Coming Home: A Penangite reminisces about the island during the 1970s

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Ever since I travelled West at the age of eighteen and settled in the Netherlands for the past twenty-four years, I have never stopped dreaming of the rolling green hills and tropical beaches that serve as the backdrop of my former home.


‘Home’ is Penang Island in the 1970s and 80s. The time period, more so than the island itself, is what defines my notion of ‘home.’ I have since returned to live in Kuala Lumpur twice (2008 and 2015), and have had the incredible fortune of revisiting my birthplace many times over, reliving nearly faded memories and witnessing the innumerable transformations, both good and not so good, through the bifocal vision of an ex-local and an outsider.

What is undeniable is the economic progress the island has made in the last two decades, which has turned it into the cosmopolitan hub complete with luxury condos and entertainment hotspots that it is today. Its being listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2008 has also helped globalise its reputation as a quaint melting pot of cultures, validating its moniker ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and boosting its tourism industry considerably.

Reminiscing about old Penang

Air Itam market
Air Itam market

Unsurprisingly, then, the Penang that I knew as a child was worlds away from its 21st-century incarnation. In those hazy days during the 70s and 80s, Penang was a playground of shadows with vast swathes of undeveloped land. The district where I grew up, Air Itam, was at the foot of Penang Hill, and each glorious morning, I would wake up to the chatter of the mynahs and the cool air streaming down from the green slopes.

Congestion was unheard of then, the roads relatively safe for a restless child like me to wander along. The open air morning market of Air Itam, less prominent now due to the presence of food franchises, was where the locals would converge to pore over fresh vegs and poultry, their senses drifting on the aromas of Penang’s unique culinary dishes.

Campbell street
Campbell street

After sundown, George Town would flicker with neon-lit splendour. Campbell Street, with its famed clothing wholesalers, jewellers, and medical halls, was the place to be in this pre-megamall era. Patrons would crowd both sides of the street hunting for bargains in the languid evening heat. Two prominent emporias (that’s what shopping malls were called) were at the mouth of this street, to the right of the former Cathay cinema.

This was familiar territory to me as my mother and her sister worked as beauticians in these emporias, and I, when I was in my early teens, would spend many a weekend getting my education in Hollywoodism at the single-screen Cathay. The first proper mall appeared in 1986, in the form of Komtar, which spelt the end of these businesses. By the time the 1980s drew to a close, the island had entered the era of fully air-conditioned malls and characterless cineplexes.

A beach boy at heart

Penang Ferry, 1965
Penang Ferry, 1965 | Photo credit: Steve Swayne

My memories of the island are mostly associated with its waters. I am a ‘beach boy’ today because my father would often drive me and my schoolmates up to all the famous beach areas: Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi, Teluk Bahang. There were no development projects or reclaimed residential land plots yet along the coast, and so the winding road leading to and from the beaches was dim and evocative of night-time tropical romanticism.

Teenagers like me would scooter up and down this exceptional stretch of the island and build campfires and sing on the beach which had yet to witness the arrival of international hotel chains. I also recall a time when no bridges connected the island to the mainland. Commuters had eight ferries, all named after Malaysia’s eight beautiful islands, to take them across the strait. The ferries were a special symbol to a boy who loved the salty tang of the wide open sea.


Dreaming of the old days

Heritage houses

Penang 2016 is a vibrant, celebratory place with creative street art and funky bistros and cafes. Many of its once dilapidated ‘shophouses’ have been given a makeover and look as though they should be featured in architecture magazines. Its UNESCO status has drawn a legion of tourists who had been unaware of the island’s existence before.

But despite its exuberant flourishing, a returnee like me still has dreams of the sepia-tinted days when one could hear the rhythm of the island on the sea breeze yet untainted by car fumes, of a time when property developers hadn’t yet stripped Eden of its primal greenery.

Reincarnation (2): Remembering Cathay

Note: Cathay was an old-school, single-screen cinema on Penang Road that operated for some 35 years. I did my ‘schooling’ in Hollywood movies there throughout the 80s. Today’s cineplexes mean little to me.

As children of the next generation,
We flocked to the imagined world of Hollywood
After sunset,
Just when the town was recovering from
The cruel heat of another blank page day.
We waited beneath the familiar marquee,
Knowing it would light up our dim imagination
When the magic yellow bulbs flashed bright,
Announcing the dream of the evening.
Our collective memory stretched far back –
To Bastian riding the dog-dragon over Fantasia,
To Damien grinning at his daddy’s funeral,
To the Jedi losing faith in himself.
We had lost ourselves in the glowing dark
(Like thousands of other island dreamers),
Many times over through the faceless years,
Forgetting there was another kind of dark
Outside the four eternal walls of wonderment.
The screen, anything but silver, was a kaleidoscope
Of all possible worlds in impossible ways.
We travelled on the sirocco and the northern lights
To the glittering heart of each fantasy nightmare,
Battling the alien queen with cinema’s greatest heroine,
Spinning through NYC as ghostbusting tomfools,
Waking up in Freddy’s vision of his shredded kids –
And how we cheered when Bruce Willis saved mankind again!
We learnt of the many faces of Love
– from honesty to treachery –
And fell hard for leading men and femmes fatale.
We got back up on our feet every time,
Ready for another round of tragicomedy.
We bonded with our brave fathers
Over badass Eastwood and cowboy flicks.
We found the rare fountain of youth
With the help of old veterans in the Florida Keys;
Understood then why we all wanted to live forever
In a world where all that’s born must die.
We were together, under the colourful canvases
Of movie ads declaring to all brothers:
‘Stand by me!’ And we did stand strong till
The lonely digital age came stealing in,
Whispering individualism in our ears,
And cold, cold multiplexes with personality disorder
Paved the way for an era of
The marquee lost its shine, was
Dismantled in our absence.
But sometimes when the night is long,
We see the children at the box office again,
Fanning themselves in the heat of illusion,
Dreaming foreign myths with one beating island heart.

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