Back in Georgetown, Penang. Ever since I first step foot in this historically-rich city, I knew I would be back. I’ve never gone beyond Georgetown to explore the rest of Pulau Penang and I doubt it if I would be able to do so in the next 2 days that we were here. Even a short trip to Penang Hill doesn’t seem to be possible.
After the girls had checked-in at Chulia Heritage Hotel, which I think is the only hotel in the world that doesn’t have anything to sit on but the floor at its lobby, and me at Star Lodge (I’m such a cheapskate), we headed to Masjid Kapitan Keling which didn’t seem to thrill anyone but me (though it was my second time to see it) or maybe because they were all hungry (the girls have a bigger appetite than me).
We had lunch at Restoran Ros Mutiara at Lebuh King for some honest-to-goodness-it-can’t-get-anymore-Indian-than-this meal. We stuffed ourselves with Murtabak, Naan with Coconut, Roti Tisu, plain Roti, Naan with Cheese, and Chicken Tikka Masala, all downed with refreshing Mango Lassi. Really good and heavy meal though Jeannette warned Yna about not looking at the kitchen and watching the cook when she goes to the restroom just beside it.
Blazingly hot as it was, we headed south-east to the Khoo Kongsi Clan House passing by the small Cheah Kongsi. They must be a really big and rich clan as the clan hall was richly ornamented, particularly the roof beams. It was Chinese craftsmanship at its best. It was my first time to see it and it was breathtaking. I could just stare at the panels above the doors depicting different scenes that were pictorial lessons on the virtues.
Behind the hall was a more modern museum which chartered the history of the clan from its forefather crossing the ocean from China and heading to Penang. The displays were really nice and well thought off. Lots of nice backgrounds for great photo-ops especially the lighted screens.
You’ve gotta give it to the Chinese and their tenacity. Sometimes you gotta think, what would the world have been if the Chinese simply stayed put in China and didn’t bring their roots elsewhere?
Just across at Lebuh Aceh is a small Malay mosque with a little tower and some gorgeous houses beside it. The mosque was founded by an Acheenese prince in the early 19th century. That’s part of the wonders of Georgetown–the multi-colored tapestry of people and cultures. The Chinese, Malay, Indian, and the Peranakan, have created a rich culture that today sits harmoniously side by side with each other. Coming from a Chinese clan house and you need just cross the street to set foot in a mosque who owes its existence to Javanese presence in Penang.
There was hardly anyone there except the sun putting a bright sheen on the yellow-white mosque. The quietness was atmospheric. It was like being in a little kampung.
Strolling along the quiet streets (jalan-jalan as the Malays would call it), we found ourselves in the Straits Heritage area with a lovely row of shophouses. The girls checked out the stuff at Bon Ton while I cooled my heels at a coffee shop and had ginger treacle cake with a yummy and thick icing not unlike that on carrot cakes and a scoop of expensive (RM5) gula-melaka ice-cream.
All should have been well and quiet with the girls joining me for more ice-cream and just sitting quietly while we contemplated the beauty of Georgetown. But we had two mansions and a museum to go to. That’s how we met the two crazy tuk-tuk drivers.
Drunken Bastard and Aging Bastard.
As always with any tuk-tuk, they found us before they found them. The younger one, let’s call him Drunken Bastard offered to take us around the sights. I asked to be taken to Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and Penang Museum. He called another much older guy, let’s call him Aging Bastard, and charged us RM20 per tuk-tuk. Sounds like a fair deal. I should have sensed that Drunken Bastard was psychotic as I kept telling him that I wanted to confirm first if the Penang Museum was open as someone from Bon Ton mentioned that being Sunday, it was closed. He kept insisting that we leave immediately to catch the last tour at 3:30 at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. I understood his urgency as the gate closes after 3:30 (which was why I missed the mansion on my first trip here) but he just kept rembling and rambling on like a call-center agent reading from a script. Even if I spoke Malay he just wouldn’t listen as he gazed at the distance while rambling.
Grudgingly I climbed on Aging Bastard’s tuk-tuk together with Julie while Yna and Jeannette took Drunken Bastard’s.
La Professora and the Blue Mansion.
We arrived at the blue-colored Cheong Fatt Tze just as the middle-aged professor-looking-and-sounding tour guide was giving the pre-amble on Cheong Fatt Tze, the man himself, who owned this masterpiece of Chinese living. La Professora grandly exclaimed that it had 38 rooms, 5 courtyards, 7 staircases, and 220 windows and that everything about the mansion was based on fungh-shui. Indeed, we were given a short-course on the art and philosophy of feng-shui. La Professora explained how the mansion was built on a “dragon’s back” and how the courtyard where we all were balanced the mansion’s yin and yang. It was really interesting and she was such an engaging speaker.
We then followed her to the main part of the house and we went from room-to-room as she explained the significance of each room and how it reflected the colorful and historical personality of Cheong Fatt Tze, who as La Professor explained, rose from being a penniless immigrant from Guandong province in China to become one of the wealthiest and economically powerful Chinese on both sides of the globe. Yup, the guy was shaking hands with Rockefellers in New York in the 19th c. But to everyone that day, the most interesting of his checkered life is the fact that of all his mansions, he spent the most time in this place in Penang because it is where his 17-year old wife, the most that he loved among all his wives, lived. So when we got to the room containing his memorabilia, we all looked in awe at the faded black and white photographs of his slender and elegant wife dressed in tight-fit modern cheong-sams.
Beautiful Chinese and European furniture and objects d’art filled the room. La Professora proudly pointed out that intricately carved wedding bed which he said was in such perfect condition that it probably was never used and displayed only. But what I liked most were the cut-and-paste porcelain work that created beautiful pictures at the balcony overlooking the yard which La Professora in loud and proud voice said were original. The ones outside were restorations which involved ordering 10,000 pieces of ceramic cups and smashing them to be used to create the pictures. And, in a loud and almost defiant voice, were made by “people from China as local craftsmen do not know what to do… the Chinese craftsmen, they automatically know.” By this time, I had come to the conclusion that La Professora was a real professor. She knew everything including the juicy tidbits and funny remarks and seemed justly proud of what she was talking about. When someone commented about Baba Nonya, in an enormous voice with a tinge of horror, she exclaimed, “This is not Baba Nonya! This is Chinese! There is nothing Baba Nonya here. Baba Nonya is somewhere else.” Aha! Maybe there is a cultural jealousy between the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. Hehehehehe.
The tour ended at the shop where books, souvenirs, and shirts were being sold. She opened the door for us and we exited to the blue-tinged sunshine on the front yard. Photographs were not allowed inside so we contented ourselves with photo-ops on the marvelous facade.
Boarding the tuk-tuk, Jeannette had changed places with Yna as she noticed that the flask of wine that Drunken Bastard had was half-empty and he looked drunk. Yna had earlier complained about Drunken Bastard’s refusal to bring down the tuk-tuk cover to shield them from the sun the way we did with our tuk-tuk.
Beautiful Mansion and Crazy Bastards.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was even more beautiful and had more opulent objects d’ art (maybe this was the reason for La Professora’s snappy remark). At the entrance, when some guys manning the counter discovered we were Filipinos, he went out and returned with a Filipino staff! “Him… Filipino also!” he gleefully explained. The guy (I’ve forgotten his name) has been in Penang for about six months and found it to be lonely. He didn’t seem to be too lonely that day as later on I would see him with three other guys and telling someone on the phone whose screen they were all looking at, “He wants to see you nude” with a leer in his voice and eyes.
Room after room displayed beautiful pieces of furniture and clothing that were works of art for. A glass cabinet contained striking examples of Nonya artistry with beaded sandals. No less striking were the richly-beaded Nonya blouses worn over batik sarongs. Most elaborate of all were the wedding clothes with the head dresses.
The mansion was owned by a Chinese magnate who was not a Baba himself. Aha! There you are La Professora! Nothing to get jealous about. The mansion is just a re-creation of a home of an affluent Baba. The guy who really lived there was a Chinese as Chinese can be! Nevertheless, the mansion typified the opulence of a high-living Peranakan.
After all that beauty I was to face all that ugliness. I made my way out and headed to the tuk-tuk. It was then that Drunken Bastard told me that if we wanted to go somewhere else, we had to pay for extra as we took such a long time. I told him that we had only been at Peranakan Mansion for 45 minutes and around an hour at Cheong Fatt Tze. Besides, did he expect us to just breeze through those places? Aging Bastard backed him up saying that they’re waiting time was costing them to lose additional income. What the hell?!!!! At this point, I wanted to scream. I mustered all the Bahasa-Melayu I knew and argued with them. Drunken Bastard was even saying that they received a call from a customer needing their services! Whaaaaaatttt????!!!!! Who do they think they are????!!!!!!! “You’re drunk!” I told him as I pointed to the flask. Jeannette had come out by now and was telling me to just pay them and let go. I looked around me as I thought of going to any of the staff and asking them to deal with the bastards. But no one was there. “Tidak bercakap saya,” was all I could say as I handed Drunken Bastard the RM40. I wanted to throw the money at his face. I knew it would be stupid, dangerous even, to argue and then expect them to hold their end of the bargain or to even pay additional.
We headed back to the shop with Jeannette telling me to wait a while to make sure they were gone. The cool comforts of the shop helped bring my temper down. Fortunately, I wasn’t that angry to go emotional shopping as I would have probably bought half of the nice stuff they had there.
Nonya Baba Cuisine.
Since it was late in the afternoon anyway, we decided to just head to the Penang Museum the next day and have dinner at Nonya Baba Cuisine. We took a cab to the restaurant and arrived there around 6 with the place padlocked. Our cab driver called them on the number printed at the tarpaulin hanging in front and told us that the people running the place were on their way. We waited at the small yard in front with a Chinese mom and son who asked me about the restaurant as they have always been eating at the nearby hot-pot. They had been looking at us while we stood outside the restaurant looking perplexed while the cab driver called.
As the girls waited, I headed to the Continental Bakery just across and bought the remaining slice of durian cheesecake. So yummy.
The place had opened by the time I returned and there were other people as well. The food was very good and just as I remembered it. The husband and wife who were taking taking the orders, cooking, and serving were very accommodating and took the time to explain how Penang Peranakan cuisine differed from that of Melakka’s. It was closer to Thai flavors and something about the use or was it the non-use of black nuts. Whatever it is, I’ve always loved Peranakan food and this was the best place to try the authentic taste and flavor in Penang.
Jeannette wanted to go to Continental to buy durian cheesecake but it was closed by the time we left Nonya Baba. And oh, our travials over bad drivers didn’t end with Drunken Bastard and Aging Bastard. While waiting for our order, the lady asked us how we knew about Nonya Baba Cuisine. I told her I had eaten here before. She verified that it was not the cab driver who recommended the restaurant. I said no. I told him where we wanted to go and it just happens that he knew the place. She then went out and talked to him. She explained to us that the cab driver was asking for a commission as he supposedly recommended the place to us. She did give him a little something.
Oh well. Crazy day. I love Georgetown.