Days in Penang Past

I still recall cycling to school along Green Lane, when it was much more leafy and with much less vehicular traffic. Ishak the son of a naval officer and I paddled side by side along the rather straight two laned road past benign large trees, the Convent School, large government owned bungalows and the Thai Temple. We arrived at an educational institution that was established in 1816. The solidly built school had long facades of white paint, a rather distinguished hall based on British traditions and a field with neatly kept lawns. Most impressive to me was the rather sizeable sports pavilion that was sited not far from the house of the Head Master. I can still recall clearly the covered sheds where we parked our bicycles. The Library building had a more modern architecture than the rest of the school complex. Friday afternoons were the best days of such non-chalant and halycon school times. Shortly after noon a few classmates and I would gather at a house near a roundabout near a long and winding road named after our high school. There we would dabble in things and chat that fascinate the emerging liberating world of an early adolescent. Such Friday sessions would lead to hill and beach bungalow stays in a world all at once refreshing, changing and yet constricted by the boundaries of a small but fascinating island with already a rich past. I grew up in a community that considered itself apart from the peninsular mainland. It is with irony now that I reflect at times that the powers that be from this particular mainland has in the past over forty years also politically and socially scorned the people of my birth place. It is also not amazing to me that many of fellow island brethren have also relocated to another nearby island - Singapore. Fast forward another ten years and after being away at university, I returned to a fast changing Penang. I relished those evenings going out in groups dining at beach restaurants or remote venues with niche food on an island that still inherently viewed itself as special. This was at a period before Georgetown was granted UNESCO world heritage status and was in a sort of economic limbo between its Silicon Isle manufacturing past and its future revival with million ringgit properties. This was the age of an explosion of motor bikes crowding its narrow streets and with street food still made and sold by authentic cooks and vendors. The island's northern beaches became littered with hotels, tourists and commercialisation. Dark skinned beach boys mingled with blonde haired backpacker girls from Germany and Queensland. Students protested on a mass scale in Beijing and the Berlin Wall came down. One radiating hot spring day I found myself with two pieces of luggage plonked down with a dear cousin's place in Marsfield north of Sydney's Harbour Bridge. I had left my beloved Penang driven by a permanent resident visa granted to me based on my professional skills and young working age. There was no revolutionary event on my home shores, but significant confronting with yet still evolutionary changes in the socio-political landscape in the nation's capital city, only a four hour drive by car south-east of Penang, had begun to embed, establish and endure. As it rains persistently on the Illawarra coast this evening, I begin to ponder on the past of my hometown, like all immigrants everywhere, when they get a quiet moment from the drive of satisfying the hunger, fascination and challenge of settling in a new land. What do I recall best of all? Mates felt unspokenly comfortable enough to drop by unannounced at home. Temperatures were warm enough for us to hang around chatting outdoors as well. Cordial drinks were popular to be served. Motor bike riders and passengers passing by on the street went about their business with earnest decency, unlike in today's Malaysia where hand bag snatch incidents are the highest in the world. At times, friends and relatives gathered for hours on end to have a laugh, share moments and consume tasty food. Due to the humidity, afternoons after lunch were best reserved for a siesta. I could hear roosters call at dawn, even if I stayed far away from a rural setting. Food was always available, from Mum's cooking, the short car drive to the midnight hawker stalls or the latest opened cafe or food court. The sun rose and set at almost the same time throughout the year. And Penang Hill stood always apparently looking over my shoulder, but its flora and vegetation were already getting deforested and the beloved mists of my teenage hood staying in bungalows up there were thinning out and not recurring so often.

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