Penang – The People

Mr Hu at Hu’s Family Mansion, Penang

August 19 – 23, 2009

Photo set on Flickr

As my previous entry indicated, our trip to Penang didn’t turn out so well. While we probably won’t make another visit to Penang, the one aspect I really admire about this Malaysian city is the hospitality of its people. Throughout our stay in town, people often greeted us warmly. I found it was easy to hold casual conversations with people who we had just become acquainted with – a rather difficult thing to do in Hong Kong.

A particularly memorable episode, besides the free ride we received in our first morning (covered in the last entry), was when we aimlessly wandered around Little India during a rare sunny break on the third day. None of the Indian shops held our interest, and we soon dawdled away toward a random side street.

As we walked by a three-storied building, I paused for a few seconds and took a look inside. The doors were wide open, revealing a simple Chinese-style interior. It was just a short moment, but already a man, who appeared to be doing some paperwork at a long wooden desk, called out to welcome us into his home. My girlfriend didn’t want to budge into a stranger’s home, but I gently pulled her inside, figuring we had nothing better to do anyway.

The gentleman, Mr Wu, poured us some tea and gestured us to have a seat next to him. Mr Wu, who is in his sixties, wore a pair of metal rimmed glasses, a brownish checkered shirt and a neatly combed head of gray hair. After a few exchanges, Mr Wu’s cousin came down stairs to join us. The younger Mr Wu has a striking resemblance to the former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian.

The house we were at is not just Mr Wu’s (refers to the older one from this point on) home, but the clanhouse for the entire Wu family in Penang. Mr Wu is entrusted to maintain the upkeep of the house, where the Wu family would gather for meetings or to celebrate festivals. Because of the duties assocated with his role, Mr Wu never had the chance to visit his many friends and relatives in Hong Kong.

The conversation turned to the struggles of minorities in trying to preserve their own culture and heritage in a foreign land. Even though Mr Wu was born in Penang, he took great pride in being able to speak Mandarin and having a great knowledge of his heritage.

“The Malaysian government wants to assimilate us.” Mr Wu shrugged, his tone confessed a hint of helplessness. “My grand kids can barely speak any Chinese. From the get go, the government holds a grudge against the influence and wealth of the Malay Chinese. All policies are designed to make our lives difficult and force our descendent to become just like them.”

Before we left, Mr Wu entrusted me with a booklet for his relatives in Hong Kong. We bid farewell to the two gentlemen and were back on the street. As we slowly walked back to our hotel, it did occur to me that there were many official slogans across town on encouraging peaceful ethnic coexistence under a united nation-state of Malaysia. Instead of the Multiculturalism or the Melting Pot society that I am used to in North America, the different ethnic groups in Malaysia seem to live together under mutual distrust and unease.

I will never fully understand the daily difficulties Mr Wu and his peers have to endure, but what I will always have with me is the kindness the many strangers bestowed upon us, be it Chinese or Malays, during our stay in Penang.

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