A DAY DOWNTOWN
One Day in the Life of an Anonymous Anthropologist
Hugh M. Lewis
Edited & Revised January 20, 2003
Copyright, 1996, Hugh M. Lewis
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The complexity of city life presents an inherent dilemma in the conduct of
urban anthropology that attempts to study something more than a gang, a
ghetto, a trade or a cult-movement, or the life-story of a street person, and
yet remain something more and less than a "mile wide" but "inch
deep" telephone survey. It is a problem of trying to draw human-sized
boundaries around a super-human sized reality-- a civilized reality that
appears sometimes frighteningly super-organic in many ways. It is a reality
that is always busy and impersonal, and sometimes full of threatening things
and possible dangers.
It is a problem of learning what things to pay attention to and what to
ignore, of what pathway to pursue or street to walk down, and what to way
safely pass by, of what practice to participate in and what person to leave
alone. I tried it for a year and have no final advice, except that the current
training and gemeinschaft perspective the anthropologist is perhaps better
suited for the tribe or village than it is for downtown Manhattan or Tokyo or
Kuala Lumpur or Los Angeles. My next time round in the field will be better
spent in some remote fishbowl of a place well off the beaten tracks of the
In the course of a year of trying to figure out what I should be doing in
downtown Georgetown, a few of the many pieces of the puzzle began falling into
place as recurrent events began catching my eye. Events that were at first too
small and obvious to notice, that then became too common or frequent to
ignore, and that finally were too large and obvious that they couldn't be
forgotten or easily left behind. These were just a few of the many, many
pieces of a huge puzzle.
In the following account some astute, accurate anthropologist would
probably criticize the compression and distortion of details of a year into a
day. There is compression of place as well as time, and this is deliberate as
much for literary qualities and "structure" as for anthropological
representation. The events portrayed really happened, but not necessarily in
the same order or within the same day or setting. As far as the compression
itself, no single day was so full, but it does portray a sense of the fullness
of each day. Most days were in fact pretty full, even if it seemed as if not
much important was going on at all. The compression does serve to highlight
the phenomenological intensity of experience that sometimes happened to us. Of
course, not every anthropologist would choose the same points to highlight.
Not every person would walk down the same streets, talk to the same people,
and have the same qualities or kinds of experience. There were close to a
million other people in Penang during our time of study, not including the
many tourists and visitors. Thus there were well over a million different
possibilities of experience.
I have no axe to grind in this essay. If I am guilty of "tropes"
(whatever those are) because I report the experiences we had as we had them
without an "eye" or "voice" to being correct, then so be
it. I do not need to seek deeper anthropological explanations or frameworks or
justifications for all that we saw and did in the field. We lived life mostly
on a daily basis, in mostly an anonymous way, as is typical of life for most
people in cities. The apple of meaning can be sliced in many different ways,
but it needs a bit of reality to bite into first.
They say that a person drowning will remember every event in their entire
lifetime in a split second. I've never had that experience, but I've always
wondered what I would do if I could do anything in the world I wished to do,
but had only one day left in life to do it in. Most of us have an entire
lifetime in which to do very little at all.
October 31st, 1994
We woke up early in the morning as we had a lot of errands to run downtown.
Things were slow on the Jetty and the people there seemed to be getting tired
of seeing us and would be glad of a respite from our inquiries. We were
approaching the end of our study period and had only about seven weeks left
before our departure to the U.S.
We got up, showered and got dressed. I boiled up water in our electric
kettle for coffee, to refill the thermos flask, and also to give our daughter
her hot bath. She liked her baths in the morning in a big red plastic tub.
Garbage outside our apartment, overdue in collection.
The kitchen smelled from the trash bags that we had saved over a week. The
trash truck seemed to miss our house a lot because it was situated off the
main street. They must not have realized that four sizable households used the
same containers outside. So, trying to be as neat about it as possible, I tied
the trash up in the black plastic bags. There were leftover bits meat fresh
enough that if we put it outside, we could count on the crows and the stray
dogs ripping open the bags and scattering the trash up and down the road.
I made the coffee and poured my daughter's bath in the back bathroom. We
had three bathrooms and two bedrooms in our spacious, but empty, second floor
apartment. We had a spare bedroom that we never even used once. We drank some
coffee and we got our daughter ready for the van to pick her up to take her to
Julie waiting for scraps to eat while awaiting her new set
Outside we were met by our closest neighbor, a female dog that was pregnant
and always looking for extra food. We took the habit of feeding her but quit
letting her come into the house because we had found ticks on her head and
ears. Our daughter liked her, but the Chinese girls downstairs were terrified
of her. A couple of months previously a pack of stray males found her when she
was in heat on our balcony early in the morning. I got up to find big and
small dogs at our doorstep. I grabbed a big stick and chased them all away.
Later when we brought our daughter down to wait for the van we found a big dog
and our stray in the act of procreation in front of our home. It was our
daughter's first lesson about the facts of life.
Our daughter called her "mutt," following my wife's example. I
called her dog. Her real name was Julie, and she was owned by the young son of
the Indian family that managed the sanitarium across the street from our
apartment. On any given day one could find a pack of stray dogs about,
marauding the trash. Often they had severe cases of scabies and mange and had
lost most of their hair. Occasionally one would saunter by missing an ear or
with wounds on its side or large festering sores on its body. I learned to
keep an extra pebble or two on hand to throw at them if they seemed menacing.
Motorcyclists would kick them as they drove by.
The van honked and met us early that morning. The driver was a Chinese
gentleman in his late fifties who worked three different jobs. His main job
was as a laboratory assistant at a high school. He had been doing this for
over 30 years. This was his second job, and he worked on weekends helping out
at a relative's coffee shop. He was a friendly, down to earth guy and we liked
him immediately. We never felt unsafe letting our daughter ride to school with
him, unlike other "bas sekolah" drivers we saw.
After the van left we went back upstairs, as I had to get ready for the van
from the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to come and
get our cat. My daughter and wife had found it out by the trash about a month
previously. It was a starving little kitten. It was my daughter's first
experience with a pet so we took it in and fed it. The first day we fed it
leftover fish. After a few days it got quite attached to us and I got attached
to it. In the mornings it would wake us up by biting our toes.
Little Miss Annie Simpson from upstairs and downstairs.
But it had caught ringworm from the stray kitten our English neighbor
upstairs had brought back. It was a stray she had found down at the morning
market. He was in worse shape than our own. It was all black and had lost all
his hair and was skinny as a bone. Its little fat belly dragged on the ground
as he walked. She named him "Billy" and put a nice collar with bells
around his scrawny neck. His tail bent at a ninety-degree angle in two
different places, and I never knew if it was broken or had just been born that
way. With his big bulging black eyes and bony butt, he was the ugliest
creature I ever saw and I couldn't help but laugh when I first saw it. Our
daughter told my wife "Mommy, Mommy, the cat has something coming out its
Soon Billy and our cat ("Miss Annie Simpson") were good friends.
And soon we discovered that Billy had given ring worm to our cat, our
daughter, my wife and our English friends and their friends who visited them
from England (and who took it back to England with them) and our cat went from
being pretty to very patchy in less than a week. So I decided to myself that
the best thing to do was to put down our cat before her or our conditions got
any worse. We didn't have to worry about poor little Billy because Julie had
dispatched him. We made the mistake of feeding Billy a fish out on our balcony
one night, and soon Julie came up and simply bit Billy on the neck one time.
Billy went into spasms and stumbled around and then fell down limp. I chased
the dog off and Billy grew cold and lifeless in my hand. I buried him
downstairs in the yard at the bottom of the hill. My English friend didn't
speak to me for a week after she found out what had happened, although her
mate laughed as we buried it downstairs with a flashlight that evening. When I
first told him what happened he simply replied "Good, I hope Julie killed
Billy the ugly black bald cat with a kinky tail and
Soon the SPCA van honked its horn. I ran downstairs and told the driver to
wait. I went up and coaxed Miss Annie Simpson into a cardboard box. I took the
box downstairs and the man from the SPCA opened a large metal box in the back
of his van, put my box inside it, took out a big quart bottle of chloroform
and poured several ounces of it into a sponge at the top of the box and closed
the lid. I gave him a small donation of RM $20 while he told me it was the
best thing to do with ringworm. He told me that there were frequent rabies
cases but they wouldn't pick up strays, only animals that were caged or
confined by their owner. It was the Council's job to take care of the strays
and lately they weren't doing much about it. Occasionally dog shooters will go
through an area to take care of the strays using shotguns, especially in rural
areas. We explained later that day to our daughter that Miss Annie Simpson had
gone to sleep at the hospital and would not wake up again.
We got to the bus stop to say hello to the Methodist Indian family who
waited there with us almost every day with their son. It took them almost six
months to warm up with us enough to even say hello. At first they would sit
facing away from us and not look at us except out of the corner of their eyes.
The mother would read her Bible out loud and the father would play with his
young son until the van came to take him to the church day care. Both the
mother and father worked for the Church, and he would do odd contracting jobs
with residential houses on weekends. He had a small cloth pouch with a few
hand tools in it. A screwdriver, an adjustable spanner and a pair of pliers.
They were from Kuala Lumpur where he had been a mini bus driver and they had
been living in Penang about six months. They had two sons who were quite
friendly. They never did ask us who we were or what we were doing there.
Man pushing an effigy on a cart up Hillside Road.
Two men pushing carts with blue sashes and material draped around them
walked up the road. These carts were used in Chinese funeral processions to
signify the sons left behind by the deceased.
Waiting at the stop, I pulled out my counters and looked at my watch and
got ready for the minute hand to reach the twelve. I had been counting the
cars at different bus stops for several months.1
It was something to do while waiting all those hours for the bus. I started
off with just one counter, but soon had two, counting with one in each hand.
Then I taped two counters together and was using two in each hand. At first
keeping track of the traffic accurately was tricky, but soon it was a matter
of reflex. By the time I ended I had been using five different counters and
was getting six different counts at the same time.
The bus rolled by going one way and we got our things ready for it to come
back the other way in about five minutes. We were near the end of their route
where they turned around. We got on board and said hello to the driver. The
bus conductress was our friend, an Indian-Malay woman. It was the smallest bus
line in operation in Penang. They were in the midst of a labor strike and we
had gotten the inside scoop on it. It made for an undependable service but we
liked the people and liked the long roundabout ride to downtown. If one
listens to the news or reads the paper every day in Malaysia, one would get
the distinct impression that labor in Malaysia is at least silent, if not
quite satisfied and happy. So being in the middle of a striking bus company
was a lucky happenstance.
We were happy she was the conductress because she liked us and liked to
talk a lot. She told us that she had previously worked for the Atlas Radio
factory for 12 years. It was an American company. She knew everything. One day
she went to work and everything was closed, locked up. Nobody told them
anything. "Towkay lari" ("the big boss ran off"). People
were angry. They had a lot of time in, and now no jobs and no money. The
workers went angry to the union downtown. The male workers were shouting.
Police came in and started hitting the males. The police beat the men up. The
women all ran off.
So they asked the union to represent them and negotiate a settlement for
compensation for the workers. She was promised RM $4,000 (U.S. $1,600)
compensation. She got RM $2,000 as her first check and splurged on gold and
diamonds with her money. That was six years ago. If she ever gets the other
two thousand she will go out and buy more gold and diamonds.
We were interested in getting the latest scoop on what was happening with
their labor strike. It started over the hiring of four new workers and a new
director, a Malay ex-Army man brought in from outside. The new manager had
given the new workers a pay raise without the authorization of the company
board of directors. The other workers got an increase but very little. Later
the new manager told the workers that he would have to deduct the new
increment out of their pay, so the four new workers got really pissed off. To
show support for the workers, all the old staff took "MC"
("medical chit"). The company had not given them any increment for a
long time and they had not had new uniforms for over two years. Many of them
were wearing their own clothes and sewing up the tears in their shirts.
Normally there are ten buses of which six run during the day and only four
after 7:00 in the evening. They wanted to teach the bus director a lesson that
he "should go to the Union first to sort out these problems." So the
workers had organized a labor strike against the management. The people,
drivers, conductresses and conductors and the ticket checkers were all
grumbling that they could barely afford to feed their families on their
incomes, a complaint which is quite true. "If have family, then how to
survive. The starting pay was about RM $11 a day, the bus drivers (all male)
earning twice that much. Everyone was paid in cash twice a month. It took us,
a family of three, at least RM $20 a day just to eat, and that was living
So one morning we waited over an hour for a bus that never came. It didn't
come the next day or the next. On the third day a couple of buses were running
and we were all waiting to see what would happen next. The union had sent a
letter to the bus company asking to meet their representative on the 20th of
the month. The Union leader came down from KL to talk, but the management
didn't turn up. They claimed that the letter had not been proper
"protocol." The Union officials got angry. The workers were mad
because they expected the directors to meet on that day to talk about the
The next day all five of the bus drivers went to the office and handed in
their MC's. They were within the labor laws so nothing could be done. All the
bus conductresses just sat there at the terminus. Nothing was going to move
until they came to a settlement. They stopped working for two days. The
conductresses just went there to have coffee.
In relation to one of the conductresses who supported the management,
another conductress told us: "We screwed her over, too." They fired
on her. "Her face was as sour as a fish" They scolded her. They
asked her, "why didn't you support the labor, because you would get the
increment, too." They were doing it for her too, they told her. "She
sulked like a bad fish."
That day only three buses were running, when there were usually six. One
goes up and the other comes down. The others were "broken down" on
purpose. The next day three buses ran again. The rest of the staff was still
on medical leave or they dared not do overtime (upon which many of them
depended) in support of better pay for the employees. They were asking for an
increase of at least RM $4.00 a day. With overtime one can earn up to RM $600
a month (U.S. $240) which is less than what the average factory worker is now
Our Malay-Indian friend had worked in the company for only three years now,
and earned RM $12.45 a day (U.S. $5.00). Another conductress earns RM $14 to
RM $15 per day. The management had promised to talk it over with them back in
February when they renewed the contract. But they hadn't yet discussed a pay
increment, new uniforms or anything. It was like a "double-whammy."
"We make the money for the company, and yet we're not being looked after.
We are the one's that go out and make the money."
The staff and the board went into negotiations to fix their pay, but the
board couldn't come to agreement on the matter. "We work in the sun,
rain, get abuses from passengers. If no pay increment then we'll stop work and
stay home and baby sit a few people. Mothers bring kids in the morning and at
the end of the day take them back. Less stressful, no stress."
The bus was relatively empty and we told that driver that we had been
waiting for him for two days. "No, la, increment problem. Company
promised us. After contract expired in February people waiting and waiting and
waiting. So we stop. Everyone stop. Management thinks its cheap outside to
live. We have children. Have to eat. We are the worst company of them all. The
Hin bus is the best, already two pay increments so far. Next comes the Lim
Seng Seng bus. Then the Yellow bus, then the Juara bus, and then the Sri
Negara. It's not worth it, too little pay. Some workers have gone over to
apply to the Hin Bus Company. One of the directors is from Ban Hin Lee (Bank).
To get an increment all directors must agree on the issue. Too much bother.
Five agree; five disagree. Nothing is getting done. The company makes money
every day. The secretary counts it, puts it in the moneybag and takes the
collections to the bank. The management is just taking care of themselves.
They are not taking care of the workers. We are at the end of our rope
already. They do it again and we'll go slow again. No problem."
None of the workers talked to the reporters. Reporters only called the
office and discussed it with the managers. Management talked with the
reporters. Things were building up to a crescendo. There was no news of the
strike, but we found a column in the back of the Star reporting the incident.
"Sri Negara buses fail to hit the streets" It reported a number of
people who depended on the bus route being stranded or late for work: "A
check with the company found all buses not running on Thursday and yesterday.
It was confirmed that all the company's bus drivers had applied for sick leave
on both days."
The bus moved off down the road after picking up a few passengers. When it
reached the waterfall near the Indian temple a mass of about 26 Indians piled
on the bus. I counted twenty-four women and two men. They were all coming from
or going somewhere and many of them must have been related. Indians were
always going in big family groups. Rarely did you see any of them riding the
bus alone, especially the women. Counting the number of men and women riding
the buses was another thing I had been doing off and on since the beginning of
This group took up all the seats and one or two middle aged ladies in saris
stood next to us on the bus, leaning over our seats with their elbows against
us, deliberately ignoring us. The one heavy-set lady had put her elbow and her
large breast almost in my face. I was getting pretty incensed because they
were talking to people on the other side of the bus and they were the only
ones standing in the aisles. This type of thing happened quite frequently, and
I think it was because we were probably regarded as tourists going downtown or
to the Thai consulate. I whispered "hantu tetek" ("tit
witch," after a female devil spirit who has "sweet and sour"
breasts and seduces boys and men to drink her milk) to my wife loud enough so
that the woman could hear me, and I shifted my body a little so that I bumped
her elbow and touched her leg with my foot. My wife told me, "shh!"
The lady then got insulted and looked at me and shifted over to the other side
of the aisle. I smiled at her in satisfaction. Anyway, they probably weren't
going as far as we were.
The bus rounded a corner and steam began coming up on the windshield and
from under the access plate of the engine by the front door. The bus driver
pulled up at the next bus stop and stopped the bus without saying anything.
Everyone just sat there still and silent. There is nothing more silent than a
crowded Malaysian bus on a weekday morning. After a couple of minutes, I
figured it was hopeless and I got up and came down off the bus to wait
outside. Eventually the whole bus had followed me down to wait nearby for the
next bus to come along, which came shortly.
We then got to talk to another Malay bus conductress. She told us that one
bus in one shift will take in an average of about RM $300 a day. On festive
seasons, and on Saturdays and workdays, they take in more sometimes. There are
two shifts per bus per day. The first shift starts from 6:30 A.M. until 3:30
P.M. The second shift runs until 9:30 P.M. We estimated that collectively the
buses must be earning between RM $2,500 and RM $3,000 a day, from which pay of
about RM $360 to RM $450 would be deducted. We could not estimate maintenance
but figured it had to be minimal since the buses were always breaking down.
One time a bus hit a car parked on the side of the road. The cost of the
damages was deducted from the driver's pay.
The conductress was telling my wife that an UMNO (the dominant Malay
political power in control of the government) official had come to her
kampong. It seemed that they were gearing up for the election. This official
told them that they were "bodoh" ("stupid") for wanting to
remain on their kampong. Why not want a nice modern flat. Our friend, the
conductress, looked pretty incensed about it. The conversation shifted to a
"siow lang," ("crazy person") a woman who was sitting
on the back of the bus.3
The conductress told us that the "siow lang" lives out in Tanjung
Bungah. She went mad because her husband left her for another woman. I'd heard
this kind of explanation for the illness before--when listening to gossip like
this it is impossible to separate fact from fiction, cause from effect. She
used to scream out on the bus, as we noticed her doing the other day when it
was hot and crowded
A man got on the bus with a lit cigarette in his hand. It had been illegal
to smoke on buses for a long time, and everybody was supposed to have known
it. The fine for smoking on the bus was a RM $500. Recently the government
made it illegal to smoke in any public place, and even set up a small
plain-clothes police force with the officially sanctioned mission and
authority for strictly enforcing the new law.
Self-explanatory sign found on all the buses.
This man sat near us in a nonchalant way and continued puffing his
cigarette. Actually, probably a majority of male adults in Malaysia smoke or
have smoked in their lives. There is not a developed sense of secondary
smoking getting in other people's eyes, and many men think nothing of sitting
right in front of you puffing away and blowing smoke in your direction. After
a couple of draws on his cigarette he threw it down to the littered floor of
the bus and stepped on it with his shoe. It didn't go out completely but
rolled, still smoking, to the other side as the bus made a turn. Everyone
throws their little ticket stubs down on the floor of the bus as they leave
the bus. It seems to be the standard, unspoken thing to do as one gets up to
step off the bus. I looked up and read a sign--"No spitting
allowed." It is written in four languages and informs all but the
Cigarette signs posted along fence in front of the bus stop.
As we approached our destination downtown, we see a whole row of yellow
signs posted along a fence the entire length of a road. It reads in three
languages "Notice, a recent independent survey confirms Benson &
Hedges is now better in taste, smoothness and quality." One wonders what
this company did to vastly improve their tobacco after all these years.
Wherever one goes in Malaysia one cannot escape a simple fact of life--the
cigarette companies have virtually unrestricted access to the Malaysian
economy. Salem, Dunhill, Marlborough and Winston are by far the biggest
advertisers on Malaysian TV., and most of the programs and movies shown in the
evening on prime time are almost exclusively sponsored by these companies.
Their commercials do not show anybody smoking, but they do show
"innuendoes" of fashionably dressed, beautiful young people in
paradise, or "rough riders" in sports cars or Malaysian cowboys on
We turn a corner and pass by the police headquarters downtown. The Japanese
appropriated it during the war and many Chinese were interred and interrogated
within its compound. At the main door about five young Malay motorcycle police
in their smart white shirts and tight black trousers were all laughing and
calling out to a young Chinese woman who had walked by wearing a tight fitting
top and a pretty short skirt. She was attractive but I am not sure their
public behavior was quite appropriate for their station, especially not in
front of the main door of the police headquarters. Most Malaysians believe
that a woman who dresses too daringly is certainly asking for trouble, and yet
women like to be attractive and appealing to the right person.
We turn another corner and go further down. We approach our destination on
old Chulia Street--one of the most active streets in Penang. It's getting late
in the morning (about 9:30 A.M.). We make straightway for the market. In front
of the market entrance, trishaws are parked, waiting to pick up local
customers who buy too much at the market and don't want to walk all the way
home again. Though drivers are sometimes heroin addicts (we recognized a
couple from the Jetty) and not to be trusted, many trishaws do a pretty
professional job and keep their carts spic and span, even polishing the chrome
and fitting their vehicles with lights, stereo systems, flowers and other
ornaments. Under and behind the seats, there are hidden compartments where
they keep their personal effects--a blanket, a raincoat, a cover for the
trishaw, a few tools to repair a wheel, some magazines to read, smokes, etc.
We walk into the market. Just beyond we find the clothes and household
goods cart--a rare find these days. In the middle of the market we find some
frog meat for sale. The seller doesn't want his photograph taken because he's
been bothered by animal rights groups in the past. I had gotten his photo
anyway beforehand. The market peaks out between 9:00 A.M. and 10:00 A.M. and
then slows down. Yes, I counted people in markets too, as well as sellers and
things sold. Markets are predominantly Chinese affairs, relatively few
Indians, Malays, or other minorities ever shop there.4
As we enter the main market area we happen upon another "siow
lang" (mad person) wearing a dress. From behind he looks female but he's
actually male. We've seen him around before on the streets. Only two or three
of the male street people we've counted cross dress in this manner, though a
lot of the females dress in pants and tee-shirts.
On a previous day in about the same place another female "siow
lang" had bumped and hit a woman at the market, and the middle aged woman
had become angry and was loudly scolding and threatening to hit her back. Such
a show of anger is not very common among the Chinese, and though some street
people show aggression and anger, rarely do most of them actually bother
people except for begging.
Fresh frogs for sale at the morning market.
Just beyond the frogs is another booth of fashionable clothes. Clothes like
these are very popular with local middle-aged women who are looking for nice
cuts at bargain prices. Clothes are a risky business according to a friend who
sells clothes at the pasar malam (night market). The wholesalers will only
extend 30 days credit and will not take back what has been sold. Peoples'
tastes are fickle and fashions change by the day and the week. You can easily
end up with a bundle of clothes that suddenly nobody wants. The profit margin
for the retailer is fairly low, perhaps less than 10 or 20 percent, as the
clothes business is pretty competitive. So, if one cannot sell all the
clothes, one's profits can easily be eaten up.
We buy eggs from the egg seller. Rosie always buys from the same seller and
so can count on the same low prices. She buys them by the ten, because in
Malaysia there is no such thing as a dozen. I offer to carry them for her.
Further down we buy a ringgit's worth of roast pork from the pork seller. He
takes the meat off the hook and cuts a small slice and then chops it up with
his huge cleaver on the old chopping block on his stall. My wife hands me the
pork to carry. As I reach to take the plastic in my fingers, the bag of eggs
slips from my grasp and goes crashing to the ground. I feel embarrassed and
ashamed. My wife looks at me as if I were a little child. I offer to look for
any survivors but she tells me to forget it. We look for a trash can to throw
it into but can find none for some time. We go back to the egg seller and she
tells him what happens. They laugh at some private joke in Hokkien as he
selects out ten more eggs for us.
We stop at the chicken seller on the end and talk to the man who works
there with his two sons. He is 55 years old and has had cataracts for two
years. His children range in age from the teens to their 30's. He tells me he
sells two hundred chickens every day. During festive season he may sell as
many as 600 a day. They work between 4:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. everyday and
earn about RM $10,000 a month income clear. There are six people working at
home slaughtering and washing the chickens. The university students who live
nearby them complain, and they laugh about it. He tells us to beware of
European and American drug users and snatch thieves and shoplifters at the
market. He points to the Malay price sign above his table. "It's been
there one year. It's mandatory. It's the chicken prices posted in Malay and
Chinese." We ask the younger brother why the older one is thinner. The
older one interjects "since this morning he already ate four or five
plates of rice." We tell him "then you must eat more to catch up
with him." We all laugh and take our leave without buying any chicken.
We stop at a canned goods wholesaler and buy some canned meat and dried
noodles and some "lap cheong" sausage for Rosie's Lau Mak
(Godmother) who hasn't a lot of food to eat. The Chinese wholesaler has an
Indian boy working for him and tells us he usually deals with the local
restaurants in large quantities. People don't buy from him anymore because
they all buy at the supermarket.
Another litter of kittens near the marketplace.
Nearby, outside, in a steal wire enclosure we find a cat with a young
litter of kittens. They are quite cute and deserving of our photo. Nearby in
one trash box I photograph a little kitten put out with the trash, though
nearby was a cage placed there by the RSPCA where they picked up strays once
or twice a week.
Garbage backing up the open sewer system.
We walk up to the end of the market and I go by the meat market where pork
is butchered. Here the drains are usually clogged with trash and the water
runs brown and red from the blood and runoff from the shop. It all runs
straight into the main drains and straight out to sea from here.
A very conspicuous paint job on the best film shop in town.
We turn and walk back through the market to get back out on Chulia Street.
There I have some photographs to pick up. We always go to the same place,
about once every other week. They know us and not only do they give us
discounts, but free roles of film and things for our daughter as well. Down
the road we stop across the frame shop across the street, to see about framing
a picture for a person we know on the Jetty. The frame shop has been there for
many years and the same men have been working there. They are expert craftsmen
at their job.
Chinese frame shop.
We stop at "Cheap-side" where I pick up a small hand tool and
some rope so I can make some shipping crates to send our data and belongings
back to the U.S. It is actually a small side alley that has been taken over by
hawkers of hardware. The best deals in town are to be found there, especially
if they know you. I used to buy a lot of tools there in 1987 and so knew the
people who are now on the corner. A family operation, they had expanded their
operations to include the sale of spray paint, and they now sell finer, more
expensive and newer tools than before. The father is now retired and the
younger sons have taken over the business. The eldest son told me he was soon
going to England to pursue a degree in engineering.
Just beyond on the corner that had once been a hardware-shop had been taken
over as a new fashionable furniture shop and was undergoing renovation with a
new roof and facade and paint job. Some redevelopment is occurring, especially
along the more prosperous streets of Georgetown. A little further down on the
other side a whole new six- story office building went up with a complete
glass facade, and down on the corner a shop house ground floor was completely
renovated to make room for a new jewelry shop. We mapped this entire downtown
section of the city and noticed within a year quite a few changes in business
fronts with new alterations.
New facade for an old building.
There is a barber nearby and I decide to stop in to get a hair cut, which,
unless one gets "scalped" costs only three or four ringgit. Most of
the barbers are Indian and many of them have been working in the same place
for 20 or 30 years. I like to cut my hair fairly frequently because the
weather is hot. It takes only a few minutes and they sometimes massage your
neck and put "bar rum" in your hair, just like I remember when I was
We turn the corner onto a side street and enter one of the poorest slum
areas of the downtown, one that is mostly Indian. There is a toddy shop and a
place where Indian men can be found drinking toddy early in the morning. Near
a hawker complex we find a dog chained to a wall. It was chained to the same
place the last time we came through a couple of weeks previously. It will
probably still be chained there after we leave.
We turn another corner and open the gate to my wife's God mum's house.
She's in the back kitchen tending to a boiling pot of rice on her charcoal
fire. One old woman has difficulty getting up because of her legs and hip.
Another one just lies there and sleeps on her long plank bed. In 1987, there
were about ten women living there, sharing the place and the costs. It was a
sisterhood organization. Many had come as young women together from China.
Most were Cantonese. In fear, they made a vow of celibacy and mutual
sisterhood to one another. They became the famous and dignified Chinese amahs
(housemaids) who were known for their cleanliness, dependability and
propriety. Lau Mak had lived in this same house since before the war. The rent
was frozen, so they paid only RM $60 a month. The lucky one's got married and
Rosie's Lau Mak (literally, "old mother") is now without family
in the world, and her greatest fear is that she will die without the proper
funeral rites to send her to heaven. The beds consist of wooden planks laid
across wooden, Chinese style saw horses, and topped with a piece of linoleum.
Now, including Lau Mak, there are only three old women left. One is blind, one
senile and deaf, and the other nearly crippled. I ask the one who can't get up
how long she's lived there--she tells me 24 years. Twenty-four years she's
slept on the same table in the same corner. She has no animosity. She has no
sense of outward regret or neurosis. She's resigned, always smiles and is
always friendly to us.
Wooden "beds" for the remaining swan sisters.
They have a visitor, an old friend who remembered my wife when she was a
baby. Now she stays in a nursing home, and she complains to me about the
problems there. The staff is mean to the old people and treat them badly,
especially the director, a Chinese dragon lady (a "bitch"). She
doesn't like it but what to do. Afterward, this woman takes her leave, wearing
a large straw hat and a large walking stick. Lau Mak calls her a country
bumpkin because of her hat, a "siow chow bor" or "mad
lady." She calls my wife, her Goddaughter, "si lok" (dead
prostitute) and "chow lok" (smelly prostitute) and scolds and hits
her for buying the food, though we know she is really pleased but cannot show
her feelings. She complains about a woman who comes and steals her belongings.
She stole a pair of black silk pants she owned, and some other personal
possessions. She broke into her cabinet and stole RM $20.
The lady comes at will and when they aren't watching she goes through their
belongings, taking anything she desires. She is not as old as they and is
physically much more vigorous. Lau Mak complains about her but is afraid of
her. She tells us that this woman has always stolen things like silver from
the homes she had worked in.
This same lady suddenly shows up and walks in without saying anything to
anybody. There is a deadly silence in the air as if everybody knows a secret
but doesn't want to say it. She walks to the kitchen, looks at me with a very
strained grimace, goes to the altar and prays, chanting something in
repetition out loud. Then she goes back outside and prays, before leaving as
suddenly as she came. She doesn't say a word to us, which is unusual because
every time we'd seen her before we couldn't shut her up. She would sputter on
unintelligibly half in inadequate English and half in Chinese and no one can
understand anything she's saying. Not much else is said between us. After the
lady leaves we give Lau Mak RM $50 (U.S. $20) ringgit to make up for her loss
and I tell her to hide it or lock it where no one else can get it.
Afterward we decide there is a little time and go back down Muntri Street
and little Stewart lane, the narrowest street in Penang where the houses are
scarcely ten feet apart. A lot of Cantonese live in this part of the city. On
Muntri Street, we see a man working near a door way and he says hello to us.
He tells us he's seen us around before. We ask if we can take a picture of his
home and he tells us he's just a worker. Three men are employed in this
operation. We ask what's inside and he tells us its all a storage place for
hotel furniture to be shipped to Langkawi (a resort island) for a new hotel.
Old Chinese shop house filled with wooden furniture.
He invites us in and we see that he is shellacking a large wooden headboard
near the front entrance. He works quickly as he talks. The whole operation is
owned by the rich Low Boon Siew, the wealthiest man in Penang (probably in all
of Malaysia). He bought this shop house just as a clearing station for the
shipment of the furniture. The manufacture of the furniture is contracted out
to the local carpenter shops, several of which are just nearby. There are
several designs of furniture in four or five grades. The grade depends on the
quality of wood.
Low Boon Siew owns much of Penang and most of Langkawi. He started off as a
barker for a bus company. He got into selling Honda motorcycles after the war,
and became the exclusive agent on the Island dealing with the Japanese. His
fortune skyrocketed and now he owns a chain of hotels, and the new exclusive 5
star luxury hotel on the resort beaches on the north side of the island.
We saw him one morning without at first realizing it, having coffee with a
group of old cronies in a coffee shop off Hutton Lane. We should have guessed
it for there was a gold Mercedes with an Indian chauffeur parked outside. I
was mapping the area and counted the heads in the shop without realizing I was
counting him too. (I also counted number of males and females who ate in
coffee shops and stalls as well as shop houses.) 5
As rich as he was, he still liked to hang out in the same old coffee shop in
downtown Penang, something wealthy lawyers we knew would not condescend to do.
The uncle who manages the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived told us
that Low Boon Siew was his cousin and they were members of the same clan
organization. He told us that Low Boon Siew was a very filial son, and the
only person who could influence him was his mother, whom he still obeyed and
respected. We photographed the old shop house with all the wooden headboards
and chairs stacked up, and we took our leave.
Small hurt kitten in the middle of the intersection.
We turn yet another corner and find a small kitten sitting uncertain by
itself in the middle of a street. It looks hurt and its head has a wound. I
take a photo of it and move it with my foot to the side of the road out of
harm's way, as an old Indian man watches me with amusement.
We quickly head to a commissioner of oath's office to have a copy of our
marriage certificate notarized. Inside the commissioner, who is an old friend
of my wife, is busy with three people at the same time. An elderly Chinese
women comes in and tries to jump in front of us in line, and she ends up
confusing the commissioner of oaths after she lays her paperwork on top of
ours which she is working on at the moment. She scolds the old woman and the
old woman looks indignant as she is forced to sit down and wait her turn.
We begin talking to an elderly Malay gentleman whom my wife also used to
know when she worked at the court. He tells us he was born in 1926. His
working salary when young was RM $15 a month. Then he says:
One cent could buy four or five things at a Chinese shop--sugar, coffee,
candy and groundnuts. Four people would share one mug of coffee. Policemen's
starting pay, customs, jailers, warders, all RM $15. Then there were no taxis
and few cars and rickshaw pullers charged only three or four or five cents.
There were Hudson's and Chevies. Now there's a car loan given by the
government if you want to buy a car. Everyone then took a bus. Only European
bosses, head of departments drove. There were bicycles, BSA's, Triumph
motorcycles, British Ariel motorbikes.
I can still remember. There was a tram from Magazine Road to Ayer Itam. One
month a person would spend only RM $10 and save RM $5. With three or five
cents can eat. Spend only a dollar for fish. One pair of imported shoes from
England cost only RM $4. A suit, coat and pair of pants only RM $4. Real
Estate at that time only RM $10-20,000 by Penang Road--now it's worth
millions--RM $200 per square foot. If you were a landowner you were like a
millionaire, like gold. Now everything is expensive. In BMA (British Military
Administration) time when British were here one dollar could buy everything
downtown for the family. Penang was a free port at that time so there were no
Older and younger people were different. In high court, four bailiffs and
nothing to do. The olden days and the new days are different. Last time food
was cheap. One cent could buy nasi kandar (Muslim Indian rice) with biscuits.
Now even if you have a million dollars you cannot get it. Then you could buy
rice with meat, you could taste the difference in the chicken. Kampong chicken
was very good. Now chicken with chemicals in it gets bigger. In Singapore, the
ladies that work in the house are all big bodies, all fat and no strength.
A lot of changes now, yes. Now starting pay is RM $500 and now if you have
RM $2000 a month salary your relatives come and stay for two days and your
face is sour already. Last time amahs from China earned three ringgit only.
The Chinese lived in large families and they respected the old man. Even the
monkeys respected the old man, according to one writer. In the olden days
there was more respect. Last time if you go visit older people always carrying
something-- food in a car. Now they come and bring nothing. Last time
daughters-in-law were "menantu," (a "good" in-law) now
they are hantu--(devils). Now women henpeck the husband because they go out
For me we must clean our hearts. We must pray for our health and our
families. Your heart has to be good. If you are a millionaire you go home and
live in a big house all alone. Make a lot of money and you become jealous.
What for? I am free and have no money. Either you want money or you want
freedom. Go talk to the rich people. Not free. They drive big cars but have no
family. I pray five times a day. I don't go to the doctor. I'm 67 and have no
high blood pressure. I make my own medicine.
We thanked him for his time and, once finishing our business, took our
leave and headed back out into the late morning sun. It's now after 11:00 A.M.
and we're getting hungry. We go to our favorite watering hole on the edge of
little India, a coffee shop that caters to the people who work at the Star
publications and is quite popular in the morning, but closes after 1:00 P.M.
until evening. The owner told us that he sleeps only four or five hours a
night. He closes on Sundays, like many of the coffee shops. He knows that we
like our "kopi o peng" and orders "no ow" for us without
our saying anything.
While we are eating the "gold lady" comes up to us begging. She
is another "siow lang." She is a short, elderly Chinese woman, who
always wears a flowered blouse with a sarong. One would almost be tempted to
give her something except that she has gold rings and heavy gold bracelets on
her begging hand. People say she is actually rich but wants to beg anyway.
People have stolen her gold from her and snatched her purse. At first, I
didn't think she was "siow" as she has a very clean appearance and a
very keen eye and orderly manner. If you don't give her anything she mutters
something under her breath and moves off. She hits all the tables in the shop
and then goes and begs food from a hawker. The hawker scolds her, and she
takes a bowl from a table and takes it out of the shop to put it on the
We eat quickly and leave. Three doors down is the office of the photocopy
place where we do all our photocopying business for research. We were his
first customers when he opened at the beginning of the year, and for a few
months we were his main business. He is a retired newspaper reporter who
worked for a Chinese daily newspaper for over 20 years. He retired and went
into printing full- time, which he had previously been doing only part- time.
He is now a very successful printer and has more orders than he can fill. He
opened this photocopy office on the side, but now wants to bail out of it
because it is taking too much of his time and is not turning a good profit. He
started off poor. His parents ran a sundry shop in Penang. Now he is quite
wealthy, owning many properties and land and several shop houses. He is
humble, dependable and hardworking. He works everyday long hours, from 9:00
A.M. until midnight. We tell him that we are finishing our study and will not
be doing much copying anymore. We pick up our order, put it in our bag, and
take our leave. Outside, the sun is high and it is beginning to heat up.
Sign with trash around it, reading $500 fine for dumping
Outside, across the street, we see a pile of trash around a sign which
reads "RM $500 fine for dumping." We find evidence of another street
person nearby with all the plastic bags of drinks hung on the grills of the
door of an old shop house. We pass through the streets of little India, where
there is much music and the smell of curry powders from the miller. Pigeons
continuously flock in front of the Hindu temple where an old man feeds them in
the street. On the other side of a main street we find evidence of another
street person who has quite extensive paraphernalia, much more than most. He
turns out to be a rather young, thin Indian man. We found him there one
morning with a dog and a cat that he was petting and trying to feed with a
bowl of food. He was reading a magazine lying on the sidewalk.
Front of an old photography shop long since closed.
We pass down the streets by an old photography studio that reportedly went
out of business a couple of years previously, with the old wedding photos
still in the windows, speaking of a bygone era. We pass by the foundry where
blacksmiths are busy hammering out metal anchors and grills. This is a
depressed part of town and many shop houses are closed up. There is not much
of the sort of commerce that one would expect in a Chinese city, and there is
a feeling of erosion and old age about the area.
Newborn kittens simply put out with the garbage.
We pass yet another "No dumping" sign to find even more litter
below it, almost in blatant disregard of the law. In the rubbish I find three
little newborn kittens that someone had put out with the trash. They are still
alive. An English friend, a registered male nurse, who lived with roommates on
the "ulu" (hinterland) side of the island, went kind of crazy trying
to save little kittens he would find that had been put out with the trash. He
managed to retrieve about nine of them, and caused a rift with his roommates
after one of the cats contracted a diarrhea infection and passed it to all the
other cats. He would nurse them and give them antibiotics, but all except one
eventually died. Before leaving, he managed finally to give the one survivor
to a nice Malay family in the Kampong where they lived. Unlike the Chinese,
Malays like cats.
We come to a "Kong si" in a shop house with a friendly man
outside who is the custodian of the building. It is another Khoo Kong Si (Khoo
clan association), smaller than the famous one that is just a couple blocks
away. He lets us come inside to take pictures and he describes the rank
structure of the Kong si membership to us and how there are actually three
Khoo Kong si's but they can never get together in an organized fashion. We
take leave of him and soon come to the Tan Kong Si (Tan clan association) on
the other side of the road. It is a large enclosed square with homes along the
sides all turned inboard and with only a front gate for an entrance (we are
now in the famous "clan complex" that was the center of secret
society activities in the 19th century, see Khoo, 1991). It was where my wife
had been born. She shows me the house that has the same address as on her
birth certificate but we are too afraid to knock upon the door. She was
adopted as an infant and has only vague recollections of the house. It is a
more conventional style Kong si in the middle of a large court surrounded by
houses on both sides turned inwardly and a gate in front. At one time members
of the Kong si lived in the court for mutual protection.
Historical renovation project of an old Malay house. There
are many nice and unrenovated old homes on Penang, falling into disrepair.
We leave and head back up towards Komtar (the central shopping mall of the
city, with provincial and federal government offices above.) Along the way we
pass an old Muslim home currently undergoing restoration. Then we turn up
Carnarvon Street. There along the street we find a busy coffin maker tending
to a shinny new coffin drying in the sun. We walk around the back of the
building to see the beginnings of the coffin cut out from logs and an old
carcass of a Chinese hearse rusting in the saw dust.
Logs being prepared to fashion Chinese style coffins from.
Just beyond we come to the shops where they make the paper effigies that
are burned at the graveside and at funerals. One can buy every kind of article
imaginable made out of paper--six different kinds of beer cans, televisions,
VCR's, clothes. We stopped in a votive shop next door and bought a few of
these paper articles ourselves. The things we choose to buy are
interesting--paper money, bank notes, checks, passports, a credit card,
jewelry and watch, a pair of shoes, a cordless phone--things that in real life
seemed most important to us at the time.
Since it is still early, not even 1:00 P.M. yet, we turn into the old
wholesalers market which is a central historical landmark of the city and
which is soon slated to be "redeveloped" by the city. We wanted to
get some photographs of the place while we still had the chance. It too was a
place that the Japanese bombed. It was one of the worst hit places, and many
people died there in the air raid.
Interior of the wholesalers' market downtown.
We walk through its maze of aisle ways and passages, perhaps hoping to
glimpse a ghost or two in the twilight of its interior. I had never been in it
before, and we set ourselves to work photographing as much as we could. It is
the place where hawkers, coffee shop owners, and restaurateurs come to buy
their food in bulk. It is incredibly busy early in the morning, but by the
time we got there the market had pretty much ended for the day. Complaints had
been registered that the sellers just dump their garbage into the open sewer
that flowed right through the middle of it. I have seen the sewer nearby at
the bus stand full of garbage.
Chinese shop house buildings were being systematically razed
We head towards Komtar through the area that is in the process of being
razed. We had mapped the shop houses along these streets seven months earlier
and now they were mostly demolished. The edge of the market marked the edge at
which the redevelopment was swallowing up the old city. Just beyond lies a
parking lot for the downtown mall and Komtar building which is the seat for
the city and state government and which sits appropriately like a Moslem
bulwark and citadel in the middle of a Chinese infidel city. Whenever I walked
by the place, I cannot get the image of a citadel out of my mind. More and
more of the Chinese city around it was slowly yielding beneath its shadow.
The Komtar building stands like a modern Moslem citadel in
the middle of a traditional Chinese city.
We hurry into Komtar at the bottom and go to a Malaysian attendant in
uniform. We give up our passports and are given little name tags to clip onto
our shirts. We are told to go to the 43rd floor. The crowded elevator rushes
us at lightening speed. Within ten seconds we are there recovering from our
instant vertigo. In a plush, carpeted office many people are waiting. It is
the "EPF" office, and this is the place where people come to
withdraw their social security money. The condition is that once you reclaim
the money you can no longer work in Malaysia again. My wife made the decision
to take her money out by herself. At the time it had been collecting 8 percent
interest and so had grown to a considerable amount over the years.
We had done all the things on the checklist--notarized, stamped copies of
marriage certificate, passport, our daughter's birth certificate, proof of
permanent residence in the U.S., a certificate declaring when Rosie last
worked and quit in Malaysia in 1987. There was nothing else to be done. This
time a Malay woman wearing a veil helped us. She was short with us. She went
through the checklist and soon told us that what we brought her was
inadequate. I think she couldn't see how it could all be so easy. She needed
my daughter's and my whole passport copied. So we soon rushed back down the
elevator, put the name tags in our pockets, and went out on the street to a
nearby photo store to make copies of our passports. We copied every page, of
which all but two or three were blank. We collated them and stapled them back
together again. Copying so many blank pages didn't make much sense to me,
especially for my four-year-old daughter who legally didn't need a passport
anyway, but we asked no questions and did it anyway. We were in a hurry
because we had to get back on the bus.
We go back up the 43 floors and return to the lady's desk. She looks over
the passport and asks Rosie why she wants to take out her money. She asks us
where we live and why we want to withdraw her money. It was my wife's private
decision and I didn't feel like we needed to explain anything to a stranger.
She doesn't believe that the card Rosie has is proof of her permanent
residence in the U.S. We ask her if not, then what does she expect to see. She
asks me what I had been doing in Malaysia. My wife cuts me short and tells her
we are traveling here. She asks my wife if she ever plans on returning to
Malaysia. My wife tells her she may want to return to visit someday, of
I try to make a joke of things to lighten the air but it misfires for some
reason and the lady doesn't smile but says something smart back. Then she
leaves the office for a minute and we wait, and then she returns and says to
my wife, "I have only one more problem, why didn't you give up your
identity card too." The immediate implications of what she is saying goes
right over the top of my head for the time being until later when my wife
explained the thing to me. In other words, the lady was asking my wife to give
up her Malaysian citizenship right on the spot. The IC card is the Malaysian
identity card. Every person must carry it by law, and it is proof of your
citizenship. Losing it meant major hassles and headaches.
My wife becomes angry and cuts right to the quick. "Why should I have
to give my IC card to you." It was not on our checklist. The Malay woman,
thinking my Chinese wife did not understand Malay, pointed to sentences at the
bottom of the form. My wife got angry and read the sentences out loud to her.
Everything in the office was suddenly silent and everybody was watching us. My
wife continued reading in perfectly literate Bahasa Malaysia. Now over the
year I've come to appreciate my wife's superlative linguistic skills as a
translator in Hokkien, English and Bahasa. The Malay woman looked like she was
getting pretty hot under her veil. She asks my wife why she won't give up her
IC card if she wants to withdraw her EPF money. My wife, mad and talking
loudly, tells her that she might live in the U.S. but was still a Malaysian
citizen. She cuts Rosie short and tells her that she will talk to her
"friend" about it, and if there were any problems her
"friend" would call us. My wife tells her to "talk to your
friend" and call us anytime.
We go down to the bus terminus and sit at the bench. The buses are running
slow. It is just after 3:00 PM. If we wait there too long the school kids will
be returning and the buses will suddenly become very crowded. Across from us
is a man we've seen before. A couple of times he tried scamming us. He is a
"confidence trickster" and he has an aggressive, mean air about him.
Last time I told him "no," he turned to my wife and wouldn't leave
her alone. I got really angry then and scolded him. I had enough of him and
had grown tired of his lack of respect. He was a man who would lift your
wallet if he saw the opportunity. This time he remembered us, and I caught him
with a photo as he was turning around looking at us while facing the other
While sitting there a Malay man we knew named Omar came by on a bicycle. He
saw us and stopped, and we talked to him. He was a middle-aged man with a
family. He had been in the Malaysian Air Force but quit before his retirement.
He told us that he was trying to find out information about how to set up a
"tau chooi" (or "bean curd water") stall from Chinese
hawkers at the market. He was thinking of opening a little stall out in front
of his kampong, and it seemed to him "tau chooi" was a certain money
maker. We discussed the problematics of starting a small business, the risks,
the hard work, and I advised him to go to talk to people who actually sold
"tau chooi" to find out more about it. We knew a couple of such
people down at the Jetty and they had told us how risky and difficult such an
operation can be, and how much you had to sell to make a profit. Then he told
us that he would see us when we come to his kampong to conduct our study after
we talked to the UMNO district officer and got permission from him.
I didn't want to tell him that there would now be no study, that I had
tried talking to the district officer several times but never got past the
secretary at the bottom of Komtar. The first time we went, I dressed in a suit
and a tie and carried information with me in my nicer bag. We went all the way
down town to realize that I had forgotten my official research ID card that
the government had given me when I was in Kuala Lumpur. So we went back to get
it and caught a mad "sapu" (unlicensed taxi) back downtown.
The "sapu" driver was a young Chinese man and his old blue car
was broken down. He drove fast, not because we asked him to, but because that
was his habit. He wove in and out of traffic and laughed while he listened to
the radio, and we cringed as we realized we would be his prisoner for the
entire ride. He drove through a bus-stop access to come out on the other side
past all the traffic. Several times he went into the oncoming lane to get
around slower cars, avoiding a head on collision by only a few feet. When he
reached Komtar we were relieved to pay him his two ringgits and push the
broken door open as we escaped. We never again took a "sapu."
But we discover that we didn't need the ID card anyway. We ask the
secretary to see the district officer of UMNO and I showed him my card. He
says, "Oh, you want to see the boss, uh?" (Meaning the District
Officer.) He tells us to wait a minute as he calls upstairs to inquire on the
boss. After a couple of minutes he returns and tells us that the director is
busy at a meeting right now and we'd have to come back if we want to see him.
I ask him when he might be more available, and he told me he doesn't know. I
ask him if we can make an appointment anyway or leave a message, and he says
that we cannot. So we come back a couple of hours later and try again, and the
next day and try again, and the next week and try again. He's always at a
meeting. So I decide I'm wasting our time, and I write a letter explaining the
situation to the Prime Minister's department that issued the card to me in the
first place. I never received a reply to the letter.
Soon a crowd of people begin appearing at the bus terminus as the new air
conditioned bus that carries people across to Butterworth (on the mainland) is
coming. People are pushing to get on board first so they can get a seat and
won't have to stand in the aisle. Soon a young man with a bag pushes his way
through everybody. People become stuck at the door. People waiting their turn
in line are being pushed to the rear. I am snapping photographs of the mass
hysteria when one young man looks at me and then smiles. This was bus
etiquette, there are no lines, and it is every woman, man and child for
themselves. It was difficult to get used to, but after several months of women
and men, young and old, coming up from behind and stepping on to the bus just
as you are about to go up, cutting you off in the act, you begin not yielding
A couple of times lately I cut off people like this. I do not back down any
more. I then push right on up and grab the first seat I see before them. They
look mad at me but I only smile at them. I used to offer my seat to women and
children too, but after going on board with my daughter, and having nobody
offer her a place, I quit doing it except for very small infants. Those were
just the facts of life.
Finally our bus comes, and though it's going down the hill instead of the
other way, we get on it anyway because we don't want to get caught in the
rush. We are happy that this time it is the middle-aged Chinese conductress
who is also our friend. We brought her a pound of Cadbury's chocolate with
hazelnuts because she told us this was her favorite. She had knitted some
clothes for our daughter's Barbie dolls and gave them to us. We gave her the
chocolate and she smiled at us and slipped it in her pocket.
As I was going to sit I tried handing my wife the plastic bags with the egg
and pork we had bought earlier that morning at the market. The bag of eggs
slipped from my fingers and splattered again on the floor of the bus. My wife
was really upset with me then. Twice in one day was beyond belief, it was
beyond being merely unlucky, it began feeling something like a curse.
There is a commotion on board the bus as an old man missed his stop at
Komtar. So the bus driver had to stop a couple of blocks down to let him off.
An elderly Chinese woman sitting behind him becomes incensed and begins
scolding the conductress for not respecting old people. The conductress said
it was not her fault. She had known the old man for years and he was always
slow in coming down off the bus. The lady rants about it out loud almost the
whole way back until she reaches her destination. She says there was no
respect for old people. She says her husband always had respect for old
people. The conductress had become embarrassed and finally scolded the woman
The bus emptied a little bit and the conductress began telling my wife
about what she had done the week before. Her daughter had miscarried her baby.
So the conductress wrapped the fetus up in a cloth, and took it in her purse
out that night on the ferry crossing the channel to the mainland. It was just
a few inches long and she could fit the body into a handkerchief. In the
middle of the journey she stood by the railing, said a prayer, and wished the
dead baby a good life when it was reborn and tossed it into the sea.
There is another "siow lang" man sitting two seats in front of
us. He is an old Indian man who doesn't keep his sarong wrapped properly
around his waist. We are two seats back, and we can smell urine from him. Two
young Malay girls with veils are sitting directly in front of us and they
cough and cover their mouths and whisper to each other. Then the Indian man
stands up and his sarong falls down to below his waist, exposing his butt and
his private parts. He tries adjusting it and has difficulty with it so it
remains with the cleavage of his rear showing before he sits back down again.
The two Malay girls are shocked and giggle between themselves and point at
perhaps their first glimpse of male genitals--perhaps their first anatomy
lesson. He has no money and the conductress scolds him. He wants to be taken
to the Hindu temple at the Waterfall garden and begs her and refuses to get
off the bus. She lets him go and tells us if the ticket checker finds out,
then it will be her ass because she will have to pay for him.
The conductress begins joking with the driver, a middle-aged Indian man
whose name is "Musa" but whom they teased by calling "Pak
Musang" (meaning "Uncle Wolf") because he is always mean to old
women but very friendly to the young women. Everyone is laughing. She is
teasing the driver because he always allows the school girls to sit up front
with him and lets them off at a special place, instead of making them walk to
their school the long way. He was another fast driver who braked hard and he
had almost knocked me off balance with my bags by speeding off before I could
gain my seat. The conductress told us that he had broken her ankle by knocking
her down before, and that when she was in the hospital he felt very bad about
it and from then on they were good friends.
Chinese farm fields below the cemetery along Tanjung Tokong
As we were approaching our stopping point on Tanjung Tokong road, we got
just past the first set of Chinese farm fields and by the mosque. It was the
point where I had seen on an earlier bus trip with the same driver a young
Malay woman in a pretty blue baju kurung trying to cross the road in the
middle of heavy traffic. She got to the dividing line and waited for the
traffic to clear. This was a common strategy for getting across the road as
there are no crosswalks or traffic signals and the cars come by at an average
rate of more than one per second.
Another one of a dozen new buildings going up between our
home and downtown.
Since there is a small Kampong there, young children are playing right by
the road's edge and cross the road everyday to catch the bus to school. The
only safe crossing points are more than half a mile down either way. Anyway
this lady saw our bus coming in heavy traffic, and so she made a fast bid to
get across the street before we reached her point. She crossed in front of a
car that slowed down a little for her but she didn't notice a motorcycle on
the other, blind side of the car. The motorcycle hit her head on. She suddenly
went flying about 15 feet and landed fully into the deep rain gutter on the
side of the road, her head hitting the edge of the gutter. The motorcycle
spilled over and the driver went sliding. We were just behind the car and as I
was sitting up front with the driver we both saw it happen at the same time.
It was right near a bus stop so the driver slowed and stopped. When I saw it
happen, I yelled "holy shit" out loud without realizing what I had
just said. I thought of jumping off the bus to help her but the driver pulled
away again and closed the door before I could get down. We looked back and
people were slowly coming to her attendance.
Earlier we had visited a family that lived on the edge of the Kampong by
the busy road. I spoke to the old man who lived there about the possibility of
doing fieldwork in his small kampong. He invited us into his home and they
were all very nice to us. He told me that he had been the penghulu (headman)
of the village for many years. There were about 20 homes. He said that he
became very discouraged with the village politics after UMNO people had taken
over the responsibility, and he resigned his headman-ship. He said if he
himself were still headman, there would be no problem to my coming and doing
some work, but now I would have to go and talk to the UMNO people who were in
charge. I asked him why they didn't put in a crosswalk or something for the
kids and he told me that he had tried in Kuala Lumpur (the capital of
Malaysia) but nobody paid any attention to him and nothing had been done about
it. They try to get him to leave his home which is about ten feet from the
road's edge but he is happy there despite the noise of the traffic. He'd been
there all his life. The village was over 150 years old. There were fruit trees
and the kids had space to play and they didn't want to move into a flat. He
told me that the traffic had only become worse in the last two or three years
and he didn't know what to do.
So I went to another larger kampong just up the road and found the UMNO
director in charge. He heard we were coming that evening and was expecting us.
We sat at the coffee stall outside the kampong. He rode a motorcycle and was
just about to leave when we arrived. He figured out who we were and came over,
and we introduced ourselves and shook hands. The situation felt very awkward,
and I didn't quite know what to say next. I ordered some coffee while we
talked at a coffee stall table in front of the kampong and I paid for it. He
said nothing and let me pay. I was used to dealing with Chinese, rich and
poor, and not one Chinese man or woman has ever let me pay for their coffee,
and they often paid for mine before I have a chance to pay. But this time it
felt different. We talked and drank our coffee.
He appeared worried about the upcoming elections that he thought would
happen by August (they happened the following year). I have to describe to him
in some detail the purposes of my study. He is reluctant because of the
elections. He is a local boy, he tells me. He tells me to visit the district
officer on the 19th floor of the Komtar building.
I try to explain to him my study and my purposes for wanting to work in
this kampong. He tells me there is a national election in the offing and they
are very concerned about stirring things up with the Malays before election
time. They don't want sensitive issues or orang putihs (white men) poking
around asking questions. In other words, he's telling me he doesn't want me to
do the study until after the elections, after which time he will have no
problem about it. He tells me that if I go and see the head director of UMNO
who is his boss, he can decide the manner.
We talked for about an hour and I tried to describe to him anthropology and
what it's about, and he seems to equate me with a poor edition of a Peace
Corps volunteer whom he remembered when he was a kid in his kampong. He told
me the government had since kicked the Peace Corps out. He described to me a
brief history of the Muslim religion in Malaysia, how it was brought in by
traders very early. I told him about my work on the Jetty and about the
Chinese people I was dealing with. He seemed very interested in this and not
to know very much about what the Chinese were like, surprised that I could
work in a place as notorious as the Jetty. He told me that he was born in this
kampong but they had sold their land and now he lived in a new flat just up
the road. He liked his new arrangement and thought that the kampong was ugly
and not modern and needed to be leveled. They were trying to get the people of
the kampong to give up their homes so they could develop the place, but were
having a hard time of it. He told us that he was in charge of the whole
northeast side of Penang, and that he works hard but wasn't earning much money
by being an UMNO official.
Then our Malay friend Omar sees us and joins us again. He and the UMNO
official seem uncomfortable with one another, trying to avoid each other. We
begin talking to Omar and the UMNO official takes his leave of us and departs
on his motorcycle. Omar tells us he was born in the same house as his
grandfather was born in and that the kampong was over 150 years old. He tells
me they are not happy there about selling their land to developers for a new
flat, but if that is what they wanted them to do they would do it. He said he
would sell his land if they give him a nice, new flat. He tells me living in a
flat is not the same. Neighbors don't talk to one another. He remembers
playing across the road by the seaside as a kid. Then their kampong extended
all the way across the road to the ocean.
He tells us that after leaving the Air Force he started farming a small
plantation with his cousin in the south but after five years they went
bankrupt. His brother was killed in a car accident at the USM (Universiti
Sains Malaysia) gate. He was rear ended by another car. His brother-in-law
died of asthma. He introduced us to his daughter as he grabs her by the arm
and twists it to make her stand respectfully before us. She is frightened of
us and wants to twist and run away. I liked Omar. He was honest, sincere and
friendly. I did not like the UMNO official who seemed insincere and concerned
more with his own advancement than the welfare of the people he was supposed
to be representing.
By sitting in the bus talking with the conductress, we miss our bus stop
and have to get down at the next bus stop past the second set of Chinese
farms. We use the opportunity to photograph some of the "special
development" occurring along that road. Between our house and town there
were about 15 new construction sites, some of which were quite large
buildings. One was a rambutan (tropical fruit trees) orchard when we first
arrived, but they cleared this off, dug a huge pit about 30 feet deep, laid in
dozens, if not hundreds of long concrete pilings that I nicknamed earth
cannons, and began pouring with reinforced concrete from the ground up an
amazing high-rise structure. Some of these structures reach up straight up
from the ground 50 floors or more. I always felt very uncomfortable whenever
we parked underneath these enormous structures, since I had been in the most
recent earthquake in Southern California. They recently had a slight
"tremor" in Sabah and everyone panicked and rushed outside of these
tall buildings. Our friend Omar told us that it would be like getting hit by a
coconut while sleeping beneath a coconut tree.
Our four- story Chinese house up the hill.
We always look forward to getting home in the afternoon. Walking up the
steep hill always overheats us and we try to avoid it whenever possible. We
get hot deep down inside the body and the head, and the only way to get rid of
it is to jump in the cold shower. I felt proud that I had learned, as an
American, to take cold showers without shuddering and shivering, and to
actually enjoy them. Whenever possible we would shower three or four times a
day--in the morning, afternoon, evening and at night.
On the way up the hill we slowed down and looked for the "si ka
chuas" (monitor lizards) on the hill. They had been nesting in the
drainage holes behind the concrete escarpment that was poured along the edge
to prevent erosion. I had been intrigued by the monitor since our arrival.
Reports from people on the Jetty claim that they grow long, as much as six or
seven-feet in length, and that they are frightened by them. "When we see
one we run the other way," an old jetty uncle told us. They actually come
onto the Jetty and break into cages and steal chickens. They live under the
Jetty and within the sunken boats and in the rubbish that was heaped along the
shore after years of dumping.
Sitting at the end of the Jetty one morning, I saw a small monitor just
underneath the boards in the shadows staring at me. It was not very large,
only about four feet or so. I slowly poised my camera and flashed, and as it
began to swim off, I ran under the board to get a few more shots, but it
slipped away. I chased it down the Jetty trying to get a shot of it as it swam
between the houses, but it had completely submerged by the third house down.
I saw a pretty big one in a large storm drain off the edge of Esplanade
when an uncle took us with a bunch of Jetty kids in his sampan around the
point of the island. Once I saw a "si ka chua" come down the tree in
our yard, and we usually saw them poking their heads out the little drainpipes
of the wall below our house. But never could I get a good shot at them with my
camera. We saw a large one, at least six feet in length, scurry across the
road about fifty feet from us while we waited for the bus near the cemetery on
the hill. They were ubiquitous all over the island. They swim in the sea, and
are not frequently seen by people.
One day we went out and found four of them sunning themselves on the wall,
and I got to photograph them all. Then, walking along a road downtown we
almost stepped on a four-footer that must have been sick because it didn't
make a move and let me photograph it in earnest. A Malay MPPP (sanitation)
worker came by in his yellow T-shirt and said it was the one he had
"walloped" the day before. He says every time he sees any monitors
he gives them a "wallop" with his broom. Just then a middle-aged
Indian couple came by on a motorbike. They too saw the creature just lying
there in the grass. The Indian man got off his bike and, much to the annoyance
of his wife, tried catching it as it slipped back into the drain and tried
swimming away. The two men chased it back and forth and the Indian finally
managed to get it by the tail and hoist it up and out of the deep drain. It
was a good four feet long as it hung upside down in his hands like a caught
His wife was mad at the prospect of sharing the motorcycle with it as they
rode back the direction they came. He told us he was a snake catcher and that
he would get good money selling it to the Chinese for meat. I photographed
him, his wife and his monitor, and, feeling very proud of the moment, he gave
me his card, that read "Raja Ular" ("King of the snakes").
He made me promise to mail him his photo and off he took down the road, the
monitor throwing up water into the street as it hung upside down from his arm.
Unfortunately, it was my best roll of film I took in a whole year, all
dedicated to the "si ka chua" (four legged snake or monitor lizard)
and I ruined it trying to develop them with some new chemicals I had bought
that were meant only for paper. So I was bound and determined to get another
picture of one. I saw a small monitor sticking its head from a hole as we
neared the top of the hill. It tucked back inside as soon as I lifted my
camera. As a last resort, I ran up to the hole and stuck the lens directly
into it and snapped a couple of shots. It proved to be the only record of the
monitor I was able to return with.
My only picture of a monitor, just below our home, after
We were just in time to meet our daughter returning from her school. The
chicken sellers below us were busy, about to go out to sell for the evening.
In the nine months we had been there, they worked almost every day except for
two or three times when they had a party or went on a one day vacation.
Everyday they cleaned about 50 chickens. In the morning they sold chicken rice
and in the evening they sold barbecue chicken wings at four or five different
busy locations on Penang. It is an extended family operation with two or three
brothers and all their children working together. The wife complained to us
they have to pay the chicken wholesalers as much as RM $20,000 a month, so
they have to keep working to make ends meet.
Figuring they were hiding their real incentive (and perhaps their greed),
we estimated that they were probably making a huge profit margin every month,
between them generating as much as a hundred to two hundred thousand a year. A
piece of barbecue chicken wing cost about RM $2.00, and they sold as much as
600 pieces a night. They bought a couple of new expensive Toyotas, and they
both had recently gone on separate vacations to China. The Uncle wanted to buy
himself a Mercedes so he could be like a towkay but his wife didn't want it.
They were all uneducated and spoke in a very loud and crude manner. He told us
he didn't like the Malays or Indians as they couldn't be trusted in business.
They spoke very loudly and he was always swearing in Chinese, but I liked them
We went upstairs, unlocked the door, took showers, cleaned up and changed
into shorts. My wife took the remainder of the eggs that survived the second
fall (only three were broken) and in the process she dropped the bag of eggs
again and broke several more. She put the remaining four eggs on to boil as
they were cracked. We went to shower and forgot about the eggs, only to smell
something burning, and to discover that all the water in the wok had boiled
away and the last surviving eggs had all burned up. We figured that it went
beyond misfortune, that probably we were cursed or someone had cast a spell
upon us. We were ravenously hungry and were hardly able to wait for the rice
to finish cooking and sit down to eat what we had brought from the market
along with leftovers.
Interior of our apartment, showing my makeshift "Anthro
Settling in to relax that evening, I took my daughter down to play in the
grass at the bottom of the hill just at dusk. We couldn't stay down there very
long because of the mosquitoes, but we liked to see the large fruit bats that
would come out and fly around the banana and mango trees. They were big and
very good fliers. We would watch smaller ones fly right over us from our
balcony. The little girls from the Chinese family that lived at the bottom
basement level called for Mahala to come in and play with them. I sat on the
steps of the door outside while I waited for her.
While sitting there I noticed a little creature in the corner. In the
twilight I thought it was a little monkey and then a squirrel. The lady of the
house told me it was a little kitten that was tied up and that they couldn't
get it off the raffia it was tied with because it had turned wild. It must of
been the source of the meowing I would hear at night below our bedroom window.
I found that the raffia had been tied tightly around its leg to the point that
it had cut off circulation and the whole leg was swollen and festering and
smelled terrible. The cat hissed and spat and scratched at me as I tried to
approach it. The landlady of the house had brought it with its sister from a
litter and wanted to keep it to be a rat catcher around the house. She had
tied them up because she was worried they would run off.
Two poor little kittens turned wild, with legs tied by
After some doing I manage to trap the cat inside a rat trap and to
surgically remove the raffia tourniquet that remained around its leg. Then I
find the other one hiding under an old cabinet. It had chewed its way off the
raffia leash but still had the tourniquet around its leg. Both of them had
been in that condition, in rain and sun, for a couple of weeks. I manage to
cut the pieces of raffia away from both of them and covered them with some
liquid disinfectant we concoct from Betadine solution.
The lady of the house tells she would take them to the SPCA the next
morning, but I didn't believe her, as I thought she would instead drive them
off and release them somewhere. They were suffering and in a great deal of
pain. Even if they survived, what good would be a three-legged cat, especially
in Malaysia. So I make a fateful decision and take them down the hill, and
with a rusty old parang, dispatch them on a rock by holding them down with my
foot and striking a blow to their necks.
We sat in the living room under the ceiling fan that night. Our English
friends from upstairs came down. She asks me through the open louvers if I
knew a doctor at that late hour. Her mate had been kicked in the ribs by a
Malay friend in a soccer match at the University and though he managed to
drive himself home on the motorbike, he was in a great deal of pain.
We called a nearby Chinese friend who had a car and he came right away and
we took the Englishman to the emergency ward of the hospital. As we were going
into the main lobby our Chinese friend happened to see a woman friend of his
who was a doctor on duty there at the time. Thus they took our friend in right
away and X-rayed him to find no fractures. They gave him some painkillers and
charged him only RM $2.00. We drove him home and we sat and talked that night
with them and our Chinese friend until two or three in the morning. Our
English friend later went on to win two championships in soccer in the
Malaysian University system, and he wrote us that it made him feel good to
kick some ass.
For all the faults of Malaysia one cannot criticize their medical system,
it must be among the best in the world. On several occasions we took our
daughter with a fever to clinics, paying only about RM $12.00 (U.S. $5.00) for
the doctor's examination, the antibiotics and fever control medicine. The
system works, and the doctors are adequately paid. The doctor we take our
daughter to must see as many as 10 or 20 people in an hour and earn as much as
RM $2000 a day. That would mean that he must be clearing well over RM $200,000
a year less the costs of operating the clinic.
Kuching Kurung who was being slowly rehabilitated.
A few weeks later the landlady showed up with a box with another little
kitten in it with the raffia tied around its neck this time. It was from the
same litter and was a little older by then. It must have suffered severe
deprivation, because as I reached in to take it out it hissed and scratched at
me and tried to bite me and flung itself outside the box. I put my foot on it
to hold it down while my wife got the same rat trap we caught the other
kittens with. We trapped it, cut away the raffia tourniquet around its neck,
and gave it to our English friend upstairs to make up for poor little Billy. A
couple of days later our friend brought it down in her arms. She called it
"Kuching Kurung"--little caged cat. It ran off for over a week, and
we searched for it several times, but our friend continued leaving food for
it, and it started showing up again. It would hide for days under the couch,
down the stairwell, under the bed, and outside beneath the concrete slabs
covering the rain gutters. I do not know what happened to that cat after we
1 Cars and motorcycles were counted at certain bus stops
within the greater city area. A set of 106 such counts were accumulated over
ten different locations. The average time of each count was just over ten
minutes. The average number of motorcycles was approximately 16 per minute.
The average number of cars was just over 20 per minute. The total amounts to
one vehicle every 1.67 seconds, which is about right, but which also disguises
quite a bit of variability in the pattern between different roads. On some
roads at some times of the day the rate of traffic goes up to as high as two
vehicles every second, making it next to impossible to cross these streets by
foot without becoming dangerously caught in the center between the lanes. Most
roads of Penang have become extremely crowded, with thousands of new cars and
motorcycles being brought onto the island every year but very few roads being
constructed or widened. The net result is an almost ceaseless congestion,
especially along certain main access routes that are prone to bottleneck jams
at certain hours of the day or on holidays, and making available parking space
The primary purpose of the counts was not to understand this volume of
traffic, so much as it was to get at certain ratios of motorcycles to cars,
single person cars and motorcycles to multiple person cars and motorcycles,
and to the differences in the number of male and female drivers. It is almost
certain that certain categories are clearly distinguished on the basis of the
ownership of motorcycles or cars. Though many car owning families will also
likely own and regularly use a motorcycle too, many families have access only
to motorcycles as an available means of transportation, and this marks a clear
socio-economic boundary within the society.
For counting over a total period of more than 1070 minutes, approximately
43.78% of the total number of vehicles (38996) were motorcycles, and 56.22%
were cars. This difference is found to be significant by the Chi square test
far beyond the .001 level. This greater preponderance of cars to motorcycles,
despite the fact that many car owners frequently drive motorcycles for greater
convenience, demonstrates a basic shift of wealth and mobility that can be
clearly associated with the modern development of Malaysia, especially over
the last decade. It means that most of the people focused in those areas where
the counts were conducted, have moved up to the "car" owning
category. This is reflected by the fact that most cars seen on the road are
relatively new and recent acquisitions. It also means that most of the press
and congestion of the traffic that has recently been felt has been due to this
increase in the number of new cars being driven, though more motorcycles than
cars are implicated in motor vehicle accidents. Motorcycles, always dangerous,
may have become increasingly dangerous and vulnerable to accidents due to the
increase in the number of cars on the roads.
There is variability in this ratio of cars to motorcycles, reversing itself
clearly in the downtown area where there are more poorer people residing
locally, where parking is more difficult and motorcycles more convenient and
mobile. There are an average of 21 motorcycles per minute downtown, compared
to an average rate of 18.4 cars per minute, out of a total of 23 counts
encompassing 203.25 minutes of counting. Along the Jetty, the number of
motorcycles is actually about equal to the average number of cars, an average
of 13.47 motorcycles per minute compared to an average of 12.7 cars per
minute, perhaps reflecting the lower working class environment. This
difference between downtown ratios compared to outside-of-town ratios has a
Chi square value of 3.2 that is significant above the .1 level.
The number of male to female drivers of cars and motorcycles were counted
over 9 separate times with an average of 10.25 minutes per count and a total
of 92 minutes. Out of an average of 16.6 motorcycles per minute, approximately
1.8 were driven by females. Out of an average of 18.74 cars per minute,
approximately 5.78 were driven by females. Though unfortunately not enough of
these counts were made, these ratios of male to female drivers reveal what are
strongly believed to be significant differences in driving patterns between
males and females. Significantly more males than females are driving
motorcycles on the road. The Chi square test for men and women driving
motorcycles compared to the total number of vehicles driven by men and women
is 12.1, significant past the .001 level. The Chi square test for men and
women driving cars compared to the total number of vehicles driven by men and
women is 2.494, significant past the .25 level. The highest correlation
between these counts was between the number of female car drivers and the
total number of female drivers (.97). It appears that the changing
socio-economic profile of Malaysians may be reflected in the greatest changes
in the profile of women, as there may be a higher proportionate increase in
the number of female car drivers.
The number of single driver cars and motorcycles to multiple person cars
and motorcycles was counted over 13 times for an average of just over 9
minutes per count and a total of 118 minutes. The average rate of cars counted
was approximately 17.35 per minute, while the average rate of motorcycles
counted was approximately 17.3 per minute. The evenness in rate is reflected
in the fact that proportionately more of the counts were done downtown and by
the Jetty (46%). Of these, approximately 2.89 (16.7% of all motorcycles)
motorcycles per minute, and approximately 8.49 (48.9% of all cars) cars per
minute had two or more people in them. This implies that cars are more
frequently used for carrying groups (presumably families) and motorcycles are
owned and operated more frequently by individuals, though the chi square test
reveals no significant difference in this regard.
The number of single person to multiple person motorcycles was corroborated
with a larger sample of 42 counts with an average of 8.63 minutes per count
for a total of 362.5 minutes. The total average rate of cars was 17.75 per
minute, while the average rate of motorcycles was 15.24 per minute. The
average rate of more than one person motorcycles was 3.476, or about 22.8% of
the total count. Slightly more motorcycles are being used in the transport of
other persons away from the central town area. About 42.85% of these counts
were made in the downtown or jetty areas.
The final consideration in the way of traffic is the frequency and kinds of
traffic accidents. A number of these accidents were witnessed during our stay
in Penang, and notes were kept on each of these. We witnessed at least 18
clear accidents during our time there. Of these, 14 involved motorcycles
(78%). Three involved fender benders between cars. The only injuries we
witnessed were with the motorcycles, including: two cases of severe injury,
one certain fatality, one broken arm, and two or three minor injuries to the
legs. One motorcycle accident involved hitting a pedestrian; another involved
running over a bicycle; three involved only motorcycles hitting each other;
five involved motorcycles hitting or being hit by cars; and three involved
motorcycles hitting or being hit by vans or lorries. Several of the motorcycle
accidents involved young persons, and several of these involved women. Several
involved making right turns. Several involved following too closely. A couple
involved passing a vehicle on the blind side, and several involved the
carelessness of the motorcycle driver who was driving to fast. Motorcycles
remain the most dangerous vehicles on the road, and safety precautions are
minimal. Young children without adequate helmets or restraints are seen riding
on the fronts or backs of motorcycles. The most common violations of
motorcycles are executing an entry of the lane from the wrong way; driving
down the wrong way; cutting corners; not making full stops; passing on the
wrong side; speeding; and driving on sidewalks.
were made on buses of the number of men, women and children, as well as the
number of male Malays, Chinese and Indians who rode these buses. These counts
were kept up for a period of three months and encompassed two separate bus
companies on four routes. It cannot be known how representative these
statistics are for the entire bus system of Penang, which comprises six or
seven bus lines and quite a few different routes. Who rides on what bus
depends upon the time of day and the area that the route passes through. If a
route passes near to several kampongs, it can be expected that more Malays
will be riding these buses. If they pass by an Indian community, as did two of
the routes that we counted, then more Indians can be expected to be riding the
bus. If you count at 8:30 in the morning, you will count mostly women and men
going off to their jobs downtown. If you count a couple of hours later there
are a lot of older men and women coming back from shopping at the markets or
going visiting. If you count after 3:30 in the afternoon, you will get many
school children of all ages coming home on very crowded buses, along with the
women and men returning from jobs downtown. These counts could have easily
been extended to encompass a wider area and more lines, but the net knowledge
learned from this did not seem to justify the effort or provide the motivation
to do so. There are many better things to do with one's time than riding buses
all day long, and by the end of our study were both too well accustomed, and
tired, of riding buses.
There was an average of 20 women (a median of 19, a mode of 24, and a range
of 39), compared to an average of 11 men (a median of 11, a mode of 8, and a
range of 29), riding buses over 71 separate counts. Just under twice as many
women than men are riding the buses, at least on the lines that we took,
although this is probably true for most or all of the other bus lines as
The number of Chinese, Malay and Indian men riding buses was counted over
35 trips. Out of a total of 327 men riding these buses during these times,
approximately 42.36% were Malay (and indistinguishable Indonesians), 32.57%
were Chinese and 22.77% were Indian. Impressionistically, this count
corroborates the observation that stimulated these counts in the first place
that proportionately more young Malay men are riding the buses. The most
significant difference was between the number of Indian and Malay male bus
riders, with a chi square value significant beyond the 0.001 level, then
between Chinese and Indian bus riders, with a chi square value significant
beyond the .005 level, and then between the Malays and the Chinese with a
value significant beyond the .025 level.
It is difficult to interpret these numbers as they were complicated by the
fact that all the routes went by one or more largely Malay communities, and
two or three lines went by at least one or two Indian communities. If larger
samples were taken, one might find these numbers coming to closely resemble
the national population ratios between the ethnic communities. It would have
perhaps been more useful, as well as more difficult, counting the number of
women on the basis of ethnicity rather than the men. First, the ethnicity of
women is more clearly marked and distinguishable than for men. Secondly,
because twice as many women than men ride the buses, it can be expected that
their numbers will be more representative of actual larger social
Bus counts were undertaken for another reason. Bus riders represent a
distinct social category in Malaysian society, those who do not own or drive
any kind of motor vehicle. Thus it can be considered that, except for a few
anomalies, most of these people are near the bottom of the social pecking
order of semi-skilled working class. This distinction is known by the
Malaysians themselves, as one day when a well dressed middle aged Chinese lady
missed her coming down place, asking which way she should to get to the main
shopping center, and the bus conductress who was our friend told us she must
have been a rich lady not to know the buses like that.
The fact that statistically more women than men ride the bus, means that
probably more women than men occupy this particular working class category
within Malaysian society. This category is reflected in the factory bus
system, which is predominantly for taking women to and from the factories. It
also has a resonance in the school bus system, which shows a similarity of
social status between adult women bus-riders and child school bus riders. This
type of difference is demonstrated by the greater imposed
"uniformity" of dress of women in the workplace and school. More
women wear more uniforms in the workplace than men, as do children in the
schools, and this uniformity often downplays or highlights the women's sexual
Street People of Georgetown
4 There are nine or ten morning markets that recur
daily in the wider Georgetown area, and more than this if one includes the
entire island. These morning markets, or "bahn sahns" are focal
centers of activity that constitute an important part of life in Penang. They
are the place where the majority of Chinese people shop on a daily or weekly
basis to buy fresh meat and vegetables, to by cheap household goods like
soaps, towels, toilet and bath articles, etc. They are also a social occasion
for women especially, and perhaps for many, may constitute the primary social
outlet outside the home--it is a place to see different people, the strange
admixture of the base and common with the exotic, and to meet and renew old
acquaintances and exchange gossip. It is only in the coffee shops next to or
within these markets during peak hours that one may find a majority of the
patrons who are women and not men. Thus the market in Penang, as well perhaps
as in all Malaysia, represents a focal social and cultural institution.
The three largest of these markets were counted for the composition of
people during different hours, and for the kinds of items sold there. All
three of these markets are clearly "Chinese" affairs, as are most if
not all of the other markets. Over ninety percent of the customers and sellers
at these markets are Chinese. Indians are common but relatively infrequent,
and Malays are rarely found there. This leaves unanswered the question of
where the Malays find their fresh food if not at the central market places. If
they have their own markets these were not obvious. It appears that they
frequent the Indian Muslim traders that are at the periphery of the downtown
morning market for a great deal of their commodities. They are found more
frequently at the markets on the outskirts of the city, nearer to the
Kampongs, and where fish and chicken is sold and the sale of pork is not as
open and central as at the downtown markets.
Though pasar malams (or night markets) were not studied, past experience
shows that these are similar affairs, with more clothes, toys, miscellaneous
sundries, household items, cassettes, and cakes being sold. The pasar malam
occurs every night in a different place. State sponsored pasar malams cycle
every two weeks. There are perhaps 60 or 70 traders, with 10 or 15 food
stalls. Chinese sponsored pasar malams cycle every week. A friend of ours
sells clothes regularly at the Chinese markets, which has 40 or 50 traders,
She had been a member of the market for about two years, and joined it of her
Separate counts on separate days at the main morning market showed within a
single street about 851 people at about 8:30 A.M., 926 people at about 8:40
A.M., 886 people at about 9:20 A.M., 771 people at about 10:05 A.M., and about
406 people at about 10:35 A.M.. Another count on another day of the same
market showed 1,149 people at about 10:55 A.M. Of this final count,
approximately 653 (56.8%) were women and 496 (43%) were men (a portion of
which is represented by the sellers). Slightly more women than men appear to
attend these markets. In an hour at one market, less than 30 non-Chinese were
observed at the market, out of probably 2000 people, and of the 30
approximately half were tourists. Thus proportionately very few Indians and
Malays frequent these morning markets, and they seem to be almost exclusively
hundred and thirteen counts were made of coffee shops in the downtown area
over a period of four months. It was noticed early that more men than women
were eating in coffee shops, sometimes exclusively so. It turns out that there
is an average of 11 men in coffee shops, with a median of 9, a range of 36,
and a mode of 3 compared to an average of 5 women with a median of 2, a range
of 34 and a mode of 0 (an average of one child with a median and mode of 0 and
a range of 10). The only times and places (12 times out of 113) in which more
women than men were found at the coffee shops was at the morning markets,
between 8:00 and 11:00 A.M. and one time at one coffee shop during a lunch
hour between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon (proximate to businesses hiring
women secretaries). A chi square test for significance of the number of males
eating in coffee shops at the time when women outnumbered the men compared to
the number of males and females when the men outnumbered the women is 174.5,
significant beyond the .001 level.
It can be safely said that coffee shops are primarily the domain of adult
males compared to females, and of adults compared to children, but with the
regular and easily defined exception of the morning markets. This conclusion
holds across the ethnocultural boundaries. The implications of the coffee
shop, as a central institution of pan-Malaysian culture, like the morning
market, have yet to be fully explored. Among the Chinese, at least, coffee
shops are frequently the locations of important business negotiations and done
deals. It is a place where business relations and partnerships are cultivated,
and clients are treated. It is a place where information and views are
exchanged between males, and where those at work can get out of the hot sun,
cool down, enjoy an ice coffee and some rice or noodles.
Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of
this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text
is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.
Last Updated: 08/25/06