A Round of Rites

Everyday Religion in Penang, Malaysia



By Hugh M. Lewis


 Copyright 2000 by Hugh M. Lewis

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A year in the field is the standard ritual round in the initiation of the cultural anthropologist into the profession. There is good reason for it, and for going outside the boundaries of one's own cultural background as well. Changes happen, almost imperceptibly, in the course of that year. So busy had we become with the daily particulars of fieldwork, so hungry would we become by nighttime, that we did not notice the changes, nor the quick and sudden passage of the calendar. We woke up one day and I realized things had changed, that our relations with our new and old worlds were fundamentally different, but I wasn't quite sure exactly how things were different.

A year is a lot to comprehend from a phenomenological perspective that attempts to account for the minutiae of daily details and the nuances of moment to moment experiences and feelings. A stream of consciousness approach would soon become a mountain of monotonous ethnographic tickertape.

Larger than life relationships that so organize the world and order our lives within it are in fact available in face-to-face interactions between different peoples--they are silent in the background context and they subconsciously underlie many of the motivations and rationalizations by which we make sense of our world. They emerge with time and make an important difference in the net outcome of social relations and our identity in the world.

The changes I would most like to account for are not those in myself, but those in my family, an especially, in my young daughter for whom it was her fourth year of life. She was much more resilient and adaptable in many ways than were her washed-out old parents, and yet she remained fully committed to the American materialisms of Barbie and "me." Her style of speech noticeably changed so that she spoke perfect Penang English: "Daddy, you don't know one, lah," or "My father made this one, lah." And when Hokkien speakers told her to do something in Hokkien, she would faithfully understand them and do it or tell them "Mai, lah." I was still struggling with people's names and properly ordering glasses of ice coffee and tea.

It was an entire family that I packed off to the field along with my suitcases. If it had been myself alone things would have been different--perhaps easier in some ways and harder in many others. There was a lot we wanted to do, but couldn't out of deference to my daughter's needs. We had to get her to bed early at night, to allow her own play-time between our busy schedule, and let her watch cartoons on television sometimes. Repeatedly I had been invited to go out on fishing excursions with the men of the Jetty, but I never dared to because there would be no one to take care of the family. We missed several important nightly rituals for the same reasons. We did not want to drag our daughter out too late in the night-time and then possibly run into unexpected trouble. It had happened to us before. We had to cut short and curtail many plans and experiences because we had a day-care schedule to keep and had to be back in time to make sure our daughter was not left "home alone." I had to carry my 42 pound daughter on my hip along with my heavy bag and camera whenever we took her with us downtown in the chaotic traffic or to the Jetty, which was a long walk from the bus-terminus. This definitely cut down on my load of possible notes, camera gear, protocols, etc.

At the same time our daughter was a vital component of our work. She smoothed our way and frequently, easily broke the thick ice when we had no hope of melting it. The love and nurturance that Malaysians have for children is amazing compared to the comparatively cold and distant Americans always preoccupied with not touching children.

Many smiles, pieces of candy and illicit squeezes would be forthcoming on a daily basis from perfect strangers when not even a glance or a word were left for us. She fit right in with the kids on the Jetty and was soon running around its wooden planks in her underwear, just as some of the men did. She came in and out of different people's homes, and she soon looked like she had always been there.

But even she, my daughter, recognized the many differences between here and there, this and that, and she had definitely made up her own mind about things she did and didn't like. She was after all an American girl born in New York, and not much could change that.



A Round of Rites


Religion is central to the way of life of most people on Penang. It is expressed daily in devotional worship and through a series of annual rituals. Most of the major religions of the world are represented upon Penang--Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Christianity in its many sects and denominations. One can even find young Mormon men doing missionary work there. There are syncretic religious movements and sects common to Malaysia such as Sai Baba, Bahai, and Hari Krishnas (Ackerman 1988). There is a great amount of religious syncretism, and it is not uncommon to find many peoples of different faiths attending different religious celebrations. Hindu Indians can be found praying in the Goddess of Mercy Temple, and, more frequently, Chinese can be found at Hindu Temples. Chinese will go to almost every kind of festival (they like to cover all their bases), whether Christian, Hindu or even to Muslim kramats (saint). There are hundreds of "dato kong" shrines (literally "grandfather" in Malay and "grandfather" in Chinese) scattered across the island, mostly local male deities that guard the locality. Practically any tree or rock can become the home of such a spirit. The birthdays of these spirits are celebrated with three day long celebrations that involve trancing and the religious fusion of diverse cultural elements.1

Other noteworthy aspects of religious syncretism on Penang are particular beliefs and ritual practices. A striking example is the use of water with flower petals and lime as a purifying or cleansing agent.2 Ritual baths with only water are a common part of Malay animism--water is interpreted as a boundary weakener that allows passage from one state to another (Endicott 1970). The Chinese believe that the lime, petal and water concoction cleans impurities from the body. Lime is seen as a cleansing agent--the impurities becoming concentrated in the lime pulp. Lime is also used for divination by a spirit-medium in trance. In this case, seven lime pieces are cut, just as the petals of seven flowers are used--seven "transcends distinctions based on differences in colour" (Endicott 1970:137).

The daily and annual rhythms of life in Penang are punctuated by and measured in terms of an endless round of ritual devotions and celebrations (see Figure 2-1). As a daily way of life and religious worldview as a shared experience, religion constitutes for most Malaysians a reality leaving little room for secular notions of scientific rationalism or romantic ideals of individualism. Religious worship as a basic way of life and as a guaranteed freedom is held to provide a principle mechanism for maintenance of social order within a radically plural setting. For the poor at least, religious worship provides a limitless source of hope and spiritual salvation.












Chinese New Year






Masi Maham

Jade Emperor's Birthday

Hari Raya Puasa





Goddess of Mercy Birthday





Cithirai Parwam

Cheng Beng



Easter Annunciation








Wesak Day




Labour Day





Chung Day


Hari Raya Haji


King's Birthday




Goddess of Mercy


Awal Muharram

Saint Anne's Feast




Hungry Ghost








Lantern & Mooncake Festival






Vegetarian Festival

Mohammed's Birthday























Approximate Dates according to the Gregorian Calendar of the Festivals of the Penang Ritual Calendar.



January to December, 1994

The Chinese New Year is a big time for the Hokkiens in Penang. For that reason, we arrived in Penang early so that we would not be caught late for the New Year Festive season when all the hotels fill up and double in price.

Actually, Thaipusam was the first festival we attended. It occurred the first day after we arrived. The day before Thaipusam is the Silver Chariot Procession, the Indian celebration for the Lord Subramaniam, celebrated from the seventh to ninth day of the month of Thai of the Hindu lunar calendar. Sleepless from jet-lag, we got up at 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. and went out to Penang road to intercept the Hindu chariot as it was slowly being pulled along by oxen.


Chariot at Thaipusam being brought down near our Hotel in the early morning hours.


People are smashing coconuts in the streets in front of the advancing chariot, and the gutters ran white with the coconut milk. Before the chariot comes, large mounds of coconuts are to be seen along the streets. People buy these mounds and make a vow, according to one informant, to smash a "hundred and one or a thousand and one" coconuts, and many people join in the gaiety. If you venture too close you will become drenched in coconut milk. Young Chinese and Indian men and boys join in the mad coconut smashing. Indian women especially in their pretty saris are careful not to get in the way of the action.

A small shrine comes, followed by another and then the chariot drawn by two white oxen with their horns decorated with paper flowers and painted red and green. Behind the well lit, gilt chariot, a green lorry pulls two white photographers on top and a generator behind to which it is connected by a heavy electrical cable suspended in the air and kept taut. Behind this vehicle is another smaller shrine on a vehicle followed by a cart carrying the generator itself. Mostly Tamils walk behind, praying and chanting, with some playing drums. The chariot stops and the oxen are disconnected and replaced by two new oxen. It is about 5:30 A.M. and the musicians continue to play in front of the chariot.

There are many people ambling about quietly. Six police officers on motorcycles follow immediately behind the last lorry. My wife gets some holy ashes from the priests on the chariot and daubs some on me and my daughter's forehead. Mahala immediately wipes it away.

The musicians begin playing their horns and we drop some ringgits into a white cloth pouch carried by a man. He gives me a small picture of Lord Krishna represented as a small boy sitting on a woman's lap. It is my first piece of anthropological evidence, bought and paid for, and I deftly put it away in my wallet. It is 5:35 A.M. and the Chariot begins to move again. The oxen are leading forward at a pretty fast pace. The lorry following has a singer and tambourine players and drummers. People are dragging the generator behind. Coconut shells are being swept out of the way.

It was the first opportunity for trying out my camera and I feel pretty awkward and self-conscious about it. We join in behind the procession with the young Tamil men and women. I feel hesitant and intrusive to take photographs of all these strange people, but no one seemed to mind or pay much attention to me--many even seem happy to see me there doing it.

A little way down the Chariot stops in its slow procession. It is slow going, stopping and starting all the way, and after a while we quit the parade. We walk down toward the main morning market, or "bahn sahn" at the Chowrastra wet market, just before 6:00 A.M. It is early yet and only rats are running and jumping about in the dark shadows of the streets, gutters and alleys. A few hawkers are setting up. Lorries are off-loading fish and meat. Shopkeepers are putting out their wares for the market. A Malay stall nearby is open. The cocks are crowing their final crows in their little cages. There are quite a few people sleeping on the sides of the streets. The fish market inside is busy.

Things are slow that early in the morning, so we go to a "dim sum" shop that is open between 4:00 and 12:00 A.M. It is bright and smoky inside, and comprised mostly of older men who all stare at us as we grab a table toward the back. A managress tells us the peak hour is between 8:00 and 8:30 A.M., but it is already full with a lot of men. An elderly waiter brings out a huge bamboo steamer rack and we pick out some sticky rice in a bowl that they tip over on our plate, and some steamed "shu mai" dumplings, fried rice and sesame seed buns. Then a rack comes around with some "pao" dumplings. We drink Chinese tea steeped in a very hot tin tea-pot from tiny little cups. The dumplings and rice are good but greasy and heavy on the stomach. Rosie gets some "pao" and leftover sesame cake to take to her God mum. She wants to take it right away but I don't want to walk so far so early in the morning.

So we decide to walk through Chowrastara market again at 7:00 A.M. but it is not quite all set up yet. My wife says it's probably still too dark out. A lot of trucks are coming in with their wares--bean sprouts, fish, vegetables. Older children in their blue and white uniforms are going to school, and a small yellow "bas sekolah" (school bus) comes by, half full of young ladies. Already there are quite a few customers on motorbikes probably trying to avoid the rush. We go to a coffee shop on the corner and order more coffee as it begins to fill up with customers. Things seem slow today and people look very tired. The water for the coffee is not yet boiling, and some of the customers waiting are a little impatient.

A man moves from a table in front of us to a table behind us to get a better place. The waitress asks him why he moved and he tells her because the "feng shui" (Chinese geomancy, a central part of Hokkien religious beliefs) is not good there. She then asks him if "he bought his good luck charm so he could move around."

A mother with a young son and daughter is sitting at another table near us. The son is in a high chair and appears very rambunctious. The little boy knocks over the noodles and bowl onto the floor. The mother slaps the daughter and then strikes the little boy across the face. He cries out, but his crying stops as his mother resumes feeding him. The grandmother who is out in the market comes over and sits with them, helping to feed the daughter.

Within 15 minutes, the dawn has fully broken and the market outside is now bustling with people--mostly middle-aged Chinese men and women out buying their food early. It is busy because people are getting ready for the New Year celebrations. In a few days prices will go up and many shops will close. People spend hundreds of ringgit on food alone for this occasion. I go outside and make my first inventory of things sold in the market, bumping peoples' elbows and dodging between motorcycles and cars.

That morning we catch site of an Indian "kavadi carrier" down by the Hindu temple. He has made a vow to carry the kavadi (a symbolic structure constructed of wood and paper and designed to be carried on the shoulders or dragged or pushed for doing penance) from the point that the chariot is stored across from the temple for Lord Shiva in little India, all the way up to the waterfall Hindu temple on the hill, almost four or five miles, I estimate. He draws quite a crowd of tourists and locals. He has placed a skewer through his cheeks and has sharp hooks piercing the skin of his back from which he will haul the cart. He is getting himself ready by entering into a state of trance. People can be seen all day long walking on nails, suspended from hooks, sharp points piercing their bodies as they carry heavy "kavadis" upon their head.


Kavadi carrier at Taipusam


Young girls and their mothers will make the journey carrying a can of milk upon their heads. Many will go into trance before they reach the temple, and the trance state is both desired and practiced before the event, and climaxes with exhaustion when they reach the upper steps of their final destination.

I back away from the press of the crowd and nearby I catch a glimpse of a group of Indian women all decked out in their best saris, bargaining for a couple of Indian tri-shaws to carry them up to the waterfall garden. They smile at me, apparently pleased that I would be paying so much attention to them as to take their photo.

We didn't linger long as the jet-lag was catching up with us again and we began our walk back to the hotel. Halfway back we stop on a bench under a tree to rest. Nearby a Chinese mother and her young charge are also sitting in the shade of the trees. The little boy stands up, pulls out his little penis, and pisses directly on the pavement in front of him. The mother pays no heed, not even seeming to notice. Three Muslim beggar women and their children are sitting under the shade of another tree. We see a couple of European males with Asian mates. One European tries crossing the street. It is so busy he has to run across.

We stop by another coffee shop to eat lunch before reaching the hotel. Two Cantonese women come over and speak to us. They sell chicken rise there. They tell us that they had been there three years now. Business had not been so good lately because everyone likes to go to Komtar (the modern shopping mall) where it is cool. At 1:00 P.M. lunch hour was the busiest of the day, and Sunday was the busiest day of the week.

We reach the hotel just at afternoon and we are already overheated. We ascend the circular stairwell up to the second floor. It is a nice, old-fashioned Chinese style hotel built in 1936. Before the war, it was a first class hotel of its day where famous people once stayed. It still has original furniture and tiles, although the partitions dividing the rooms have been rebuilt--according to reports they originally didn't reach all the way to the ceiling. The Japanese bombed it at the beginning of the war. A bomb fell through the balcony outside and crashed through a couple of floors but fortunately didn't explode. One old "uncle" (a polite term of reference) who was there at the time showed me the spot. The houses that were directly behind the hotel didn't fare so well in the air raid and many people were killed. Their bodies were just heaped in the streets when the Japanese came. Afterward Japanese took over the hotel as an officers' quarters.

We had stayed there previously and they all remembered us. It was reasonably priced and relatively safe. The people were honest and clean. It was the only hotel in Penang where one could rent a room with an air conditioner and hot water for under $12.00 U.S. per night. We liked staying in it because they made us feel at home and we got to meet a lot of interesting people. They want us to stay the whole year, even allowing us to use their kitchen and all, but it would have been too expensive and inconvenient.

I order a couple of sodas from the large refrigerator and break up some ice from the ice-trays in the freezer compartment with the ice pic. Rosie takes Mahala in the room to rest, and I sit outside at the large table in the main lobby. The hotel is managed in a traditional manner, with keys and notices kept on a large chalkboard with all the room numbers on it.

The uncle who manages the hotel begins talking to me. He is a nice, soft man. He used to be full owner of the hotel but lost most of his shares through gambling debts. He doesn't gamble any more, and has major headaches with the other share-holders and the co-managress who took over the hotel. He refused to be formally interviewed but would tell me quite a lot on the side while I sat and took notes. When he was young, his family ran a school textbook store down on Carnarvon street. He used to drive all about Malaysia delivering textbooks to schools in his lorry. The Chinese schools were the worst, he said, because they would never pay on time, and then often refused to pay at all. He got into the hotel business in the early sixties and had been here ever since. He began telling me this medicinal story:

It has to be a male rat. Take a male rat and take out its testes. You have to catch the rat when it's alive. You cut the testes out--do it when it's alive. Only the testes and not the penis. Then be careful not to break them. Get a roof tile, and put it over the fire and put white wine over the tile, then put the tile over the fire and then put the testes on it. After a while they burn and become dry. Grind them up. It's good for children--they become healthy and strong.

The auntie, who's the hotel maid, chimes in:

Pull the tail of the cockroach out. The cockroach with wings, only the one's that can fly. It is a red colored cockroach, not the one with dots. Pull out the cockroach's head. Carefully so it comes out with the intestines, then roast it over the fire. It becomes tasty.

Take a cockroach and a kind of leaf called "chow chow". Very stinky grass. And hong chang--it's called this. It must be grown from a flower pot. Pour boiling water over it. Grind the ingredients-- hong chang and chow chow. Then separate the head and intestines from the cockroach. Then use the body with the ground ingredients. Pour boiling water over it and drink it. It's for young children, newborns, who go into convulsions.

Auntie wants to go buy "to foo" and fish. Uncle continues with his story:

The yellow freshwater eel is very hot. The Japanese who eat rats, will pay hundreds of dollars for it, because it's better than bird's nest.

There is a kind of dog--"sia kao" (almost like "siow kao" which means "mad dog"). It looks like a tiger with a dog head. Body is like a tiger. You use the testicles. Grind it up, blow the powder down the throat. It treats anything that deals with the throat--growths, goiter, soreness. Mix a little of this with another kind of medication, blow it down the throat with a straw. It costs RM $30 for just a little bit. After they blow it down it cools down the thoracic area. Take it from China--it's very expensive. If you have serious illness they use this, whatever is internal.

Uncle tells me another story:

There's a plaster for rheumatism called "hong sipi tita' yok ko." Apply the plaster wherever you feel the pain, and you can feel the coolness traveling up the body. It costs a few dollars only.

He uses a lot of Chinese herbal medicine. I ask him what he does if he feels sick. He tells me he goes to the Chinese sinseh first, and then to the Western doctor. A lot of Muslim women go to the Chinese sinseh first. There are not a lot of side effects. The hospitals don't give any more penicillin or antibiotics. They don't use it any more. They use another kind of antibiotic--ampicillin.

I ask him if he takes Chinese medicine and the problem goes away, then will he also take western medicine. He says no, that he will not go to the Western doctor. He says he doesn't like needles. He cannot take any injections. They are not good for the blood. He says some go to the Chinese doctor first, and some go to the M.D. first, the other way around.

I ask him if older people go to the Western doctor. He says it depends. Mostly the Christians go see the medical doctor. Some people if they are seriously sick are afraid of dying after getting an injection. I ask "how about if you have a little baby?" "Anything dealing with the throat," he says, "go to the doctor. Diphtheria, all doctor. And then they have 'wind' (colic), they go for the traditional medicine." Then he tells me that he is the godson of the Goddess of Mercy. He prayed to the Goddess of Mercy as a boy. He always had trouble.

I ask him if Chinese doctors refer patients to the Western doctors. Yes, he says, if you take Chinese medicine a few times and it doesn't work then the sinseh will tell you to go to see a Western doctor, sometimes vice versa. Sometimes you pay so much and it doesn't work. Sometimes you pay just five dollars and it takes care of the problem. There is even a sinseh now, he says, who prescribes medicines and then fills the prescription at the same shop. You pay an extra price, one dollar, and they will even cook the prescription for you.

I ask him if a lot of Malays go to the Chinese doctors. Yes, he says, more in Kuala Lumpur than in Penang. I ask about Indians and he says not so many go to the Chinese doctors because many of them are Christians. I ask him if many Chinese go to the Malay bomohs. Yes, he says, strange things happen in Malaysia. The government doesn't like racial strife so tries to promote harmony between the races. They are encouraging the Malays to celebrate the New Year too, and on Saturday "Puasa" (Muslim breaking of the fast of the month of Ramadan, celebrated with feasting) begins.

I am growing tired with the jet lag and can barely keep my eyes awake. I take leave from him and go into our room. We give Mahala a bath in a red buck that we bought so we can fill it with warm water. We hang all our things up on nails on the wall so mice and cockroaches don't get into them. The room is cool and comfortable, and the traditional style Chinese furniture, grand in its day, is well made and of an exotic variety of find dark tropical hardwood that is not available any longer. It opens out with double doors onto an old enclosed balcony that overlooks the street below. We can see out across the red tile roofs of the city and watch the passers-by on the street below. Across the street is a row of old shop houses that was gutted by a fire and the roof had caved in. It's been like that for at least a year. Only one old lady continues to live in the house on the very end of the row, and she doesn't have a lot to do and just sits watching the street. We can sometimes see her alone at night when she leaves her door cracked open inside. Penang is such that there is almost no complete privacy anywhere. We shower and clean up and then lay down dead to the world.


Mahala bathing in her bucket. She has to have hot water.



A few days later the 15 day New Year celebration begins (from the eve of the 29th day of the 12 lunar month to the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar). The children's song goes:

"Chap goh meh,

Chia lu e pu wa lai chiak teh,

Teh siow siow, kia lor beh kin chioh,

Kin chioh beh ki pek, kia lor beh chek,

Chek beh ki tak, kia lor beh bak,

Bak beh kee bua, kia lor beh chua,

Chua beh kee lia, kia lor beh ka kiak,

Ka kiak beh ki cheng, kia lor beh kar leng,

Kar leng kang, kar leng boh,

Si gina, ka wah long, toh."3

The hotel fills up to maximum capacity and the rates go up 50%. He doesn't increase our rates though because we were there before (and besides, he knows us). People come in by the droves all day long but cannot get anything. Every hotel in Penang becomes full during the festive seasons, and sometimes local or foreign travelers end up spending the night sleeping in the park. Food prices also go up. Everywhere they go up. Hawker food which usually cost RM $1.50 but goes up to over RM $2.00. Even a week before the New Year, everything will slowly go up--dried food stuff, pork, chicken, and vegetables.

We get up early and go out to see a lion dance troupe perform at a small shoe shop across the street. These troupes can be found all over the city now on the back of lorries, with their drums and lion head. They are groups of young men who train together and are led by an older instructor. The dancers arrive in a small lorry, bring down their masks and instruments, go inside the business to pray, come back out and begin performing. The dragon dance started outside. The drum and the cymbals are quite loud and rhythmic. Soon the lion enters the house and goes to the back rooms, finally it comes back out again to lift its head up to fetch the lettuce and a red ang pao packet suspended above the door. Inside the packet will be a large sum of money--RM $40, RM $60, or more ringgit for the association sponsoring the dancers. Besides this each dancer will also get a small ang pao of a few dollars. The dance will bring good fortune for the business and homes in the coming year. Soon, the dance is over and the young men hoist their equipment and themselves back onto the lorry, do a u-turn in the street and drive off to another location.

A tall, skinny Chinese man who is dressed in old brown robe and a traditional hat like a Chinese opera costume, is banging a gong and playing the part of the God of Prosperity. He makes a lonely, singular figure walking up all the streets in the middle of the hot Afternoon. People will give him small "ang pao"--five or ten cents, for good luck.

Afterward we go out to watch another lion dance at the City Bayview hotel that was just up the street. We meet an American couple we know from the hotel. They were there making good on all the free "makan" (prepared food) that was offered to the public by the hotel. Inside a tall fat God of Prosperity, in makeup and a mustache and beard, is giving everybody a red packet ("ang pao")--inside each packet are two shinny new Malaysian pennies. We wait out in the lobby for about 15 minutes before the lion dancers arrive. There are more of them this time and the lion's head is larger, carried by several men. They go in to pray, and then begin their dance outside again. The gong is quite loud as they go into the lobby. Quite a large crowd gathers. A long string of fire-crackers is strung outside--I estimate about 30 feet in length. When the lion comes out again the string of firecrackers is lit. They are all big firecrackers and they make a deafening noise as everyone is holding their ears. It takes a good five minutes to finish and the lion is lifting his head high up to retrieve the "ang pao" and eat the lettuce on the first try. It's good luck if it can do it the first time. It grabs the lettuce and chews it up and spits it back out again, and then takes the ang pao. This time it is big ang pao. Afterward the troop take off their costumes and put away their instruments. They line up to be given an ang pao each and then they go inside to eat some "makan."

Afterward we walk back to the hotel and prepare to go back down Muntri street to visit Rosie's Lau Mak ("old mother," actually, her god mother) in order to interview her. She agreed to be interviewed a few days earlier and so I wanted to take her up on her promise before she forgot about it. We go down and I take out my tape recorder and microphone to set it up on a small round wooden stool. I give her the special forms I had made up for her to sign--"Interviewee Consent" forms. She proves to be illiterate and is afraid to sign it. I try to explain it to her but she is afraid. Finally I convince her it is for her own good and she puts an x over the place that says "name" but I think she doesn't trust me in the matter.

I begin by asking her when she was born and she tells me she doesn't know the date. I ask her how old she is and she tells me she doesn't know. Then she tells me she is prepared for death and doesn't want to remember these things. I ask her when she first came to Malaysia and she tells me she doesn't know. I ask her what are her first memories of Penang and she tells me simply that there were more trees then than now. I soon realize that she really doesn't want to be interviewed and I begin feeling very uneasy and embarrassed, and slightly angry. I suppose she has reconciled herself to her fate and does not want to look backward on life. To her, imminent death seems to be all that matters any more. I turn to her friend because she also agreed to be interviewed, but, like Lau Mak, she tells me she doesn't remember and doesn't want to go over it all. So I turn off my recorder and put it away. I feel bad because it was a unique and tragic loss of information about their past--a record of their memories that now would be lost.

I can only vaguely reconstruct her life from the first time we met seven years previously when she was a lot more alert and energetic. Then I remember her telling us that she had come as a young woman in the 1920's. There were a group of them then. She went to work as an amah (house maid) with one employer but had animosity with the wife, so she found another employer who treated her better. Then the war came, and they were afraid of being raped and killed by the Japanese so they fled into the forest on the mainland and hid there for a few months. When news reached them that they would be safe, they returned and she ended up doing laundry for the Japanese. She worked for them but refused to talk to them. She worked hard for her food everyday. After the war she went to work again for Rosie's adoptive parents. That was when she raised my wife as a child. I can tell that she and my wife are bonded closely, almost like a distant mother-daughter relationship.

She used to carry Rosie piggy-back as a child to the market. Rosie told me that she remembered her to be an excellent housekeeper and did a very fine job with the laundry, always starching and ironing their clothes so they were straight as a board. Nobody could do the laundry better. She worked for many years and saved everything she earned. She saved RM $20-30,000 and lived her entire adulthood in her present house. Seven years ago the house was black with smoke, now it had been repaired and painted, with a few ceiling beams replaced. Some of the old antiques are missing--the old clock, the iron, the old stools and table--people just walk off with them or buy them from her for a few ringgit. She does not know the real value of things anymore. People would come and ask her to "kiow kia" (calling back the spirit of the sick person) for them because she was considered pure and knew the proper rituals for "kiow kia." They would give her a small "ang pao" for her knowledge and assistance. 4


Lau Mak found begging at the Goddess of Mercy Temple


Now she is old and bowed over and has cataracts and can't see very well. She had recently fallen into gutters and hurt her head. She would still go long distances to get rice and other food products for free when it was given out to senior citizens. She would spend her days begging at the Goddess of Mercy temple, since two of her other goddaughters absconded with her savings after promising her they would see to her funeral arrangements after she died. Her biggest concern now was dying without being properly buried.

She was the only person in Penang who prayed for us when we got married, and then she gave us an "ang pao" of RM $40 (U.S. $17.00), and she bought gold jewelry for my wife. This time she gave our daughter a beautiful gold necklace and a gold bracelet. Gold was the thing she valued most. She always wore blue silk shirt and black silk pants and one year we bought her nice black silk material so she could have pants sewn for herself.

Now she was old and ready to die. I was confused and a little angry, and I think she was mad at me and not sure of me any more. So we could do nothing else but take our leave and return to the hotel. I decided that the tape-recorder and legal consent form routine framed the research in a disastrous way and removed them from my research design.

That afternoon the old uncle and hotel maid "ahee" (Hokkien equivalent of "aunty," a term of deference) were cooking grand "makan" (a "feast of food") for the staff. And they invited me upstairs to join them in the kitchen. They had converted a back storage room on the top floor into a kitchen, and one of the shareholders, a middle-aged hawker woman who sold economy rice in Butterworth, was helping the "ahee" to cook all the food. Outside on the balcony they had begun laying out the food. They had roast duck and chicken, pork and mee and eggs and red "pao" (rice flour buns) and rice and soup on a small table. Joss sticks were stuck in all the dishes of food and they began praying. Paper money was folded in a small pile that they put into an old bent, burnt pot and lit on fire. They let the joss and the paper in the pot burn a little while. It took about twenty minutes to pray. They tell me they prayed like this once a month, and cook for the staff to eat. But this time they bought extra food, and he spent almost RM $200 (U.S. $80.00) on it all.

I looked out over the red tile rooftops of Penang and could see a man in the distance walking across one of them. Smoke from similar fires were going up into the blue sky in several places, and on the edge of the city by the waterfront was the smoke stack billowing black smoke from a cruise ship that was putting out to sea. I felt it to be a privilege to be made a part of this special moment.

We carry the trays of food back down the stairs to the long table in the main lobby and soon everyone in the hotel, including all of the shareholders, and taxi drivers who got commission from the hotel, were eating and drinking and talking. I get the old Cantonese uncle to sing Cantonese songs into my tape recorder and the managress bought out a karaoke microphone and we begin singing old American and English songs from a song book. There is plenty of dark stout and someone is passing around a bottle of expensive brandy. We ate the food and spit the bones out onto the table beside our plates. We joked and laughed. I got my other camera out and set up the tripod and the little air-controlled shutter-release and clicked everyone's photo, which I later enlarged and gave to the hotel. I didn't want to drink too much but someone or another kept refilling my glass. It is the one day of the year when the Chinese quit being serious and have fun.

Later that evening after everyone else was gone or passed out, I sat with the old singing uncle. He showed me how to pray at the small shrine. He told me everything must be in balance. Two joss here, two joss there. I pray with him.

The next evening we were to have dinner with our friend who was a successful shipping agent. We knew him seven years ago when he was just a small agent with one or two employees, but now he was a big "towkay" (literally "boss") with more than twenty-four employees. He had moved to a bigger, nicer house. He had also moved his office from downtown to a new office building on reclaimed land where he occupied three offices on three different floors. He was very devout. We had dinner with him at his house and brought ice cream for the occasion.

Soon we are with our friend in his car again. He is always on the go. We end up visiting a nice house where there dwelled a "very pious" man who is the caretaker. It was an old man who greeted us. He occupied one room upstairs and inside he had a huge altar with many different icons on it, including Sai Baba (a living Indian Saint and reincarnation of the first Sai Baba), Jesus Christ, the Goddess of Mercy (the main Penang Hokkien Goddess) and a couple of other figures and photos. Flowers adorned everything. He was meditating when we interrupted him. He meditates all the time. Actually, they are all worshippers of Sai Baba, and form a small, diverse clique.

Soon, an elderly Chinese man visits who is very fit looking. He shows us a photocopied article on yoga and he pulls out a couple of small brick-sized cardboard boxes wrapped in paper. The three of them begin practicing some yoga positions, especially lying on two bricks, one centered on the square of the shoulders and the other under the heels, with the body stretched out flat and not touching the ground. Then they try the same thing with the backs of some wooden chairs. The Chinese man with a strong looking back and good muscle tone has been practicing at it, because he can do it a long time. Our friend and the other old man are not so good at it. They spend some time discussing the details of the whole thing.

Afterward we are all sitting in the back seat of his car again with his two children, headed toward another place we know not where. We end up in an RM $400,000 dollar high-rise flat of a banker, who was a vegetarian, who was the owner of the house we had just previously visited, and whose vivacious, smiling wife-hostess has blue-tattooed eyebrows and an Indonesian maid. My wife afterward said that they were the first bourgeoisie vegetarians she had ever met. They were both Hokkien. Their home was on the 14th floor and was over 2,500 square feet with marble tile floors.

They were friendly to us but treated me funny after I refused any food from them, because it was already late and we were full. I told them that I was conducting anthropological research and he told me "Oh, I see, like that, ee." and then he asked me if I liked to ski. He liked skiing in Europe, he said, but never skied in America. That was all he said to me that night. They were entertaining other people who lived on their floor--Sikhs, Malays, Indians--the full rainbow of rich people.

We feel awkward while he and my friend talked. I never saw my friend in a subordinate position before then, as he himself is a towkay. They were all Sai Baba worshippers, and they met when they had made a pilgrimage to India together and stayed at the Sai Baba temple. They were telling me how holy the Sai Baba was, how he could really read the future and knew what things were in closed books and how ashes fell from his hands. They all swore to me that these things were true.

Soon we took our leave again and our friend drove us back to the hotel that night. He told us he would take us to eat at his house the next day--that was the ninth day of the New Year (the Jade Emperor's birthday, a big celebration for the Hokkien of Penang). They celebrate it all night long with firecrackers, huge mounds of paper money and sugar cane and roast pork in the middle of the night. He said he was going to stay up the entire night taking his mother to all the different temples to pray, and his son would join him.

We turn and make our way to the hotel gate before midnight when they close the grill. Outside, passed out on the ground across the entrance was an older Indian male lying on his belly next to a puddle of his own urine. No one dare to wake him or bother him, so we step over him.

Inside the hotel room we find two dead mice on the mousetraps we had set. They had been crawling above our heads at night and they would jump out of our luggage in the darkness. I told the management repeatedly but they did nothing, because extermination was not a suitable thing to do during the Chinese New Year. So I bought a couple of traps, and ended up catching eleven of them. I stopped after I had killed a little cicak (house gecko) instead.

The management of the hotel had gone down hill noticeably since our previous stay. A new woman share-holder had taken over and she had two drinking buddies who would come and drink in the main lobby and bring prostitutes every night (even though they were married). Prostitution occurred discretely almost every night there--usually local middle aged Chinese men with young women.

Everyone was frightened of these two young men because they were members of a secret society. Though these two men were reputedly only vegetable hawkers at a morning market, they always seemed to have extra cash for beer and brandy. Many nights they took a room in the hotel without paying. They liked to drill holes in the wall to peek through the walls at women tourists, and no one could stop them. We warned an American woman traveling with her daughter about it after they found white plaster powder on their luggage. They had been frightened the previous night by the screams of a woman apparently being molested in the back parking lot. Men were standing around but nobody had done anything for more than a half-hour, until this American called the police. The American mother and daughter were happy to leave Penang that day.

Unfortunately, we were to miss the festivities the next night as there was a mix-up with my research visa, and we found ourselves the next day in the Prime Minister's department in Kuala Lumpur after a fast plane flight, trying to clear things up. That night in our 7th floor hotel room in K.L., we are kept awake until about 4:00 A.M. by the noise of the fireworks outside in the surrounding city. We fly back to Penang the next day with our paperwork squared away, and a severe case of diarrhea, to put the deposit on our new apartment.

Because of visa problems that took us unexpectedly to Kuala Lumpur, we were not able to attend the final Chinese New Year celebration and missed the all important Hokkien celebration of the Jade Emperor's Birthday on the 9th day of the first lunar month. A fifty-one year old man native to the Jetty where we did most of our fieldwork told us that the celebrations there have been the same since he was little. One young man from the Jetty later described it for me.

"On the birthday of the Jade Emperor, at this end of the Jetty (far end, seaside) the people get karaoke singers. Firecrackers at the other end of Jetty. Firecrackers by the crate. We don't care if the police come. Runaway already. Still light firecrackers all ready. We light them off at all the Chinese shrines. Around 7:00 P.M. children and grown ups take out about 40 tables, wash all the tables out by the temple. The men and children. After that, they take red bricks, the children bring them, and the men build a round enclosure half a man's height to burn the silver paper money. It is five steps in diameter, about half a man's height. At about 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock, a few men carry out from the temple a large joss stick urn to put it at the end of the table. They place it at the foot of the table. It is a very big one. Six-feet-tall. Some people buy joss sticks--10, 12-foot joss sticks. A lot of people buy them--50 or 60. They put them right in front of the large urn (on the large cement table in front of the Jetty temple). They don't burn them yet. At 12:00 A.M. then they burn them.

Around 11:00 P.M., the men bring all the food out. They bring out all the gold paper money. They don't burn it, but put it under the table. Fruits, apples, watermelon, pears, pineapple, pink koay, wine, Martel brandy, roasted pig, 10-20-30 katis. At least 30, over 40 roasted pigs on the table.

And then at 12:00 P.M., they burn joss sticks and pray already. They light candles, and joss sticks. Individually they pray, not as a group. A lot of people are praying. A lot of joss sticks. If too many then they burn them in the brick enclosure. Every time the urn fills up with joss stick, they take them out and burn them. People keep on praying and praying until 2:00 A.M., then use "Sim Poay." (the kidney shaped divination blocks) They throw it to the ground to see if the King of Jade Heaven says they can burn the paper money. One open, one closed, yes, then burn gold paper money. Then everyone burns the gold paper money. Not everyone can burn it at the same time. They take turns burning it until its all used up.

Then everyone takes their own things back. Then they eat. Cut up all the things. Ducks, chickens, chicken eggs, duck eggs. Cut it all up and eat it next morning. People then go up the 1,200 steps to the Jade King Emperor's temple, the main temple, the biggest one there. Only Hokkien people pray there. It's the biggest thing for the Hokkiens. The fifth day is the Cantonese biggest day. The Jade Emperor's birthday is the 9th day.

The eve of Chinese New Year is also big for Hokkien people. It's a must. They have to come back every year. They string fire crackers from one end of the Jetty to the other. It takes several hours to finish firing them. Every house has roast duck and pig. Every sixty years, one time, during the Goddess of Mercy's birthday, the platform (connecting the ferry terminal to the ferry) will collapse."



About seven weeks after we settle into our apartment we are awakened one Sunday morning by a lot of honking and noises outside on the road. We look out our window to discover a stream of cars going up the hill, bumper to bumper. This is unusual because there are never more than one or two cars on the entire road at any one time.

Cheng Beng (29th day of the second Chinese lunar month) is the Chinese festival in which people remember their dead ancestors by going as a family group to the grave. They clean the grave, paint the letters red, pray and burn votive articles, and sometimes picnic, and then go back home. It is a day of family reunion and togetherness, of bringing out old sentiments that people keep in closets of the mind. We had not expected the celebration for another couple of weeks.

We ask the chicken sellers downstairs and they don't know about it. We were going to market anyway so we walk up the hill to the cemetery to investigate. The entire road is clogged with traffic and the buses can't get through. Police are there trying to direct traffic. We discover that Cheng Beng is not for another week, but people can come to the grave to pray for a couple of weeks before or even after the actual day. There is a period of time of about a month in which it is propitious to pray, though the best time is still the actual day. It is a three day weekend anyway so half of the Chinese in Penang show up at the cemetery at the same time and with the resulting congestion of their cars block access to all the roads. The newspaper carried an article on the stoppage the next day.

The bus we are depending upon to take us to the market never shows up, and a man sitting next to us is complaining that he had been sitting there over an hour. We decide we better backtrack down the hill to catch the other bus, which comes within a couple of minutes of our reaching the bench. We go to the Pulau Tikus market to buy food. Though it is more expensive, it is only about half as far as the downtown market. I buy some backup batteries for my camera and some film, and we quickly return so I can go and take pictures and notes on the ceremonies in the cemetery.

On the return journey the bus comes back along the hillside route and we can see that it is clogged all the way down. When we reach our home we get down and I get the cameras and we scamper back up the hill. The cemetery is a huge area on the hill. It is covered with graves that go back to the 19th century. In areas the graves are so thick one can barely step between them. In the older areas many of the graves are buried or partially covered over with earth, and erosion has washed away some sites to leave only traces of the original grave.

It begins to get hot and my wife and daughter go back down the hill. I end up spending the rest of the day by myself, tramping around the hills and graves. I return by myself a few times over the month of Cheng Beng.

The standard Chinese grave is shallow, actually raised above the earth. It is built with a brick masonry perimeter in a peculiar shape (later ones are of concrete). The shape reminds me of the sampans and the coffins. At its head is a marble stone marker with the name of the deceased engraved. Sometimes there is a small picture inset on the stone. Many of these engravings are painted over in red, and sometimes gilt. There are a few ossuary markers. A tall one on the hill is an erected column. I stand under a tree near it seeking shade from the hot sun when an old man speaking broken English tells me that it was the goldsmith's guild who, because its members were all poor, were buried in small graves at the bottom of the hill. Later the guild had their bones disinterred and reburied under the column in a common grave. There were the bones of over 30 members there.


Ossuaries for the gold-smiths guild at the Hokkien cemetery at Mt. Erskine


Another older lady I talk to tells me she is visiting the grave of her mother who had died when she was young in 1934. She has been coming to clean her grave and pray every year since then.

I spend the better part of that day, and the next Sunday (the actual day of the celebration), walking over most of the hills of the cemetery, taking many pictures, exploring the graves, and talking with people.

A man who turns out to be a local politician told me in jest he had become a Christian but has just come to pay his respects with some of his relatives. He tells me his own mother had rented a space in the "Chinese condos," pointing to the crematorium down on the other side of the broad expanse, laughing. He told me to go down and check it out, its much more crowded down there. Smoke is coming from the building as many people are there praying and the wind brings the occasional distant sound of a gong and horns playing from that direction.

Some of the graves, especially older ones, are quite large. One informant tells me the old rich towkays spent a lot of money on their tombs, partly because land and labor was a lot cheaper. They include the graves of children and wives who have died. There are places reserved for relatives or wives who are still living to be buried, and one can tell who is alive and who dead by whose names are painted in red on the main stone. It is interesting that there is no separation of the grave sites between rich and poor--a big site may be surrounded by little anonymous stones and are distributed in a hodgepodge fashion, almost at random over the entire field. At least one historical account of Penang (Turnbull 1972:12) notes a similar irregular pattern of the intermixture and lack of segregation of poor residences next door to rich in Penang, unlike Singapore. But the graves are strictly separated by dialect group--there is a Hokkien, a Cantonese, a Hakka and a Teow section, each of which covers many acres. The overseas Chinese are noteworthy for their trade and cultural segregation by dialect groups (Tan 1990).

One family brings a roast pig to a tomb. They are walking under black umbrellas in the hot sun. They visit a nice tomb. Another family is sitting nearby talking--kids and adults. Family groups walk up from the hillside road. There is almost a steady stream of people on the dirt road coming and going. They dig the weeds around the grave and put paper money out over the grave. This money is sometimes held down with rocks, sometimes with joss sticks. They pray and burn paper "hell" money and set out food offerings. Smoke is drifting over the cemetery from a large fire burning below. One family group spreads yellow paper money over the mound.


Paper Offerings for the Dead being made at the shop on Carnarvon Street.


One young couple comes, puts out the food, spreads paper money before the grave, lights the joss sticks and candles, and make their prayers, asking "Mother, we come to pray to you today with all this food. We invite you to come and eat the food. We also have some spending money for you." They put the food out, clean the weeds from the grave, paint the letters on the headstone. After a while, the husband uses the coins and asks "show me if you've eaten or not" with heads and tails. He takes the coins in his hand and turns them around the smoking joss stick three times with his hand and throws them on the ground. If two tails the deceased is laughing, and if two heads then not finished eating. If it's head and tails, the deceased has finished.6 They pack the food away and burn the money and set out some cakes, meat and rice wine, and then they leave.

I make my way over a little ridge beside some trees and old Japanese pill boxes to find a large sink hole with more graves at the bottom and a large extended Chinese family with paper articles praying and singing. The son tells me that they come from different parts of Malaysia. They had been visiting their auntie who died over 30 years ago. The auntie's widower husband is there with tears in his eyes. He scowls at me as if I'm intruding upon his privacy. I back off and ascend the other side of the hill. When I get to the top look around and see that he is remaining there while all the paper goods burn--a television set, shoes, quite a few things--and after all the other people have started back down the hill. He tells the others to walk slowly on, he will catch up later. I've written in my notes "I feel like I am disturbing his moment."

A few of the tombs have stone statues, lions and goddesses and even soldiers with their horses. One old tomb hidden behind a knoll and a stand of banana trees is huge with a wide stone floor. There are full sized guards standing at either side of it with horses and within its perimeter are other statues.

One can tell the forgotten graves because they are fallen into a state of decay and overgrown with weeds and bushes. I took to counting the number of graves people visited (from those which remained unvisited), which was easy to tell by the paper money. I counted these graves on four separate occasions, in about as many weeks, until the Cheng Beng period was completely over.5 Newer grave areas were visited much more heavily than the older areas, and the oldest areas that are the most covered over and decayed, are hardly visited at all. By the third week close to three-quarters of the newer graves had been visited. About one-half of the older graves had been visited. You can tell the difference by their new appearance, design, construction methods and materials, and their more linear, ordered spacing.

The last time I walked up there I went to count the graves after Cheng Beng was completely ended. It was late in the afternoon on a weekday and I was completely alone in the place. A few hundred yards from the road, I could only hear the distant sound of horns honking. The cemetery was silent as the shadows began lengthening over the hill and trees and stones. While counting I thought I saw something looking at me from the corner of my eye. It was about twenty or thirty feet away. I turned my head to see what it was and it ducked down behind the stone. I walked over, more curious than afraid, to see what it might be. I thought it may be a white cat or some kind of animal. When I got to it I looked around but there was nothing but a bird in a distant tree. The place was completely silent and empty. I left soon afterward.

Almost everyday in the morning as we pass the cemetery on the bus we see a new site being constructed at the end of the row of new graves. Almost every afternoon we pass the cemetery to see a funeral being conducted, with flowers over the grave. I do not know if this is correct, but one informant told me there was more land devoted to the dead in Penang than to the living.

Not long after Cheng Beng we passed by an Chinese opera stage that was constructed on the corner of a small road next to the mid-section of the cemetery. These opera stages are made of bamboo and wooden poles tied together with nothing more than raffia string, and mounted on top of a set of large saw horses. It takes under just two hours to build the entire structure. On our return a few hours later we got off the bus early at that bus stop and I asked the opera players if I could photograph them. They told me I would have to ask the people of the temple across the road because it was their show. They gave me permission but wondered why I wanted to stand in the hot sun in the middle of the day. The evening performance was much nicer. My wife and daughter caught the next bus back while I sat in the sun and watched them perform for about an hour in the middle of the afternoon. They were performing in an old style of Hokkien and the words were not as understandable as the local dialect. They perform in the middle of the cemetery with no audience but one white man with a couple of cameras. The huge joss sticks are burning, and a couple of times a caretaker comes over from the temple to pour kerosene on some sticks that had burned out in order to relight them. The smoke wafts thickly across the dirt road. They performed in the correct manner, with full facial expressions and body posture, though no one was watching beside myself. They would tell you, as everyone there would know, they were performing for the gods, and not for a human audience.



About a month later we are taking the bus down town when we notice Indian booths along the road near Waterfall garden. We ask an Indian women sitting next to us what it's all about and she call's it a "mini-Thaipusum" or Chitraparvam, which takes place on a "full moon night" on the 15th day of the first month of the Hindu calendar Another friend of ours tells us its a birthday party for an Indian God (in honor of lord Murugam, or Lord Subramaniam). They bring out the chariot and a few people carry the kavadi. So on the way back we decide to stop and walk along the way and take pictures as we walk. We get down further down the road and there are a couple of Indian men in wheel chairs on the side of the road watching as people pass.

Buses are coming in from afar carrying entire families. We walk up and hear the loud Indian music at the booths on either side. The booths are draped with banana leaves and ropes with green and dried leaves of a tree hanging across the road. We make the pilgrimage along with other Indian families and talk with people along the way. Vendors are selling sodas, food, milk, and fruit. We pass a couple of young male kavadi carriers surrounded by a crowd and lead by a couple of Indian men dancing and trancing in abandon on the colored designs painted on the street in front of each booth. The people in the booths wash down the road in front of their booths before the trancers arrive.


Trancing and Dancing in front of the Kavadi carriers


We stop by an Indian fortune-teller who reads my wife's fortune for a couple of ringgit. The little parrot pulls a card from a box and he reads the card. He told my wife all good things--she would come into money in a month. A visitor was coming from far away. Her stars were all aligned, everything was fine. There would be no upheavals. We meet an old friend of my wife who is walking with her 16-year-old daughter carrying cans of milk on their head. They are walking barefoot and came all the way from town. The stream along the road ran white with milk. The mother asks me if I would like to drink some milk and I decline. She asks me why and I tell her I do not feel very thirsty.

We talked to a family taking the pilgrimage and they kindly let me take their photograph. We come to the green below the steps of the temple to find families picnicking under the large tree and the chariot parked in high-roof structure behind a locked gate. Another older man told us he came all the way from another state to be here. He had carried the kavadi during Thaipusam. He seemed glad that I was interested in him.



On the 19th day of the third, sixth and ninth lunar months of the Chinese calendar the birthday of the Goddess of Mercy is celebrated downtown. These are auspicious days for mothers to have their daughter's ears pierced. It is a good day to become a god-child of "Po Cho Ma" or "Guan Yin." To be a godchild one must pray to her regularly, visit her on her birthday, and not eat any beef. Sometimes shamans tell the parents of sickly children that they should make the child a godchild of the Goddess of Mercy.

The Goddess of Mercy's temple was built in the 1850's, looking out onto the sea. I've been there periodically over the years since married. My wife sometimes prays there and her god mum prayed for us there after we got married. The first Chinese temple built in Malaya was the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Bukit China in Malacca. In 1704, Chan Li Lock built the main hall of the temple and placed there the figure of the Goddess of Mercy (or "Kwan Yin" or "Padma-Pani," Yeh 1936:81-2). The preeminence of the Goddess of Mercy in the Straits Settlements is important to a consideration of early Chinese religion in Malaysia. Vaughn (1879; 1971 reprint) details the design of the Goddess of Mercy temple on Pitt St. in Penang, which dates to 1848, and is still the principle and most active temple of worship by the Chinese in Penang. Purcell (1948:120-2) gives account of Kwan Yin as "one of the most popular goddesses in the Chinese pantheon." 7

The Chinese of the Straits must not be mistaken as taking their religion lightly or unseriously--the pragmatism of their religious devotions has fundamental spiritual, moral and utilitarian efficacy which is taken quite seriously by the Chinese. "The woman of over seventy who has the private Koan Im temple had the following to say: 'Whether these spirits exist or not I do not know, but there is no harm in presenting an offering. If they do exist, we are safe, because we have given something to appease them. If they do not exist, well, it does not matter.'" (Tan 1963:204)


Smoke is thick on the Goddess of Mercy's Birthday


The Goddess of Mercy's birthday is a busy time for the temple. Hawkers set up vegetarian booths nearby under a large tree and across the street. The votive sellers along the side do especially good business, as do the beggars in the courtyard and the young pickpockets. Buddhist priests come to pray and receive food from people on that day, as do the Hari Krishnas. The temple is thick with Chinese praying, and the roads all around are stopped with bumper to bumper traffic.

The two large furnaces outside are burning very hot and their ashes occasionally spill out on to the ground. The ashes swirl about and the heat of the fire creates a wind that blows hot against the face and takes ash and distributes it over the body and hair. I made the mistake of wearing a nice white shirt the first time I went there. But the heat vortex, the smoke, the praying, all leave a lasting impression of the moment.

Outside in front of the temple a Chinese opera performs. Between performances the actors sleep in hammocks hung between the saw-horses in the shade beneath the stage floor. Their clothes are old and worn and gaudy looking. Beside the opera is a little Chinese "Punch and Judy" puppet theater. The puppets are old, but my daughter really enjoys watching them.



It is about midway into our study and everything is going better than expected, but not as well as we had hoped for. For a few months I was worried we weren't going to get much done at all except counting cars and bus riders. We have all settled in and adjusted as best that we can manage. We are used to the heat now, or at least know how best not to deal with it, and the inconveniences of crowded, bumpy buses and rude passengers. We haven't seen any friends we knew when we first arrived for four or five months, and have resigned ourselves to being mostly alone during our remaining time.

A lot of things that bothered me at first I no longer pay much heed. The traffic doesn't bother me as much as it does now my wife. I've learned to be patient with the drivers and to allow them the right of way they so demand.

I've also grown insensitive to the beggars, the borderlines and the schizophrenics who I see everyday down town and who frequently bother us, as well as learning to ignore the lame and injured animals I see everywhere. Things don't bother me so much and I can even turn away a beggar now without a twinge of remorse. The beggars even seem to have stopped bothering to ask us for alms. At the beginning there was hardly a meal we could eat without someone sticking their hands in our faces.

Another important change has come over me. The reticence and self-consciousness that initially plagued me about doing fieldwork in public has gone away. Now I can count cars by habit and ask any person a question or to do a task for me without a moment's hesitation. And when I am refused it doesn't bother me in the least. I think at some point I simply resigned myself to our predicament and our fate as ethnographers, to our limitations and difficulties of the tasks at hand, and after that resignation it all became easier for us.

My wife and I were having periodic bouts too, usually over silly small things that seemed to happen especially on the long bus rides between downtown and our home on the other side of the island. It would lead to neither of us talking to each other for a day or two, but would soon make up because we simply had no one else to talk to mostly. The stress of adjustment and the difficulty of our lives is probably telling upon our relationship. But the frequency of these little spats became less and less too as the year wore on, and we both learned to recognize danger signals in one another and avoid confrontation when we were both feeling bad.

I am feeling more relaxed too about the fieldwork, as the pieces are beginning to finally fall into place from the original design, and though there are some important shortcomings, we are too busy to be concerned with them. Things on the Jetty are going pretty smoothly, without only a few slow days among many very busy days.

We devote all our time to our study down on the Jetty now and it is in full swing. Our daughter is doing well at her day care. She has grown socially a lot, more independent from us than ever before. And yet she misses things in her previous life in America, and always asks us when we are returning. I would occasionally bring back a toy for her, or a "Dandy" or "Mickey Mouse" magazine.


Mahala with her Barbie dolls and her new cat.


She has begun to get acquainted with the children on the Jetty, and there she spends her weekends playing with fish and eating candy and running up and down the wooden gangways. It makes it difficult to get her up for school early Monday morning, because she is not getting much free time except on Saturday afternoons when we return early to our apartment and relax, cook a meal of fresh tuna fish and eat.



In the middle of August we see signs of the impending Festival of the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Actually, from the first day to the thirtieth day of the 7th month). Stages are being built all over town. Flags and standards are unfurled along many streets. The effigy makers downtown are working on the God of Hades. Any time during this month local business associations get together and organize for themselves a celebration in honor of the God of Hades. The celebration period for an organization lasts about a week.

This is an important time, especially for the Hokkien businessmen downtown. It is a time when these people form local associations in their neighborhoods and vicinity for the celebration in honor of Por Tor Kong (Gluttonous God, or Tai Su Yeh, or the God ofHades, or the "King of the Ghosts") on the 15th day of the 7th moon of the Chinese lunar calendar. Hokkien hell is called "im kan" ("te teng" is heaven and "hon kang" is earth). The King of Hades is called Tai Su Yeh. "It is his real name and we must use this name--one cannot say all these things" (pray to him by calling him "Por Tor Kong" because it is a derogatory term and he is very powerful).

It is the month when the God of Hades releases to earth lost souls and ghosts over whom he has control. He must be supplicated and propitiated for good luck and protection. As one informant said, with this King of Hades, "put a small child on the table and he will 'eat the child' as an offering to him."

There is a story that a mother with a newborn baby went to pray to him. No one was there to help her so she left her child under the table with offerings to the deity while she went to pray. When she came back the baby was dead. So people said she shouldn't have left the baby under the table because the deity probably thought the baby was an offering to him and "ate" the baby.

To "eat the child" means to take its soul away. When a person dies one cannot say that person was eaten. It's different because the person just passed away. If a god has taken a soul away, then the person's been eaten.

Tai Su Yeh is very powerful. A person went in front of him and talked nonsense, and he became crippled. The family took him to a shaman. After he apologized to Tai Su Yeh, he could walk again. It is especially important that children don't go in front of him. Children are not supposed to play near his temple or show disrespect in front of him, or he will get them. This is especially so during the 7th month, Tai Su Yeh's special month.

People become ghosts if they are wicked in their life. If good they go up to heaven and become fairies. If you have some one to pray at your funeral then you come back to the house, if not you become a wandering ghost.

A person who drowns becomes a ghost, but the ghost is stuck in the water--it is soaked. The family must do special prayers to bring it out of the water. They must bring it out of the water or else it is forever stuck in it.8 Some people can see it. On the 29th day of every Chinese lunar month the Chinese pray at home. "Pai ho hea ti" or "pray to the wandering spirits." In the seventh month, they must pray more because the King of Hades has released more ghosts.

If a woman dies in childbirth, then her spirit world will always be in a vat of blood. She cannot be brought out anymore. If the child survives and grows up and becomes married, only then can they pray and bring her out. If the mother and child die, her other children can bring her out. If there are no children, then her siblings might be able to do it for her.

Tai Su Yeh can also give numbers. During the hungry ghost festival they pray for the God to control the hungry ghosts during the seventh month and also for good fortune. So businessmen get together and organize themselves into associations. They collect money and finance an opera or the showing of a movie or performance by a band or singer. They set up an awning within which they erect a large effigy of this God, or a large painting of him, at the feet of which are stacked huge mounds of paper money and in front of which they collect many food offerings that serve first as prayer, then as a charitable distribution to local families. The wealth and extent of these collections and offerings varies according to the success and wealth of the businessmen who are members of the committee.

Tai Su Yeh is a powerful God who can release all the ghosts from Hades, and so he must be appeased and supplicated, and if so, he can bring good fortune.

One day while drinking some coffee downtown we notice an electrician friend of ours with a floor cart in the middle of the road hauling an urn filled with joss and ashes, and with his son who was banging a gong. They walk around a couple of blocks in a circuit calling different business men to bring their urns out of their shops so that they can take it to the place on the side road where they have set up there offerings to the God of Hades along with several other Gods. They walk around the streets in a large circuit three times, and come back with several more men and about five urns. About 10:00 A.M., they sent out the cart and gong to call all the gods back (bring the urns back).

Red and white flags are on the street corners around the area. We walk around the corner to the side street where the awning is set up to watch the businessmen praying on the first day. They are choosing who is to be the next year's caretaker of the urn. Those chosen will definitely have good fortune. There is a large picture of the God of Hell on the back wall. The Goddess of Mercy is above it "to control it."

About 10:00 A.M. they send out the cart and gong and to call all the gods back. They walk around a couple of blocks in a circuit calling different businessmen to bring their urns out of their shops so that they can take them to the place on the side road where they have set up their offerings to the god of Hades along with several other gods. They walk around the streets in a large circuit three times, and come back with several more men and about five urns.

The middle-aged hawker couple that makes the American breakfast and French toast on the corner are closed for the day because they were chosen to carry the pot this year. This is a very auspicious occasion for them because it means that if you are a bearer of the joss stick urn your business will prosper. Later we talk with the electrician who had been the keeper of the urn and he tells us that the previous year he had very good business--in and out all the time. He said the responsibility was difficult because you always had to pay money out for the association to help finance the opera or movies. He had to pay out RM. $2,000 just for this.9

We talk with the son of the secretary of the association and we are told to wait. We hear from one informant that when his father held the urn he won the lottery and became very rich, so that is why his son, who now lives outstation (in the countryside) started coming to pray here. The eyes of all the gods have been covered with paper so that they cannot see out.


 Table filled with multiple offerings for Tai Su Yeh, in the background with taped over eyes.


I walk around and photograph and try to count all the things on the table and beneath it. I find there 2 plates of watermelons; 3 plates of bananas; 3 plates of rambutans (a small red tropical fruit, a local favorite); 5 plates of pineapples; large jack fruit; a plate with mixed fruit (grapes: oranges, apples, pears, longan); a plate with a pineapple, 3 oranges, 2 apples and 3 pairs of longans (a small round, brown tropical fruit); a plate with cigarettes and candy mixed together; 2 roast ducks; a plate of longsans; 8 roasted pigs; 4 more plates of pineapples; 2 plates of oranges; 2 plates of apples; 1 plate of small change; 1 plate of oranges; a plate of koay (rice cakes and pastries); a plate of 'pao' (steamed dumplings); a plate of ku pao ( pink "turtle dumplings"); 24 bowls of rice; 24 teacups, spoons and chopsticks; 48 bowls of rice and vegetables, bean thread, mushrooms, dried fungus and radish. I count approximately 184 red buckets stacked in rows under the table each containing a "turtle dumpling," a pineapple and longans. There are also several plates of fried beehoon (very fine rice noodles) and cooked food.

One man has a long pole with a bottle taped to the end. He fills the bottle half-full with kerosene and pours it over a couple of the huge joss in front of the make-shift temple. Then he takes some newspaper and ties it to the end of the pole and tries to light the joss. Another younger man comes over and scolds him for doing it improperly. The both fiddle with it until the tall joss in the front of the place becomes finally lit.


 Lighting the huge joss in front of the temple


My friend the electrician is in charge of the lighting and checks all the wiring.

At 12:00 noon there are 17 adults (14 men and 3 women) ready to pray. A Taoist priest comes with a woven rope whip. He chants and prays. The businessmen all kneel down in the street and pray, holding six joss sticks each. They pass around six tea cups ontwo trays with gold paper money and flowers. The priest is in front chanting. He is reading from an worn old book, and after each utterance, the people praying loudly answer "Ho" ("good"). He says something else and they respond "Ho" again. And then again and again, for about 15 minutes.

One older member "kachows" a younger man for sitting on a step instead of kneeling on the pavement. The younger man makes light of it and appears to be a bit of a joker. He later knocks the other man for trying to light the large joss sticks the wrong way. The coffee shop uncle is there. He was a member who "held the urn" a few years previously and was said to have won the lottery with it and had good fortune in his business, but he was stingy about it, another person told me, and didn't want to give away give away any money to sponsor the organization's activities.


Taoist Priest reading for the members of the business community.


The priest then uses a long pole with a knife taped to the end to knock off the papers taped over all the eyes of the deities--the main one and four guardians--including the God of Opium who is tall and thin and his other brother who is short and fat. The priest begins chanting and then burns two yellow talismans at the table in front of the altar. He has a sprig of leaves on a stem in a bowl of water. He walks around a long table where all the food is placed, sprinkling the water. He mixes up rice and salt and sprinkled that a second time. He passes the gold money to the bearer of the joss stick urn. An assistant lights it and burns it in front of the altar. He asked just the bearer of the incense to take off shoes and kneel down in front of the large urn and passed him two divining rods.

He invites the king of Hades out loud with "Is it all right to invite him now?" in order to proceed with the ceremony. He asks the King of Hades to call his name and holds up two pieces of wood (siang poay).10 He tosses the wood up and it falls flat side up. He throws the "siang poay" up two times. The priest takes away the two blocks and holds it over the large joss sticks, giving them back to the bearer of the joss sticks--"open and shut" (successful).

He proceeds again and goes to the front of the figures of the deities. Everyone bends over. "Don't look now." He takes a long stick with a paintbrush on the end of it and peels off the paper over the eyes. Each time the group is saying "Ho!", "Ho!", "Ho!". One man says, "Say 'Ho!' louder." The priest uses the brush with the red paint, touching the eyes, mouth, cheeks, hands, sleeves, collar, of each of the deities. The musicians begin playing again.

The next day at the same hour there are 22 people praying in three rows. The priest arrives, puts on his robe and hat, and chants and reads from his book, shaking a bell. He has a whip around his neck. The band begins playing a prayer. He lifts their food offerings on the plates up to pray. The priest offers teacups. He waves the handle of his whip over the teacups. Then he waves a tattered violet triangular flag over them. He covers his eyes with the flag. He pours the tea out around. He turns and waves the flag about for a minute or so. He sprinkles another cup of tea on the ground. He drinks the tea, covering his eyes with the flag and spitting out the tea.

This day there are four musicians instead of three as yesterday. One man is playing two cymbals which he strikes together. The people praying are all holding their plates of offerings, a bundle of joss sticks and small colored flags. They stand up and form a line behind the priest who walks counterclockwise around the long table. They follow him with their plates of offerings and come back and pray at the alter out in front and then go back and kneel down again.

The priest prays with about 12 turtle pao. He throws six out over the table. He throws the others individually out to those who pray and who endeavor to catch them. Then the priest covers both hands over his eyes with smaller pao, and then throws them over the table and throws others out over the people who pray who also catch them. A young girl brought by her grandmother fetches one of them from the ground. The priest covers his eyes again and throws out trays of biscuits to the people praying, which scatter on the ground. The aunty next to me picks one up and eats it.

The priest does the same with the longans. He prays and throws a handful over the table and then throws the rest to the prayers. The priest then prays with the rambutans. He covers his eyes. The assistant holds the tray and throws them out. The crowd scrambles to grab them. The priest prays with pineapples. He throws them out. People are calling to him to throw them. Then the priest prays with the candy and the cigarettes. The devotees are collecting the offerings they get, aligning them at their side.

The priest then puts the end of the joss stick bundle into his mouth and turns once, waving his flag. He throws two handfuls of candy over the table and throws the rest of the tray over the devotees. Then he does the same thing with the money on the tray. People scramble to pick up the candy and coins. Then the priest prays with flowers and petals, throwing them out over the crowd. The praying is over. The band stops playing. The bell is still ringing. The people praying all disperse, although some people continue to pick up the things remaining on the ground.

The band resumes playing as the priest still chants and shakes the bell. Nine people remain kneeling. The devotees put joss sticks into the urn. The priest continues to pray. The band continues playing. The priest holds the book up to the deity. People are picking up the mats. The priest sprinkles more water out of the bowl. The band stops playing again. The ceremony is over. The priest takes off his robes.

The auntie who cooks American Breakfasts tells me about the 7th month celebration. It is their association's 23rd or 24th anniversary. There are now over 160 groups in Penang. The group on Hutton Lane is trying to build a permanent building for the event. They collected over RM $10,000 with a dinner function. People donate the little red tables as charity.


Roasted pigs in sacrificial offering for Tai Su Yeh. Many pigs were donated.


People donate the banners and the curtains overhead. They are a couple of hundred dollars each. They sponsor the performing group during the week at a cost of about RM $1,500 per night. The more renowned the group the more expensive it is. She had donated the red table sitting in front with the large urn on it.11

She tells me about "seng lay"--one ham, one duck, and a strip of pork back. This can be changed. Without duck one can have ducks eggs instead, or cuttle fish instead of pork. It is convertible. One can change a plate of Magi mee (dry instant rice noodles) for the cuttle fish, or a strip of meat.

On the last night they burn only the paper money. They will not burn the large image of the God of Hell (are done to the large effigies constructed of paper and bamboo), but they will roll it up and save it for the following year in order to save money. They cover the eyes with red paper, they "paint" the eyes with red paper. They have only a small storage space to keep all the things during the year, and they are looking to find a better, more permanent arrangement.

I return on the bus that afternoon covered with ash and soot from the burning joss; people star at me. We did not see the final burning of the paper money there, but we did witness the burning of another paper effigy that stood 15 to 20 feet tall in the middle of a huge mountain of folded paper money. It happened in the middle of an intersection near the hotel we had stayed at, around 11:30 or 12:00 P.M. All the business people nearby were there.

A young girl whose family worked at the shoe shop folded with one hand a round of paper money and burned it on the ground beside the road. They lit the fire and it quickly engulfed the entire mound. The heat was so intense we had to back up several feet, as it cast its light across our faces and around the street. Malay firemen in a small truck were waiting down the road and one fireman had a car moved because it was too close to the fire and the gas tank was heating up. The power lines overhead became burned. An old uncle from the hotel came down and stood with us and watched the fire. He told us that he remembered a mound of bodies that the Japanese had piled up burning in the same place during the war. The next morning the mound was still smoldering in the middle of the street as cars had to drive around it.


About a month later is the moon cake festival when people give each other moon cakes and the children go out at night and shine their lanterns with candles or flashlights. It is a fun celebrations that we enjoyed at home in company of our landlady and her family. I bought some moon cakes for people on the Jetty and the students that I was teaching English. It was a way of indirectly giving face to people without having to be reciprocated. Everyone will refuse the cakes but they are all secretly happy to get them. Moon cakes come in all sizes and kinds and can be quite expensive. People spend a couple of hundred dollars on them, and the most famous bakery that makes moon cakes does a booming business.


Our mooncakes


We tried buying there that morning and the crowd of Chinese went out to the street. One older Chinese woman kept trying to cut in front of the line and would refuse to take her place behind everyone else. She kept asking everyone to buy her cakes for her but everybody refused her. Finally she nudged in front of my wife, but the man served my wife first and ignored her. We were told that the patriarch of this traditional bakery had died and the children have begun squabbling over the inheritance, so they decided to close it and go their separate ways. This was supposed to be the last year they would sell moon cakes. We went downstairs and lit the candles in the lanterns with the little girls that night. We ate moon cake and drank beer and soda and sat under the moonlight. It was one of the brightest nights of the year, and we talked until quite late.



The final festival of the year that falls in the Chinese 9th month is the Vegetarian festival (Actually, the birthday of the Nine Emperor Gods, from the 1st to the 9th day of the 9th month of the Chinese lunar calendar). During this time people are supposed to remain vegetarian for several weeks to purify themselves. Everything is done in yellow instead of the traditional red, and the color change makes a striking contrast. Only certain temples celebrate this festival. One should not enter the temple during this time if one has been eating meat, so we did not venture into them since we had not abstained from meat.

 Yellow boat made of the Vegetarian Festival

  On the night of the celebration Chinese undergo self-mortification and flagellation rituals that are bloody and make the Khavadi carriers look tame. Several mediums of the temple will go into trance. They cut their tongues and write talismans with the blood. They dip their hands in hot oil and flagellate themselves with a ball with spikes in it. They sit on a chair made of swords upon a float in a procession. A boat is brought down to the ocean off one of the Jetties late at night where they cast it off into the sea. A friend from the Jetty who took part in the ceremonies helped cast it off.


Chair with sword blades in-set for the final bloody ritual


During our time in Penang we missed several of the ritual celebrations. We never actually attended a funeral, though we had seen numerous funeral parades. We attended one and a half small weddings. Hari Raya Puasa during which the Moslems celebrate the end of the month of Ramadan, came and went but we knew no Malays to help celebrate it. We went down to Komtar where booths for selling food had been set up for the Hari Raya, and we ate there that day.

The Christians celebrate Saint Anne's Festival on the last Sunday of July, across the channel on the mainland in the town of Bukit Mertajam. A lot of non-Catholics (and non-Christians) also worship her. Candles are lit for favors asked and granted. Some people do penance and beg in front of the church. At night there is a procession around the church where the statue of St. Anne is paraded around the church compound.

We did not participate in any Deepavali rituals, the Hindu "Festival of Lights," when Hindus go to the temple to pray and visit relatives, and light oil lamps around their homes to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness.

We missed Wesak day (May 19th), the Buddha's birthday in which a float with Lord Buddha's statue is brought out and paraded around some streets of Penang. It is a big day for all the Buddhists. We missed the Chang day (the "Double fifth," or the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar) when dragon boat races are held and when people make and give each other dumplings and pray. A couple of families on the Jetty gave us an abundance of dumplings.

There are numerous other festival celebrations throughout the year--Christian Easter and Christmas, the Mooncake and Lantern Festival, Tamil New Year or Varusha Pirapu, Sonkran, the Sikh New Year, Masi Maham, Sang Cho Koon--far too many to count.

Our relationship with the people on the Jetty where we had done most of our field work had changed in the course of the year, and toward the end we were left with the distinct impression by many people that they didn't want us there and were ready for us to leave. At that point we sort of let go of the image control business and resigned ourselves to whatever we had already accomplished. After all, it was not our world.

So we withdrew from the Jetty more and more except once or twice to just walk around and take pictures. I had a several shipping crates to build with a few hand tools, and we had to arrange for our return to the U.S. We had little remaining to accomplish except to get ready for our departure and go to the market in the morning and to talk with our British friends upstairs.

There was a critical turning point that stands out in my mind as when the change began in our relation to the Jetty and Penang, that may have marked the beginning of our withdrawal from it all. This was the point at which my daughter began having some problems at her Day Care with some of the other students and with not eating her lunch and crying all day. What we figured was that the one or two days spent on the Jetty with us was enough to cause a strong enough sense of contradiction in her life, of appropriate behavioral responses to different settings, that it made it difficult for her to operate in the school away from us. On the Jetty everyone had been feeding her by hand--other children, older teenagers, even adults. On the other hand, there was an underlying sense of resentment and even anger or frustration sometimes directed towards her, a sense that was clearly evident in the analysis of some of the drawings. Children were frequently taunting and teasing her when they thought we weren't paying any attention. Even adults liked to tease her by taking her things from her and hiding them. It was Mahala herself who wanted to stop going to play at the Jetty, even though she seemed to have fun there, submerged in world of laughing, screaming children.

It turned out that when she returned to school she would refuse to eat her lunch unless the teachers fed her themselves. We would not permit it any longer after we found out about it and we suspected that kids at the Day Care, mostly from upper-middle class backgrounds, were possibly also teasing her. We seemed to be losing control over the situation. At first I reasoned that she may be spending too much time at the Day Care, and so I changed her schedule to 3 days a week. But taking her to the Jetty more frequently threw her behavior between there and school even into greater imbalance, and her problems at the school appeared to worsen. So I quit taking her to the Jetty except infrequently, and her behavior at the school soon got better.

We also were burned out on a lot of things. We grew tired of waiting for and riding on the bus, or of walking around the dirty streets of Penang in the hot sun and the rain. We went only when we really needed something. We stopped going to the morning market, and instead began buying our food at stalls nearby our house. Mahala had some time ago quit asking us to take her to MacDonald's and had even taken a liking to char koay teow and to Hokkien mee without the balachan (chili-shrimp paste).


 Mahala in our final month in Penang, quite adjusted to things.


The last few days before we left we checked into a reasonably priced 3 star hotel on the resort beaches so I could take my daughter swimming in the pool, and she could play in the sand. About half the people I taught English to on the Jetty showed up bearing gifts. We talked, walked on the beach, played some games on the lawn, watched TV, and went out and ate dinner. British and Chinese people showed up for the next two nights, and though we had been mostly alone for the previous 8 months, we did not have one minute to ourselves our last three days in Penang. On the last day a couple of families from the Jetty and some British came to visit us. One family came twice, bearing gifts of food for us to take back to the U.S. Our shipping agent friend showed up late that night, and offered to take us to the airport early the next morning for our flight. The next morning we left.