Heat of Penang
By David Curry
10 Apr 2013
The heat is oppressive, unrelenting, surreal. It takes your strength, appetite and will. You can't fight it, there's no reason, you can't win. It's a thick heat, the humidity is so high.The moisture peels the paint from the walls and then peels the stucco until the red brick shows. You tie a ribbon on your fan so you're sure it's still moving. You try to sleep, but the heat gives you strange dreams. Dreams of jungles and strange voices you can't understand. Your clothes stick and you dread walking. You learn to survive in the morning before the sun comes or in the evening as it subsides. You learn to find relief in anything cool, a breeze, an umbrella, a cool drink. Anything to survive for a few more minutes. You curse the people who block the covered sidewalk and make you walk from the shade into the sun, even for a brief moment of time. You avoid streets that are exposed to the sun and don't have breezes. It seems it will never end. This is Penang.
The sun is setting as you leave your hostel on Muntri Street. The sun is finally easing, casting an orange and purple glow on the ancient houses that line the alley. The clouds are coming and you hope for rain. Thunder is heard in the distance mixed with the eerie sounds of the Muslim call to prayer. Several sticks of incense burn nearby. The neon signs of restaurants and hotels are lit already, some flickering in the thick air. Swallows fly in and out of the top floor of a nearby abandoned building where they have made their home. You think it is abandoned until you see the blue light of the lonely television casting shadows on the old watching in their chairs. A dog watches you from behind the gated door, too lazy and hot to bark or even stand.
A small breeze catches you as you round the corner onto Love Lane. Love Lane, where the rich kept their mistresses in days gone by. Love Lane that has warnings of potential evil deeds late at night. The sky is now completely dark, and you are glad for it. You walk closer to the middle of the street, leery of the shadowy covered sidewalks, trying to keep the breeze in your face, a couple of street lamps in the distance casting the dim glow as your pace picks up trying to avoid the broken covers of the half open sewers.
You hear Chulia Street before you get to it. Busy with cars and scooters and trishaws and smelling of food simmering or grilling on the street. Music from backpacker bars and flop houses, now frequented by the young and adventurous or the old and staid. Before the backpackers, there were sailors. Sailors from the navies of the world. Sailors from merchant fleets of the world plying the Malacca Straits on the lucrative shortcut trade routes from China to India. Shortcuts like Chulia Street itself, which takes you to the docks and jetties farther down. The street is lined with things the sailors needed, bars, laundries, cheap rooms, food. The same thing the backpackers need. Sailors made the way for the backpackers. Chulia is not the street of the wealthy Straits Chinese, the Baba-Nonyas, or the British merchants. It never was. It's a utilitarian street that provided services for the working classes and those passing through.
You pass the Hong Kong Bar, which served the sailors before they quit coming, before the fire that ruined the memories. The backpacker bars nearby do more business now. They have reggae names and posters of Bob Marley and Che. The backpackers don't have sea stories to tell and share. They tell stories of where they are going, not where they have been. They huddle together, their smart phones and computers dimly lighting their tired faces. The light makes them look thinner and paler than they are. The bars sell expensive beer, a cruel trick of a government that charges high taxes on the one thing that might make the heat tolerable.
You're appetite returns with the cooler air. You start to look for something to eat as you make your way down the last block of Chulia before you get to the junction of Penang Road. You pass the hookers hiding in the shadows and the used bookstores selling last year's bestsellers. Travel agencies selling cheap tickets for onward travel to places you haven't even heard of before. You haven't eaten since the heat started and that was just the toast and jelly (with free coffee!) at the hostel earlier in the day.
You reach the Penang Road junction. It's where the tourists from the cruise ships and the Eastern and Oriental turn around. The road is lit differently on the other side, the hotels taller and newer. Tall enough to steal the breeze from Chinatown where it is most needed. You see the Line Clear sign. It's a restaurant in an alley open since the 1930's, making one product. When you do it right, you don't need two. Nasi Kandar, basically a dish of rice covered with a mixture of curries and your choice of meat spread on top. It's been open 24 hours a day, every day in the same alley. It's raw and gritty. The pace increases when you enter. Everybody eats here. People in suits and people with no shoes. Celebrities that everyone knows and people who don't want their name known. The famous get their picture on the wall, everyone else gets good food.
They ask you if you want it spicy. You say yes. You know the spice makes you to feel cooler. After the curries go on the rice they put the magical ingredients over that. You want that. Get the chicken from the pot, it's been cooking for a while and the flavor has soaked in just right. The lights are glaring near counter; it's where you want to sit. Watching the experts order, a little more of this, none of that, each plate different than the last. Infinite combinations possible.Watch the hands that dish the food rapidly and with the confidence of having done it thousands of times. The chop of the knife making the meat into perfect bite size pieces. It's magic and they do the same trick over and over and you don't get bored of it.
Leaving towards home, turning right onto Leith towards the Blue Mansion and the Red Garden, you feel cooler, as if hope has returned. Maybe it will be different tomorrow, even though you secretly know every day is the same here on the equator. Only two seasons, hot and really hot. Maybe tomorrow you'll get rain, maybe not. You have to have hope. This is Penang.