UNESCO may have designated the city a World Cultural Heritage Site only three years ago, but the city bears all the history and hallmarks of a truly intercultural mosaic. Never mind the government-sanctioned privileges accorded to native-born Malays (often a source of political and social discontent throughout the country); but on the street at least, one can’t help but be struck by the generally harmonious juxtaposition and weaving together of cultures.
Mosques. Hindu temples. Chinese temples. Burmese temples. Lutheran churches. Methodist churches . Catholic churches. Baptist Seminary. Girls’ convent school. Chinese schools. C hristian Cemetery. Chines e Cemetery. Jewish Cemetery.
Streets with names like Downing, Dickens, Campbell, Peking and Katz. Two of my favorite – with galleries, colorful storefronts and a vibe to match – are Armenian and Aceh Streets. I also like Farquhar and wonder how an aging Chinese im migrant might pronounce that name.
Samosas. Banana leaf. Nasi Lemak. Nasi Kandar. Curry Mee. Nyonya specialties. Hamburgers. Pizza. Guinness. The ubiquitous 7-11. Papayas, durian and mangosteen.
A Greek film with English subtitles at the Alliance Francaise (aka French Club).
A Hindu vendor, tikka gracing his forehead, hawking bright red Chinese papers and tchotchkes at an outdoor Malay food stall.
I dip my chicken tikka into dal at Mr. Kumar’s Punjabi restaurant when the imam from the mosque across the street begins to bellow: alluah akbar
I look up from paying for my morning papaya to the sight of Brother Mark – a tattoo-plastered orange-robed, Irish-born Buddhist monk, now based in North Carolina but perambulating around the world, from one monastery to another. Brother Mark tells me that when he was a child, his father prophesied that he would grow up to be a monk; it could be, the bald Buddhist reflects, that his father was simply drunk at the time. Still, here he is, alms-bowl in hand, walking through a morning market in Penang, ten years after taking vows. It’s my chance (no chance?!) meeting with Mark which reminds me that peoples and cultures that may seem worlds apart sometimes collide; and other times they flow and grow together just like that.