Long Ago and Far Away

I glanced at beyond the ornate glass door to the left of my dining table.  The heavy rains had created a misty effect showering the hills lined up on the coast. I was reminded of Somerset Maugham and perhaps this was his inspiration for his novel entitled 'Rain".  At the same time, it dawned on me on how hilly the island is, a fact not brought out before in the way how the skyscrapers now contrasted with the natural steep slopes.  I thought of isles in the South Pacific which revealed their underwater mountain peaks as jagged piercings into the humid tropical swirling atmosphere.  The inter-monsoon rains had come down on this particular isle - my home island - for the past few days, and it showed in the heady moist air and cooling breezes that offered comfort to the swaying palms and colonial age stone ramparts protecting the hotel from the sea.

Behind May, the sea did however look placid and calm. The swimming pool deck was absolutely damp but there were some guests who still could not resist from sitting out there doing literally nothing - but actually relishing the views and soaking in the timeliness of this corner of Earth so far away from their homes and routine. In the washrooms, elegantly tiled floors matched the old fashioned set up, complete with potted plants and high ceilings. One could walk through vistas of architecture from another age, another time - and still get all the modern comforts of pampered service, relaxing drinks at the bar and delicately prepared locally inpsired cuisine.  It was initially strange that May and I took hotel prepared street hawker food, and they were dished up tasty and well - but then such food are becomong more of a rarity and hardly served in such comfortable surrounds.

Sarkis Bar has shades of the Raffles Bar located an hour by plane flying  south, but was obviously started in the same spirit and desire for both. In the late afternoon, before Happy Hours, there was a potential connundrum in that there were very few locals, only the varying Euro voices of visitors jabbing the lazy ambience.  There were groups of Indians at some tables and most of the staff were behind the counter. May and I chatted about the recently restored Suffolk House, the very first official residence of the island's founder, Captain Francis Light. The timing could not have been a coincidence, as Georgetown was declared a joint UNESCO heritage site only a few years ago. Sentiment and longing cannot bring into reality something which should have been completed long ago - in today's world, as in the past for human societies, funding and political backing are important.  It must be acknowledged that for whatever reason, Suffolk House was allowed to literally rot for a few generations until now. 

Down Gurney Drive, a new set of commercial hotels have sprung up, but also beside the bay. These were part of the skyscrapers that I had a glimpse of whilst sipping my coffee and consuming my plate of char koay teow (Penang-styled stir fried rice noodles).  The new fangled hotels may look the same all over the world, but they are in their prime and currency. How does one embrace the new while ensuring one's uniqueness?  This may precisely be the challenge and opportunity for Penang's Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which has to be relevant not just for tourists with greater purchasing power,  but also ensure its continued place in the soul of Penangites.

On  the day I re-visited, the E & O hosted a sizeable buffet lunch for the employees of the island's US multinational business called Intel.  Although it was  a weekday, the wholesome sized and round  shaped lobby had greeters adding to the bositerous liveliness of the publicly accessible areas. In contrast, the compulsory gift shop was empty, although beautifully decorated with aretfacts and souvenirs of the various influences that have shaped my home island - from Thai masks, Indian fabric and Straits Chinese books to Royal Selangor pewter.  What was Suffolk House like in its heyday?  Could we have seen the young Colonel William Light, son of Francis, cavorting with a maiden amongst its pillars?  Today, chamber music have returned to Suffolk House, but we need more than that.   

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