I'm not sure if I've ever been to Penang before. If I did, I was too young to remember it. I e-mailed my dad and he said he didn't know either, it was so long ago.
Remnants of British colonial-style architecture from when Malaysia was a colony
Most of what I know about Malaysia is from long after I left it, either from what my parents told me, or reading up about the country. I've only gained an interest in this in my adulthood. Growing up in Toronto, I had a pretty typical Canadian childhood - played ball hockey in the streets, learned to skate in the wintertime when they flooded the baseball diamond at school, saw Rush in concert like pretty much everyone else did.
We had immigrated to a very multicultural neighbourhood in the north-east of Toronto: Scarborough - what some people call the ghetto of the city. I didn't think so at the time. It was just home to me. The friends I hung around with were Jamaican, Indian, Romanian, Pakistani, Korean, etc. The extent of discussing our ethnicity was peering into each other's lunchboxes to see what our moms had packed for us. I remember there being a lot of rice in tupperware...
Eager to do more food explorations
So here I am, back where I came from, with a renewed interest in the history of this place.
The Chinese in Malaysia date back several hundred years, the "first wave" settling in the south of the country back in the 1500s. Today, they make up the largest of the "ethnic" population, 30% of Malaysians are of Chinese descent, 10% are of Indian descent, while the largest group, 50% are native Malays.
Teoh Kongsi clanhouse
We're exploring Georgetown, which is the capital of the state of Penang. There are more Chinese in this state, percentage-wise, than anywhere else in Malaysia. These were the original settlers, they were sea-traders and came through the ports in Penang and Malacca. Everywhere you walk, there are signs in Chinese, and red lanterns hanging above.
Teh Tarik is the national drink of Malaysia. Tarik means "pull": Pulled Tea.
I introduce Neda to teh tarik, and we are both immediately addicted to the copious amounts of sugar they put into this drink. You can order it hot, but we prefer it served in ice. When you drink teh tarik, you can feel your teeth start to rot from all the sugar. So goooood.....!
Shopping for more sweets
Georgetown, like most cities, is pretty modern. But we like walking around the old city to see all the historical buildings.
One of the most extravagant Chinese buildings is the temple of the Khoo Kongsi (the Khoo Clanhouse)
Clans play a very important part of the Chinese culture. Ancestor worship is part of the religion, and the family village or temple is a much venerated site. The Khoo clan (not related to the Klux) was the largest in the country and their ancestral home was here in Georgetown.
The Chinese are pretty much the Targaryens of Asia
...that one time when the whole clan went to see the Ozzy Osbourne concert...
Lots of beautiful details in the temple
Hundreds of gold placards with names of deceased family members decorate the inside
All of this is merely academic, though. These weren't my ancestors. In fact, the tour of these clanhouses was researched and organized by Neda. She's the one who told me most of the above! :)
My family didn't come to Malaysia until much later, they settled in different parts of the country. I was looking forward to meeting up with my elder relatives to find out more about our own history.
After sightseeing, we went out to grab a late lunch. Penang is well-known for its cuisine. We searched online for "best restaurant in Penang" and found one that looked good. I was looking forward to try all of my favorites from childhood.
We were seated and given menus. I scanned the items, looking for something familiar. Nothing.
I called the waitress and asked them, "Any Char Kway Teow?" She frowned and shook her head. "Laksa? Mee Goreng? Satay?"
The waitress looked equal parts confused and irate. She told me off: "That is hawker food. We are a restaurant, we don't serve that here. If you want to eat that kind of food, you have to go to the hawker centre". She pointed down the street.
I gave Neda an apologetic look. The waitress still had her arm outstretched and finger pointing out. She was no longer telling us the direction of the food stalls, she was pointing at us to get out... :(
We slinked out of the restaurant. I was deflated. I was going to show my bride all the fine Malaysian cuisine from my youth and I was just told that all of it was street food. It was like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant and trying to order a hot dog and a bag of peanuts. I felt so embarrassed...
So we go to the hawker centre... and you know what? We had a *GREAT* meal! And it was cheap! So screw you, fancy restaurants of Penang!
Laksa is one of my mom's favorite foods. It's a spicy noodle soup, but in Penang, they serve it with tamarind and fish, so it's a bit more sour than regular laksa. We also ordered some popiah which is like Malaysian spring rolls, it's wrapped in crepes instead of flaky egg pastry. While mawing down on all this delicious food, I had absolutely no regrets about leaving the pricey restaurant. Give me my hot dogs and peanuts any day, all day!
Walking around the old town is a popular tourist activity
But if you don't feel in the mood to sweat it out on the pavement, plenty of rickshaws available to ferry you about
Some of the rickshaws are done up quite fancy. If you still don't want to sweat in the heat, you can take a "teksi" :)
Interesting stuff walking around Georgetown
The fancy part of the old town
Walking around the newly renovated parts of Nagore Square, lots of restaurants and swanky cafes here