent Day 1 walking from our hotel by the Esplanade (we stayed at the E&O, sister of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Both were built by the Armenian Sarkies brothers and the second home for those British colonial types in the tropics. Hey, the E&O is even located on Farquhar St, named after the 1st British resident of Singapore) and through the more historic bits of Penang, cutting through the little lanes of Chinatown (including 1 Love Lane, ooh) and Little India.

We stopped at a Hainan Temple (well, in honour of Pa Y whom we have excluded from this little getaway, and whose ancestors are from that southern Chinese island). Our intended destination was the Khoo Kongsi, probably one of the most elaborate and well-preserved of such clan complexes (photo right).

On our way back, we walked through Lebuh Chulia (there is also a Chulia St in Singapore), passed by an Odeon cinema (The Rex, Odeon and Cathay were names of nicklelodeon cinemas in Penang and Singapore), countless Taoist and Hindu temples and Catholic/Anglican/Methodist churches which sit next to each other, and shops specialising in engine parts, tools, framemaking, gold jewellery... The temples and churches may still stand side by side in Singapore, protected and kept alive by their respective congregations, but over the last 30-40 years, these trades and cinemas have given way to fancier offices and mulitiplexes.

Last but not least, food! No 2 populations love their food as much as Singaporeans and Penangnites, especially street or hawker food. And as a testimony of how much J, Ma Y and I enjoyed our food and the manner and environment in which the food was consumed, here are the only 2 photos we have of the food...because we did not have the time, space or interest to bring out the camera!

In the 2 lunches and 2 dinners we ate in Penang, we had a grand total of:
4 bowls of fishball/kway teow soup
2 bowls of curry mee
2 bowls of penang laksa
2 plates of fried kway teow
1 plate of penang fried carrot cake (with bean sprouts)
2 plates of oyster omelette
1 bowl of mee suah gor
2 plates of fried hor fun & yee mee
1 plate of Indian Rojak (or "cuncur udang?")
4 popiah
2 portions of penang otak
1 plate of sotong kangkong
1 plate of penang chee chong fun
1 plate of penang rojak
10 sticks of chicken satay
2 BBQ chicken wings (but our favourite Toa Payoh wings are still the best in the world!)
5 ikan panggang covered in sambal
5 bowls of dessert, including the lovely penang chendol

But of course, where we meet each other, there we mark our departures.

I wonder why when Sun Yat Sen came to the Nanyang to raise funds from his Chinese compatriots, he resided in this house in Singapore and another in Penang, but chose to make the latter his base. Rumour has it he fell out with the Chinese businessmen in Singapore.

I wonder why the "Rockerfeller of the East" then, Mr Cheong Fatt Sze would build a house in Singapore (supposedly at Philip St, but I don't know whether it still remains) and a mansion in Penang, but chose to make the latter the home of his favourite mistress and the most elaborate of all his mansions. Could he have knowm that in the former his mansion would not have survived, but in the latter city, a group of conservationists, independent of the government, would lovingly restore its indigo walls?

How did one city convince the children of its hawker chefs to inherit the delicious art and smoky business of a fried kway teow push cart - while the other city failed to even convince the hawker chefs themselves to pass anything on?

How did one city (sans lane markings on its road) avoid the angry impatient horn blasts from cars despite its carefree scooters and amusement-park driving style - while the other with its wide roads and elaborate traffic systems flame only road rages?

How did one city amass so much wealth and the other so many semi-ruins. Of course, both have their fair share of MNC factories and outposts. Both have their disenchanted youths and old-money families, differing only in shades and mathematics.

Was it all because one remained an island and was made a reluctant state; and the other an island with its abundant hinterland?

A friend's mother met us in Penang and so kindly brought us round the island 2 nights in a row in her dark blue proton. The first night she drove us across Penang bridge to Butterworth (where we ate the most amazine oyster omelette at Jalan Rajah Odah) because "how can you come to Penang and don't see Penang bridge - it's the third longest in Asia!" When J asked if she liked living in Penang, she replied: "well, how can I don't like - it's home. Home is always the best, right?"

>> Of another city, Part I


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