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Penang Christmas

MALAYSIA | Thursday, 4 July 2013 | Views [859]

“Ihachew” “Ihachew” “Ihachew”, those four-year-old’s words still ring in my aging ears. Until this very day I have no idea what I had done for that small child to stand, at three feet nothing tall, purse her cupid bow lips, place her hands on her hips and repeat (ad nauseum) “Ihachew” “Ihachew” “Ihachew” (I hate you). Having done with the verbal barrage, that diminutive critic turned and stomped off up the stairs in the biggest huff she could muster. It was Christmas in Penang or, to be more accurate, it was my first Christmas in Bukit Mertajam (BM) and my first ‘real’ Christmas for nearly seven years.
BM has become one of those places that people are very happy to escaped from, and even happier to return to on high days and holidays. It has ceased to be a place desirable enough to return to permanently due to ever changing politics and other divisions. Those of us who return to Bukit Mertajam as spouses, or other appendages of loved ones (or attempting to become loved ones), sooner or later have the profound desire to sidle across the bridge into Penang proper, and onto Penang Island. For years I have preferred the antiquated, aging, Butterworth to Penang chain ferry, its jellyfish infested waves and retrospective view of the mainland I was happy to be leaving for all sorts of personal, political and religious reasons. There is something about that grinding and clanking of that limping ferry which strikes me as being vaguely romantic. Perhaps those sounds speak of another era, a happier time when the Malaysian races were more integrated than now, or maybe they just remind me that I am very much a stranger in a strange land, with all the feelings of alienation that entails.
The enterprise of returning to your spouse’s home is, ostensibly, about going back to family.  As with any Malaysian, or half Malaysian, family there is always, and underline always, the issue of food. Balik Kampung or the return home is just as much about having the comfort foods of home as it is about seeing those family and friends who you have long since left behind - in all senses of the term.
I was sitting in a petite coffee shop in Bukit Mertajam market. My spouse who was eating, or is that drinking - soup noodles. For some bizarre reason I was thinking of Frank Zappa, Mothers of Invention and all kinds of hip and not so hip, watching Chinese eat long sugarless donuts - Char Kuey, dunking them, Spanish style, into their thick black local coffee, and I was wondering.
I was wondering just what the hell I was doing there - approximately seven thousand miles from my Colchester homeland, amidst the strangest of strangers and thinking that it is a very long way from there to here, with decades gone, friends gone, heroes gone and just the sound of an old beat reverberating and the twang of a half-remembered guitar cord to keep my few remaining brain cells company. I was reminded that Christmas, and its following New Year, appears to be times of retrospection. Family, friends and past lives all swept through my memory - some partially, few wholly remembered, like some Scrooge nightmare, flash and those images, thoughts and reflections were gone - leaving nothing but the afterglow on my eyelids.
Brown shoes no longer make it, or do shoes of blue suede - they are far too hot for these equatorial climes. Cheap (Chinese-made) pseudo-rubber flip-flops rule the day. They are slipped on and tripped over, sliding on Bukit Mertajam market discards and debris as I exited that crowded market awash with coffee and some soupy noodle that just could never feel like the breakfasts that I was used to. Where were the croissants? Where the toast and Tiptree Marmalade? Where the Earl Grey tea of my homeland and the Irish butter to spread upon whichever scones, muffins or pastries I should desire. It was a very good question.
While in Europe, and other more temperate lands, gentlemen of girth were donning red and white suits, mothers were putting out mince pies, sausage rolls and a small glass of something alcoholic; in the Malaysian outback Christmas was being sidelined. The Christmas near idyll was marred by the local market belting out not Christmas carols, and all things seasonal, but the direst of dirges known to modern man. For the entire length of our stay the hastily erected tannoys sprayed us (from 8am to 12 midnight) with Darling Clementine (in Malay), Gangnam Style and songs ranging from the sheer awful to the just plain painful. Christmas was under siege. While I cooked, cleaned and wrangled with chickens and other assorted Christmas fair, my in-laws’ kitchen was besieged by ‘music’ loud enough to drown out the children’s TV viewing, and the Chinese relatives talking – and that is some feat.
A man is not judged by his roast chicken alone, but by his stuffing, gravy and by his custard. My custard, on that BM Christmas, being the first custard I had made for some considerable time, and taking into consideration that I was tired from the lack of sleep, was lumpy. I made amends by whipping quite innocent cream, covered my sins and my red Chinese wine flavoured trifle too. The meal, when eaten, was accompanied by a quite comfortable red wine and a passable rosé.
Christmas on the equator – burning heat and monsoonal rain, tends to erode notions of warm log fires, hot toddies and warming toes and hearts around the hearth. The lack of snow, and any form of genuine cold nags like a nightly mosquito; for air conditioning is simply no substitute for chilling snow and leg-breaking frost. I had to keep reminding myself that it was December, and not June or July, time for Christmas pud and not beach barbies. Christmas in Bukit Mertajam was very interesting indeed.


Tags: asia, christmas, food, malaysia, penang


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