A banner left over from the Muslim New Year’s celebration welcomed me to my street in a working-class neighborhood outside Georgetown on the island of Penang, Malaysia
Down the road, a parking lot had sprouted festive tents, where the Chinese (who are the majority in this part of Malaysia) welcomed their Hungry Ghosts with music, food, and six foot tall trees of incense. During Hungry Ghost month, children are constantly along the sides of the road, burning paper food and money to satisfy the needs of the Ancestors.
Meanwhile, the Hindu temples were rocking with music for Ganesh’s birthday, and special treats appeared at the sidewalk vendor for the Indian families’ celebrations. And everyone was celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival, with fireworks, mooncakes, and street parades. I was happy to celebrate my own birthday in the middle of all these diverse festivities.
On Harmony Street in Penang, a Muslim mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church, and a Hindu temple sit side by side, symbolizing the (relatively) peaceful relations in Malaysia between all the religions and ethnicities. Walking around this place makes me wonder how my country ever came to think of itself as some kind of special melting pot. If anything, we assimilate everyone into European culture. Here the children learn at least three languages: English, Malay, and the dialect of their ancestors or, for the Malay people, Arabic. They keep their religions, clothing styles, and traditions. It makes a fascinating mix.
But it’s the street food that brings tourists to Penang. For $1 or $2 you can get delicious plates of noodles, curry, clay pot dishes with rice and meats, Indian roti breads, or satay. The noodle soups are rich, complex and satisfying. The street cuisine is so advanced here that locals say that only a wok that’s been seasoned by generations of proper use can impart the proper essence (wok hei) to the Char Kway Teow noodles. My Chinese tour guide told me that no one cooks here, except on weekends. Why would you, when you can have a delicious meal right outside your door for $1?
When this same guide pointed out a McDonald’s and said “I think this is American, isn’t it?” I blushed and said “Yes, I think so.” but I was thinking “bless you for pretending not to be sure.” No one considers the “wok hei” of their Mickey D’s burger.
My apartment was far from the center, and I was swamped with work, so I missed a lot of the sites, but I caught a few highlights. Click the first pic to get a slideshow of my month in Penang.