London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia) -> Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia)
After several years away from south-east asia, my tastebuds were eager to be overwhelmed by the manifold spices of Malaysian/SIngaporean (please fight about authenticity and origination elsewhere) cuisine. A quick stopover in Penang would put that right, I hoped, before an overnight coach down to Singapore.
There were the commissioned Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculptures – a collection of caricatures installed on several streets by Sculpture at Work:
And then there is the recent street art or wall murals (or graffiti), both commissioned and, err, spontaneous:
Would these wall murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic be less authentic as an art form because (i) they were commissioned for the 2012 George Town Festival, (ii) he’s not Malaysian, (iii) they have become objects of tourist adoration – marketed not only on official tourist literature but also reproduced on keychains, notebooks, pens, and other kitschy souvenirs?
I remembered reading with amusement how some Londoners wrote asking Banksy to go do his art somewhere else, because the graffiti had been embraced by so many Gen Xers that it was no longer counter-cultural, and in fact was causing gentrification of areas and an increase in living costs for original residents.
His fellow graffiti artists, meanwhile, accused him of selling out for making money from his art. Why should it be less authentic to get money from art? Or why should his message be less real if more people embrace it so much they would pay for it? “Just take the f*cking donut!” says Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking.
Joo Hooi Cafe (more of a coffeeshop really) at the junction of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee managed to retain both its old booth seats and an elderly grumpy drinks aunty. Later, she forgot to be grumpy in her amazement at the amount of food I was putting away. Everything I had was good and full-flavoured, with the right mix of ingredients, cooked at just the right temperature for the right time – something that many of the mainland Chinese employees of Singaporean hawkers could not replicate:
Outside the coffeshop, two rival carts of chendol vendors faced each other on the narrow Lebuh Keng Kwee. The popular (and some say original) one is the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol (as opposed to the Penang Road Famous Chendol). It’s RM0.50 if you want to eat its icy treats in Joo Hooi, or there’s seating further down the road in a coffeeshop space rented by the chendol vendor:
Spent a really comfy night at the newly-opened Muntri Grove – the first and last hotel of the trip. I was sold by the much lower rate per night offered by the nice manager.
Late the next day, strolled over to Toh Soon Cafe, where there was a crowd waiting for seats:
Shared a table with two interior designers who’d come to Georgetown to see a client. Minimalist designs and the vintage theme, they said, were their most common briefs. The wait for the grilled toast wore on. Hungry, one of the girls went to the coffeeshop at the other end of the little alley and returned with a bowl of wanton noodles to share. The texture of the noodles was “very QQ”:
Food was so ubiquitous in Georgetown that every street had some cart or stall to pique culinary curiousity:
Whilst taking a shortcut, saw someone standing outside a faded signboard that read “Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay” (facebook). Went to investigate and found an Aladdin’s cave of kueh delights!
Then, just before the Grassland coach to Singapore overnight, grabbed dinner at Lebuh Presgrave. The last of this whole London to Singapore trip:
Goodbye, freedom of the road. Farewell, the materially-simple backpacker’s life. Tomorrow, re-entry into society, with all the roles, responsibilities, and joys that that will bring.
(For reasons known only to my subconscious, everytime I attempt to speak a foreign language, what comes out is French before that segues somewhat into the intended vernacular. And it’s not like I actually know that much French. Useless brain. So after speaking French to several confused Penangites, I switched to Malaysian-inflected English. As my Singaporean-Malay teacher used to say, if you cannot make it, fake it lah.)
*the last part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore