Gently sweating in the pink Penang dusk, head full of wretched ache, listening to the mysterious and mournful honking from the street below. Yesterday the guesthouse was full of people, but today they all left and have not been replaced. Only we and the Russian lady with her sometimes-a-boy, sometimes-a-girl baby remain. We thought there used to be a husband, but he seems to have gone, too.
This languor--this languor reminds me of a sort of tropical languor that one might find in a Somerset Maugham novel. I have not read any of these novels, but I picture them to be full of sweating Englishmen and their pale, melting wives, holding parasols in their white-gloved hands. It is easy to imagine such people in Penang, easy to imagine them walking down the street, skirting Chinese, Indians, Malays, or getting pulled along in a rickshaw, their upper lips dotted with perspiration.
They make much of their colonial past in Penang, but the Chinese influence is even greater--at least the Chinese are still here. But the British left English, which greets our American ears in a charming, rounded sing-song. Here as everywhere people want to know where we come from--China? Korea? Japan? A man at the chendul stand, satisfied when I told him my parents are from Taiwan, asked, "So you speak Chinese?" I nodded. "Mandarin." He told me, "Sixty percent of the people here speak Chinese. Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, too." He gave a friendly chuckle. "Eh? In Taiwan they speak Hokkien. I can understand them and they can understand me. But I can understand one hundred percent of what they say; they can only understand sixty percent of what I say. Why, I ask my friend. He say it's because forty percent of time I speak English and Malay!" And with a big laugh he turned around and left us sipping our dessert.
Between meals we sometimes pick up and leave off a historical walking tour of the city. Ever since we saw an educational sign showcasing the different Penang architectural styles over the past century, we like to point at buildings and guess which era they came from. Surprisingly many buildings in our quarter still bear their colonial facades. Our guesthouse is one of them. New structures nowadays would not have such high ceilings. These buildings--letting in the light but not the heat--are perfect, I think, for listening to opera. Opera on a gramophone. (On a side note, there is nothing quite as lovely as walking through a Penang side street at twilight, hearing old music filtering through someone's open window. It makes you feel fiercely close to everyone and everything.)
Penang days, Penang nights.
Chendul is Chris's new favorite food. "Imagine," he says, "if you'd never had ice cream, and then you come to this town and there are ice cream stands everywhere." Thoughtful pause. "Do you think they have chendul in other parts of Malaysia?" I shrug and laugh. "Because all the signs say Penang Famous Chendul..."