The working-class sentiment of a ferry ride is something that I love dearly. I could've Grabbed from the Butterworth station onto the island of Penang, but the cost for the ferry was RM1.20 (30cents) and the free shuttle was sitting right in front of me. Couldn't pass up. On a short, gorgeous cruise looking directly into the rather modest skyscraper of Penang, all I knew about this city 3hrs north of KL was that it offers great food; exactly what I came for.
Food, as been said, is amazing to say the least. What they are known for, like Hokkien Mee aka prawn noodle and Asam Laksa, sour fish broth noodle soup made me go ahhhhhh. Of course you see many Hawker centers (one Koay Teow soup I had across the street from Asak Laksa ahhhhhh) and markets, then there'd be really hip coffeeshops and bars that also serve snacks that look interesting and yummy. I saw so many more that I would've liked to try if I had a younger man's stomach, but whatever I managed to put down was worth every goddamn calorie. No fucking shit this is an eating town. I could see myself driven to excess. With noodles, coffee, and booze but I digress.
As I walked, baked in heat and drenched in sweat through the streets of the ex-British colony named George Town, I thought to myself this was as close to being in China as I have come. The collapsing buildings, the red lanterns, the age-old signs of local business - and of course the people and their language that live among them. Its aesthetic, energy and collage of old and new, I almost immediately fell in love with, as many have; although the city centre was once again overwhelmed with tourists from west and east, I managed to find serenity in back alleys, coffeeshops and some art gallery (or street art scene found sporadically). They seem to proudly embrace their heritage while staying on the cutting edge, the music and club scenes apparently impress even the most privileged. I'd be convinced if someone told me this is Malaysia's Portland or Austin.
And if you're in the mood for a bit of history and what money could buy in the yesteryears, there is a house in the middle of "Beverly Hills of Penang" that turned itself into a Museum which holds about 1/4 of personally acquired antiques found in the area. Not only the building itself a time capsule from the colonial days, the collection is massive, extensive and impressive. From one of the largest non-religious stained glass pieces in existence, electric appliances from the turn of the century (still in working condition) to an Erard grand piano whose one key was destroyed by a careless visitor a few years back. My heart sank, The guide they employ here can tell you in details what they have gathered about every piece offering a peek into what Chinese immigrants, whose presence predated the British colonization, had to do to survive and prosper; intermarry with land-owning Malays, immerse themselves in western culture and customs donning hat and petticoat, amass wealth right underneath the whites with hidden policial ambitions. Quite extraordinary.
Maybe it's more like New Orleans, but I digress.
Then there are many Buddhist temples sprinkled all over town; a neon-lit Kuan Yin temple floating over the bay (under construction) that you reach via a narrow walk through a local fishing village (awkward), a Thai-style golden temple home to a reclining Buddha, right across the street from a Burmese temple much more modest than its neighbor yet just as exquisite with the rembrandt-esque paintings telling of the Buddha life story. Then you stretch out to the hills of Air Itam there's a 100-ft Kuan Yin statue built in 2002 above the much-older buildings including a pagoda that merges Chinese, Thai and Burmese architecture styles. There will be an entire post focused on Buddhist architectures and arts after I go through Thai, Cambodia, and of course Japan.
Until then, here're some pix of #KeepAsiaWeird
"~kuala is the point where two rivers join together or an estuary, and lumpur means 'mud'." According to wiki.
KL stands out from other cities I've visited in one aspect; cultural diversity trifecta. Contrary to the data, it feels like an even 3-way split between Malay (Muslim), Indian (Hindi) and Chinese. To my benefit, this means that you can eat in three ways. Let's go eat all of 'em, and I've got the Ace in the hole; Shinji the GM. (Please check Category: Malaysia) from the right side bar)
His accumulated knowledge of POIs and places to eat/drink is massive. So we go, from Pan Mee (Hakka-style noodle), Tau Fu Fa (tofu in sweet milk), Ebi Soba (prawn noodle), Loti Tissue (bigass deep-fried paper-thin bread), Nasi Goreng Malay-peasant style, Bak Kut Teh (beef bone soup), sugar cane juice, fried crab skewers, Chinese Chicken Wings and even drive 2hrs north of the city to Ipoh for stir-fried bean sprouts. Who the fuck does that? THESE TWO JAPANESE NERDS. and it was worth every bit of it. The texture, the flavor, the minuscule calory intake. The order of duck roast was rather unnecessary, could've had the third serving of this delicious sprouts.
Ipoh also is a nice sleepy town outside of the hustle-bustle of KL; more greenery, a haunted castle built in the early 20th century, a suspicious local man that keeps following you around the train station like a fucking zombie. Good times.
The more time you spend outside of KL, the more presence of China you start to feel. As Malays have enjoyed advantages in many aspects while non-Malays mainly are barred from the top position in the government, most Chinese with significant financial gravitas moved to other cities like this, Penang my next destination and as close to the city centre as Genting Highlands, mere one-hour drive and up 5000ft above where they built mini-Macau back in 70s complete with tramways offering (I'm assuming) great views of the city. Since then they updated themselves with brand shops, arcades and restaurants as Vegas did. I'm no noob to Tiger Cubs Mega-malls but the ones here are not to be easily forgotten. A great use of hillside terrain. Impressive. But we're not here to shop, we here to WIN.
Once inside, the interior looks eerily familiar; no pix to show as the armed guards everywhere, but the carnie-theme, color scheme, undeniable wear and tear that makes you feel like you're in a bad dream...Circus motherfucking Circus. And bingo, that's what the joint is called. What else is similar? The minimum bet; this was totally unexpected as I've gotten used to everything being 1/4 of the US cost, by but that's certainly not the rate I lost. On roulette tables, $5 minimum. Blackjack, $25. Baccarat - I don't even know what it costs back home, but this one is hugely popular here. And the rest looks like an Indian Casino in an alternative universe. Strange 3-die craps tables that probably have way worse odds than we know, childishly simple game of rolling the ball and guess what number it lands on, and so forth. I'm no exgpert, but it seems that they prefer faster and simpler gameplay, at much higher stakes. Imagine the cheapest blackjack table you find is $100 minimum. And these Chinese uncles and anties are LOVING IT. They're rowdy, dead serious and ruthless. Look at China. Can't wait to visit Macau.
One last mind-blowing thing; they offer their own ATM card. GM managed to win back some on a video-roulette that looks like it's been in use since 90s, but we can't cash out. The clerk tells us that we need the card. Players card for comps? Sorta. It stores the credit you win on these machines, and you go to Genting ATMs on the floor to get the actual cash. Then the GM remembered he had one at home, with some credit left on it. Goddamn genius these Chinese gangs.
Well, for our consolations, the bird nest soup at the restaurant was fucking delicious.
Itsumi keeps complaining about the heat, then I'd go GURL this is BREEZY. Occasional showers, sure - but this is by far the most comfortable weather in my last 7 weeks. And that word almost sums up my visit; COMFORTABLE.
Mont Kiara, where I'm staying, is like the Bel-Air of KL. The condo is on the 27th floor of a high rise with 24hr security, valet/car wash and the direct access to a 5-story shopping mall complete with a grocery store/deli, bar/restaurants, coffee/juice bars, H&M/Zara, gym/pool...the list goes on. A magic touch here is the inclusion of many Japanese brands that cater to the expats who could choose to be totally sheltered from any Southeast Asian-ness. KL is the city that HCMC (and probably other Asian cities) aspires to be. What's crazier is that she is still growing as fast as HCMC is, and I'm not sure if my Sai Gon can catch up. Cause she is WAY ahead of the curve; natural resources, central location, diversity, infrastructure and growing tourism. Maybe Singapore is the bastard son of Malaysia; heard they say "imagine everything you hate about KL and you get Singapore." ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
By the way, I need to apologize if I come off unreasonably down on SG. Upon meeting 2 badasses from Singapore at an awesome jazz spot No Black Tie, I was convinced that I'll need to pay a proper visit to the city.
A nice lead-in to the music talk - Before my arrival, Shinji the GM had told me about Gerald Singh, the first Malay to make the Billboard chart and just a warm-hearted human who rips on vocals, guitar and bass. His '80s act was solid (big thumbs up for playing "I Want to Break Free" by Queen) but his Sunday semi-acoustic duo with Albert Sirimal, another monster, was the inspiration that I needed. Exciting takes on familiar tunes, some local favorites, and guitar tones for days. We didn't stay late enough for the infamous jam session at Waikiki Bar, but the little bit I caught and the word around the campfire says it's THE venue I need to revisit. Every musician that I met says there's "enough work" and I believe it; bars and restaurants everywhere are hosting some sort of live music almost nightly with decent sound system that is actually manned. One corporate exec I met, a music fan, says the Muslim presence raises the price of alcohol higher, so most venues cater to higher income brackets, making their ops lucrative, yet the musicians are underpaid. Gerald wishes for more support for (non-Malay) original music, but neither is unique to this market lol. I'd love to dig in this scene further cause it looks damn healthy.
What else looks healthy? Muslims. A blanket statement, sure - but just look at them jamming their cellphones in their hijab chatting hands-free. Look at them shopping clothes and playing video games at the biggest shopping mall that I ever set foot in. Look at them just chillin', eating and playing, young and old. It should not be (and really wasn't) a surprise, but I can't help but think about how little of these images we see in the US media. Especially to see them as a part of this crazy multicultural gumbo, it makes me long for the same level of integration in the US, where I thought would be the place to embrace diversity. 911, in my view, turned that around. As a foreigner I felt that the entire nation was going angry, paranoid and, frankly, insane. Fast forward 16 years, the threat of terrorism feels even more urgent with the help of technology that brings an overwhelming amount of info with such immediacy, the world seems to be struggling and freaking out about virtually shrinking. Doesn't help when the most accessible "information" tends to be clickbait headlines. How do you form an opinion on the group of people you don't get to see up close? When grossly-biased leaders deny the credibility of journalism while spewing lies, how does a nation get to learn its neighbors who inevitably affect its future? With so much accessible at our fingertips, how do we understand so little about each other?
Rolling with the GM has been tremendous in that aspect; in his 18th year at a 120-year-old company and 4th in KL, Shinji is a bonafide trader that flies to and from every Asian country on a weekly basis, hires and trains KL locals and Japanese FoBs, shakes hands with all races in the name of business. He needed to learn the ways and nuances of every culture in the region to ensure that the deals are made fair and square, ideally with all parties involved going home smiling. It might take finding the right food for whatever dietary restriction or tastes, or drinking till you pass out in public so they drop their guard. Needless to say, I ate GOOD. His research would reach anywhere from the rowdy night market food on Jalan Alor where excited (and drunken) tourists flock, the juiciest duck I have ever tasted at Legendary Roast Duck which his Kendo buddies operate, to the secluded vibe of Tamarind Hills where Japanese wives gather for lunch and get toasty with glasses of wine. I just feel lucky that my boy, a Clapton fan whom I forced to learn King Crimson and Screaming Headless Torsos tunes back in the day, now has so much to teach me.
Like the lives of expats and their families. One Saturday we visited their kids school where 800+ Japanese kids from age 3 to 15 roam within the guarded walls and study adhering to the curriculum and guidelines provided by Ministory of Education, ensuring their smooth re-entry to the domestic high school system (if they wish to). For a non-parent (and certainly a non-academic) this was a rare opportunity to revisit Japanese elementary/secondary school life after decades, let alone the one that's set outside of the homeland. Outside of nostalgia, to be reminded of the slightly feudal, almost militarist tendencies of Japanese schooling annoyed the old rebel inside that had been asleep for ages. A literal No-Child-Left-Behind attitude, a general encouragement of self-policing among children, a total by-the-book methodology; basically everything that made me a young all-knowing cynic that turned to music instead. These kids, on top of having to adopt in a new environment, face a distinct dilemma of Should I Stay or Should I Go when their parent's stint comes to an end. Growing up is never easy, but these adorable three are lively, joyful and optimistic. I am not in a position to comment on parenting, but what a powerhouse, while her man is mostly absent, to keep three pubescent girls straight in a strange land where she herself has to adopt to. And to maintain a great sense of humor she always possessed from way back when, to stay true to her Southern Osakan grit. GM is a lucky SoB.
Or rather, I'm a lucky SoB to have these folks in my life.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.