January to December, 1994
by Hugh M. Lewis
Our plane flight was almost exactly like the one summer before, even down to the indigestion and diarrhea at the end of it. We left about mid-January, and wanted to get into Penang before the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations. This time we waited at the terminus until morning and then caught a shuttle bus to the other domestic terminal to take a plane to Penang. I figured that after taxi's, hotel fare and meal and train tickets were all added in, that it was just about as cheap to fly and much more convenient.
So we had arrived at the airport terminal in Penang before noon of the same day, and we took a taxi from the terminal to the same small Chinese hotel we had been at during our previous stay. This time the taxi driver was an older Malay man and we talked mostly about the earthquake and the tragic collapse of the Highland Towers building in KL. He had a daughter living in San Diego. He drove the back route behind the University, a way that he claimed was less congested, and by the time he dropped us off at the hotel he had shown us the photos of his family he had in his wallet.
They gave us the extra room they usually didn't rent out for a night until they could get us another room. We stayed in this hotel again for about a month, through the New Year Celebrations. Early in our stay there I began playing with my new laptop computer and tried to set it up to the electrical system in the hotel. I ended up shorting out all the lights and fans in the hotel when I plugged a small 120 voltage circuit breaker into the 220 plug. The thing exploded in my hand and left black scorch marks on my palm and thumb, and it cost me RM70 to replace the circuit in the hotel and to buy a power converter to run my electrical things on.
One night I found small mice crawling on the clothes line just above our pillow to get into a plastic bag we had hung at the end of it. For the next couple of days I found several mice scurrying across the floor and one time in the middle of the night found two or three in the bag of bread we had brought back and left on the table. I repeatedly told the uncles and managers of the hotel about the mice but nobody did anything about it. The managress said it was not nice to kill mice so close to New Year.
So I went down to Komtar and bought a couple of mouse traps and baited them. Within 3 or 4 days I managed to kill 11 mice in our room and just outside by the television set. One day I was making tea outside where the condiments were kept and noticed all the mouse shit all over the top of the table and television set. Then I found three mice inside a plastic bag that had crackers in it next to the television set. I grabbed the bag up off the TV and trapped them inside the bag, and showed them to the old Cantonese uncle who worked there. He grabbed a stick and opened the bag and managed to kill two of them, while the third one escaped. I quite baiting the traps after a couple of days as the blood from the mice was making them dirty and the last mice I got were small infants, and then one day I managed to cut a small chi chak (a small gecko) in half in our room.
We got to know the old uncles of the hotel quite well. The old man who had been in the hotel since the before the war and who loved the horses had gone into a retirement home to be with his wife. I managed to get a couple of interviews in and even some participant- observation of the New Year's celebration there.
A new managress had come in, and was the principle share-holder in the hotel. She allowed two of her male companions to come in every evening and drink beer. They would sit and drink and act rude. Older Chinese men would come in and get prostitutes. The hotel had gone down hill since we were there last and we no longer felt comfortable sitting in the lobby in the evening watching TV. A young Malay man was upstairs with an even younger Malay looking woman. He as so short and skinny but he acted so tough. He was a pimp and his girlfriend was a prostitute. They would go out every evening and then we would hear them coming back real late at night.
Later we found out that the two companions of the managress would go into the back store room at night or into empty rooms, and drill holes through the plaster in the wall to peep at women who had checked into the hotels. We found this out after we saw them one evening going into the room of two American women who were an attractive mother and her daughter traveling together, and who had stepped out for the evening. The next morning we told them what we saw and they said that they found white powdered dust on their bags. They checked out of the hotel that night and left Penang feeling very uncomfortable. Later, our suspicions about these two characters were confirmed by the uncles and the old manager of the hotel. They would have to go into the rooms after they left and patch the holes that they had bored through the walls back up.
It seemed like a crude and childish thing for these two middle-aged men who were both married and had families to be doing every night. The old manager of the hotel was too afraid to say anything to them because they feared that they were in the secret society and knew people who would get them back. They caused a great deal of consternation for everybody there, and news must somehow have gotten out about them, especially after an American who rented there died under mysterious circumstances nearby the hotel and the Malay couple suddenly split out of town on the same day without paying what they owed the hotel for back rent. Talking to the old manager of the hotel about six months later, we found out that the two guys were still up to their antics almost every night and that they were finally selling the hotel. He had been manager of the hotel since the early sixties but had had enough of their nonsense.
The week after New Year ended I was desperate to find a more stable and suitable living arrangement, and had to use public phones outside the hotel to talk to real estate brokers. The first three brokers drove us around and showed us nice, new and overpriced flats on the thirteenth, seventh and fourth floors of large flat complexes. A friend of ours tried getting us a low-cost flat for about a third less but everybody wanted a three year lease agreement. Finally, one morning I called from the road a couple of more agents, with a beggar sticking his hand in my face while I was trying to hear what the Chinese gentleman on the other side of the line was trying to tell me above the din of the traffic on the street.
By the time I got back to the hotel this gentleman and his colleague were waiting at our hotel in the lobby, and we quickly rushed off to look at a nice second-floor apartment of an old Chinese-style mansion in Tanjung Tokong, where we had stayed in 1987. It had a nice balcony overlooking the coast and sea of the north Channel and was semi-furnished. It was quite spacious, even though the Malay family who had lived in it before left it in the most dirty state I had ever seen an apartment--at the bottom of a stair well sat an old rusted refrigerator in a two foot pile of filth and trash.
The walls were covered with handprints, dirt, chi chak shit and crayon drawings.
The kitchen was covered in black grease. They took us to another smaller, unfurnished flat in the Ayer Itam area, but it was far from a bus stop and from any Makan, and we didn't like the idea of living in such a tall building after having been in the earthquake.
The next morning we agreed to the Tanjung Tokong apartment and I was to meet the broker and the representative of the landlady at 12:00 noon that day. Since I had only traveler's cheques I went down to a prestigious bank along Beach Street to try to open a savings account in order to deposit my cash, which I needed to cover the down and deposits and the broker fees, which had become quite considerable since 1987. At the bank the tellers wouldn't allow me to open a savings account because I had only a tourist social visa chopped in my passport. I told them that I was there for a year to do research, but they didn't believe me or understand me. Then I looked in my passport to discover that indeed all that was there was a social visit chop that was to expire in another couple of months.
With all my money cashed in my pocket, I walked out of the bank and hurriedly went back to the hotel. I got Rosie and we took a taxi to the immigration office in Penang. The rude officer at the window discourteously told us there was nothing he could do and that we would have to go down to KL. So we went back to the hotel, I called the broker and postponed the deal until the following day, we hurriedly packed our bags, took a silent taxi to the airport, and arrived in KL. by three- thirty in the afternoon of the same day. We rushed in another taxi to the Damansara building and got there about 14 minutes before they closed for the day. We were referred to about three different windows and offices in different buildings until a nice Malay woman told us that we needed to go to the Prime Minister's Department in another part of the city to look up the person whose name and address she wrote on a piece of paper for us.
We got up early the next morning to make sure we were at the office at its opening time. We had to wait about a half hour at the police gate in front, and were given special identity cards to wear when we went inside. I went to the office and told them who I was. They found my name in a file and discovered that I had never received their instruction letter telling me to visit them when I first arrived in KL. to take care of my visa and identity card. They had written the wrong numbers on the address and so the letter apparently was sent to the wrong address in the States, and never reached me.
We then had to go back down the hill to get passport photos made, which took about an hour and about a mile of walking and sweating, but we finished the entire thing by 11:00 and was back at the Damansara building by noon the same day, at which time I was informed to come back in two weeks time to have my passport chopped. There being nothing else we could do at the time, we took the taxi back to the airport and caught the 1:00 o'clock flight back to Penang. We called the broker from the airport, and we settled the deal on the apartment by 3:00 PM. We weren't scheduled to move into the apartment until a couple of days later, when the caretaker had time to come in and take care of a few plumbing and lighting problems.
The next two weeks we set about painting the apartment, finding a nearby day-care for Mahala, and getting the things we would need for the apartment--soaps, plastics, brushes, mops, a fan, an electric skillet, a refrigerator, a bed for Mahala, hangers, hose, rope, clothes pins and a few folding tables which proved essential for fieldwork.
By about the end of this period we took a bus back down to KL to have my daughter's and my own passport chopped for a year. The bus drove all night, and we tried sleeping as best we could on it, stopping up the huge air-con portals with rolled up newspaper. We waited a while at the busy bus-station, not able to find a seat on any of the benches, and ate at an Indian Muslim coffee-shop across the road, and then took a fast Chinese taxi to the Damansara building again where we again waited for about an hour for their offices to open. We were the first people at the same lady's window, ominously marked "Experts," except for an older Malay couple who cut in front of us to whisper to the lady, only to be finally redirected to another window. So we rode directly back to the bus station in yet another taxi, and within 15 minutes were back on another bus headed back to KL, which we reached by late afternoon, with it raining and all of us sick with severe colds from the air-conditioning on the bus.
The next day we were back in our routine. Mahala had missed only one day of school, and I was back trying to finish the paint job within another day or two.
For the next month we began mapping the shop houses of downtown Georgetown, walking along all of the streets and writing down the kinds of shops. Not really knowing quite what else to do, I counted people in coffee shops, trishaws, tourists, people on buses, cars, gravestones in cemeteries, and schizophrenics, and began taking black and white photos of anything unusual that I found. Toward the end of this month we began going to shop houses to do quick surveys. We were turned rudely away from about fifty percent of the shop houses we tried, and soon grew quite tired of the rejection.
Finally, one morning, we followed a large flock of tourists on trishaws to the Jetty area. Since they were all there, with policemen directing traffic around them, we figured we would walk over and check it all out too. A hawker we met on the street talked to us and told us to go over--the people were friendly and liked to talk.
My wife's only stereotype of this area were that they were all in gangs and criminals. She was very reluctant to go over to this area at first, and I listened to her, even though my anthropological experience told me otherwise and frequently tempted me to try it beforehand.
That morning we went over to the coffee shop and ordered coffee. We asked for the Headman of the place. He had just left. We could catch him before 8:00 AM most mornings. The next Monday we came back to see if he would let us come in to do a little survey work. He said sure, as long as we didn't kachow or bother anyone, there was no problem.
So the next day we got our forms ready, a blood pressure gauge, a weight scale and my skin-fold calipers, and we went down and started interviewing people.
One thing led to the next, and before we knew it we were down on the Jetty almost ever day weighing, measuring and checking people's blood pressure. The blood pressure gauge was a big ice-breaker with the community, especially after I found several people there with high-blood pressure and they went to the doctor to have it treated. Soon we were doing household and nutritional inventories, and simple color tasks. Gradually we began extending the range of the tasks and inventories we were using.
We arranged to come in and give drawing tasks to some of the children on Sunday, and at first they allowed us to use their clan hall room for the purpose. We bought cakes and chips and packet drinks for the kids and I weighed them and took their heights and ages and had them do a number of drawings for me.
A couple of Sundays later we tried the same thing, with a new set of tasks and with extra cakes and drinks, promised as we were a better turnout. Nobody was around with the keys to the room and we ended up using the coffee shop outside for the purpose. It proved to be a frustrating day because some of the young boys were especially uncooperative and unruly, disturbing the better behaved children. Thus we ended up giving up and passing out the cakes early.
Then I began mapping the Jetty and pacing off the floor space of different homes I had been in, to get a sense of the population density of the area. About that time I interviewed a household with several young teenage girls in it who were keen to do whatever I had for them.
A couple of weeks later the older daughter of this family came out to the coffee shop to invite us back to their house to give them more tasks. The mother then asked me if I would give her daughter's English tuition. At first I didn't take her very seriously, but she said she was serious. It planted a seed in my mind and I got her at the coffee shop one morning and asked her if she was still interested. She said sure, especially as I wasn't asking any money for it, but just the cooperation of the students in performing the tasks I gave them, of which by this time I had quite a few.
Within a couple of months I had three different tuition classes I was giving to different age groups, and the size of the classes grew from a handful to over 20 students. Financially it got to be quite a burden for me, because I couldn't ask some students to buy books and others not to because they didn't have the money, so I ended up racing about town trying to find cheap deals on used English text books, dictionaries and readers, and started copying anything useful I could find for my classes. I reasoned that I now had a stable "control" group for my tasks, that I could then compare the results with the rest of the Jetty sample as well as with any non-Jetty Chinese I managed to interview.
About this time I figured I would try to enter into the Indian community as well as into a Malay Kampong or two that was nearby our apartment in order to get similar comparative samples from all three subgroups of the Malaysian population. After several days of walking around little India trying to get interviews in, I found the Indians not only more resistant to being interviewed than the Chinese, but downright hostile to me. Since the Indians didn't have any apparent well-defined communities as existed on the Jetty for the poorer Chinese, and since the cultural resistance to intrusion among the Indians seemed extraordinarily strong, I abandoned the entire project of getting a substantial Indian sub-sample.
I next turned my attention to getting into a couple Malay Kampongs not far from where we lived. They were conveniently within walking distance and between them were of comparable size to the Chinese community I was doing. We first met the older ex-headman of the smaller Kampong. He was very nice and invited us into his small house. He told me that he had no problem with our coming in--he even invited it, but he had given up his headmanship in disgust at how things were being run by people who no longer cared for the interests of the local people. So we would have to talk to the new headmen who were members of the UMNO party.
We walked down to the other Kampong that was about twice as large and had just missed the local party boss in charge who was having coffee. So we walked back and returned with our daughter in the evening when we were told we could catch him.
We introduced ourselves to a heavy-set middle-aged Malay man who was just getting on his motorcycle. We ordered coffee and sat down and talked for about an hour. He asked me what I wanted and told me he was in charge of the whole area. I tried to explain my project as best I could. He told me that because of the impending election he wouldn't permit me to do any work there because the people would wonder who this "Orang Putih" was. I thought his fears quite unfounded, but understandable from his political point of view. I thought it amazing how one arbitrary individual, selected from above, was allowed to make decisions affecting the lives of so many people.
He seemed to equate me in his mind with Peace Corps volunteers from the early seventies. He told me he thought the Kampong a dirty and ugly place, and that he wanted to see it torn down and the people in it living in flats. I told him I was currently working with the Chinese down on the Jetty and he seemed interested in that. Finally, he told me that if I got permission from his boss who was the UMNO director of the Penang, then I could come into the kampong to do my research.
So early the next morning we dressed up and went down to Komtar to make an appointment with the chief UMNO boss of Penang. We got up to the front counter only to realize I had left my official research pass back at the apartment--I had been uselessly carrying it around in my billfold for several months now, showing it to disinterested Chinese who could care less, and the one day I might of needed it we left it behind. So we caught a bus back home and then hurriedly took a Sapu back the other way, a young dangerous Chinese man who passed several buses on the left and wove in and out of traffic like there was no tomorrow. We got back to the desk only to be told that the UMNO director was at a meeting. We asked if we could make an appointment to meet him at some time. "Sorry, no appointments possible, come back again."
So we came back later that day, and then tried one more time on the following day. Each time was the same, and I figured he was too busy and too important a person to be bothered with such a trivial matter.
I thought about it and realized I had been thrown a big bureaucratic boondoggle. The more I thought about the local party boss I had spoken too the less I liked him and the less friendly and sincere I thought him to be. He seemed like a typical yes-man I had known in the headquarters in the Marine Corps, who put his own interests before anyone else's. I wrote a long letter to the Prime Minister's department in KL thinking I could swoop over all this bureaucracy to get either permission or rejection from above. I got no reply whatsoever. Then I wrote another long letter, but still got no reply. After this I figured it was not worth the pursuit and found the Chinese, as stolid and money-faced as they may be, much more rewarding.
I did not give up hope of getting some kind of cross-cultural sample, especially as my tasks came to focus upon a single set of tasks compiled into a single booklet. I felt the theoretical and empirical importance of trying this booklet out with an alternative cultural sample to compare with my Chinese sample was too theoretically important to let go of, so I next tried to go to the prison to speak to the people in charge there to be allowed to interview both the prisoners and the guards who lived in the barracks with their families just across the road. After being referred from the guard at the front gate to another office, then to another office, and then back to the guard again, someone finally carried my ominous research pass and copy of my test-booklet into the warden of the prison. We were left standing outside the main prison entrance for about a half-hour before the warden himself came out, with two other officers, to shake my hand and to tell me he would only permit me to come in if I had a letter of permission from the department of domestic affairs, which was independent of the department of socio-economic development under whose aegis of authority my card had any weight. So I went back to my apartment to hurriedly type out another long letter along with a draft of my test-booklet to mail to yet another office in KL for some kind of response.
In the meantime we continued with the Jetty sample. Things were slowing down on the Jetty overall, and my "control groups" became our main source of information, aside from a few sporadic odd interviews we could pick up from virtually anybody along the way. We waited and heard absolutely nothing from any agency in the Malay government. So I eventually despaired getting any more productive research done and instead concentrated my efforts to completing the Chinese sample as best that we could.
Unfortunately, the Chinese sample at the Jetty was beginning to dry up. I think the change came with the relationship to my daughter. We had stopped going down there frequently, partly because our daughter was beginning to have problems at school. She would refuse to eat her lunch unless some of the adults there would feed her--something she had picked up on the Jetty with everybody stuffing food into her mouth all day long. At the same time, she began having crying jags. So we decided to switch gears a bit and to send her to school less--reasoning that it may be a little too structured, while at the same time taking her down to the Jetty just once or twice a week. But after this point it became more difficult to get much cooperation from anyone on the Jetty, and we began feeling like unwelcome guests who had overstayed our visit. Instead of greeting us with "have you eating rice today" people were now chronically greeting us with a double-sided "when are you leaving" or "you haven't left yet?"
By late October things felt finished. My sample sizes were not as satisfactory in a number of areas--but even my tuition classes were falling off in attendance. Many days only one or two people would show up, and I was lucky to have 50 percent attendance at any given time. We were spending more time again downtown doing participant observation. We were lucky to be included in the 9th month celebration of the God of Hades by a local business man's group in which were had become partly networked. I began taking a lot of photos of the shop houses and different sections downtown--especially the old wholesaler's market area that had been the focus of Japanese bombing during the war and that was now soon to be demolished by the Malay government in the name of development.
I began making some crates with some thin plywood and Meranti furring strips and simple hand tools in order to ship back our data and some of our belongings. The English couple who had lived upstairs liked my work and the young woman wanted me to show her how to do it, so that three boxes soon turned into five, with more wood, screws, glue and nails to buy. She ended up with a nice large box which she was very proud of. We got to now this couple very well. Mahala liked to go upstairs on her own in the evening and play with them--it was her first social contact without us--and she really took to the couple. They liked their beer and we would sit out on our balcony at night until the wee hours of the morning talking of all the important social issues in the world. A few nights we cooked up some grand Makan and invited several of these young English couples over--with beer, rice, tuna, bee hoon, chocolate, etc. We had grown quite fond of the British and their relaxed and care-free spirit and healthy, amoral attitudes.
Seeing that we were not getting any more productive work accomplished, we moved forward our departure date by one month. The last few weeks we spent mostly by ourselves in a relaxed way. There was no point anymore in trying to gather in more samples, and I quite giving tuition a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. I accepted about a 33 percent loss on all the tasks that I had wanted to get done--but this loss had to be weighed against the cost of remaining there and the increasing lack of cooperation.
Some mornings we would go marketing. In the afternoons we would cook and I would organize my data. I had to arrange shipment of my crates and went through my old friend who was a shipping agent. He ended up being about three weeks late on the shipment, and it cost me about twice as much as the original estimate. I was a more than a little disappointed to learn that our English friends upstairs got about half the rate for their crate through another agent. It seems my successful friend who had grown big over the years had also grown more expensive and less efficient. By the time the crates arrived at their destination, it had set me back on my schedule about five weeks--a delay which eventually caused a greater loss of a thousand more dollars and postponement of the completion and reading of my dissertation and my graduation date beyond the Spring deadline.
Once the departure date was set and the withdrawal from the field context was imminent, it was as if everything else just started coming undone at the seams, and the level of incentive necessary to continue to overcome the social barriers to gathering data drained out.
During almost eight months of field work, we had not seen any of our old friends except one person who visited us one time. At first I became increasingly angry with them that they had abandoned us to our plight, but we had eventually become adapted to being on our own and not requiring anyone's assistance, and we had accepted our lot and learned to live privately by ourselves. We grew to the point that we did not really desire their company anymore. During our entire time in Penang, we had only seen Rosie's sister once, unexpectedly in the street as she was coming from the bank. Though we ate many mornings at the same coffee shop where Rosie's niece took her Makan during her lunch break, we never once saw or spoke to her that year. They never called us or made an effort to see us, and I felt very bad for Rosie.
The last few days of our time in Penang, we checked into the Lone Pine Hotel down at Batu Ferringhi. I had been promising to take my daughter swimming in the pool for a long time--after nearly a year of bathing in red plastic buckets. I was extremely disappointed to find that their pool had been indefinitely closed due to leakage problems. But my daughter took it better than myself and we ended up taking her into the ocean which she had become mortally terrified of. After a couple of hours she was swimming quite freely in the small waves when she was stung by a Jelly fish that slipped through the old nets. We rushed her inside and the hotel management got some topical ointment which proved quite effective in quelling the pain. After a half hour she was acting as if nothing had happened.
I invited the students from my tuition classes to come and visit us, as well as the British whom we had befriended. The first day a number of the students came, bringing gifts. The next day some of the British came. The last day a few other Chinese friends came by. We all enjoyed ourselves and I took everyone out to eat hawker food in the evenings.
We returned to our apartment and collected our deposit the last day before our departure back to the U.S. The Chinese landlady was at first reluctant to pay us back, but thought better of it and pulled the cash out of her wallet. I gave her my task booklet which she took a couple of hours to complete. That afternoon we rushed downtown to do some last minute shopping. We bought a few gold presents for people back in the U.S., and a couple of gifts for the British couple upstairs. We were mainly interested in buying some books which were not commonly found in the U.S.
Our last day we spent finally packing our bags and just hanging out. By afternoon we became bombarded by a stream of visitors who we hadn't expected--everyone bringing parting gifts that filled up the remaining spaces of our luggage and stretched our weight allowances on the plane. We ended up entertaining our different guests until after midnight--by which time I had become so tired I was falling asleep in my straight chair and barely responding to what people were asking me.
The next morning my shipping agent friend picked us up early and we squeezed our heavy bags into the boot of his car and he rode us down early to the airport. It was a pleasant, cool morning and it was a different view of the Island than any I had before. A student from my tuition group met us unexpectedly at the airport to see us off. We ate some breakfast at the canteen downstairs and soon we were getting back on board the plane and saying goodbye to Penang for the fourth and final time.
Professional Pariah: Ethnography of the Anthropological Self
Hugh M. Lewis
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: 03/17/05