Midnight seeped down from sweating stars, and the streetlights twinkled dirty halos on the streets. Billy scowled his wrinkled eyes and flicked across his iPhone with battered fingers. “Look at it! Right ‘ere! Ya see he’s wearing a crown fulla skulls, and that part up over there, it’s just like a scythe! And if I zoom in here”—and here he flicked the screen to zoom in on a wisp of smoke curling through the image, “He’s swallowing the other skulls! He looks like he wants to swallow me head!”
I wasn’t watching his phone anymore. Billy’s ghost stories had worn themselves thin.
Yet here I still stood, in the sweltering midnight of a Georgetown furnace, listening to the old Brit regaling his audience—me—with all the details of the haunted mirror he was refitting into a new cabinet. The darn thing has a habit of photobombing Billy’s pictures with phantasms of the underworld. In this particular example, the wandering carpenter is squatting in front of the armoire, blitzing his flash into the mirror fitted to its rear wall. Yes, smoky residue hovers around the margins of the frame. Yes, with some mental clobbering of the image, you can force a few skulls into it.
“What do you think it means? He’s about to swallow me head!”
While the apparitions prevent more than a few superstitious customers from signing on the dotted line, it does keep superstitious onlookers filtering through Billy’s showroom and snapping pictures of the hauntings with their own smartphones. Not a shabby marketing strategy.
I fidgeted again and watched Andy, herself waylaid by a pair of tourism surveyors—one from the local university and one from the tourism board. Fill out a survey; get a free Penang magnet.
“What do you think it means?” Billy implored again. The skulls ‘ere on ‘is crown!”
Before I managed to shake his haunting, Billy would swear to me his tablet has photos of a dragon floating through Penang’s street – he caught it after busting out an all-night transcendental in a Buddhist temple. Then he wondered aloud whether his gypsy forebears had anything to do with his paranormal prowess.
Perhaps the skeptic in me ought to pipe down a little, for if there were ever an island on this earth that deserved to be haunted, it may well be Penang.
Centuries hence, Billy’s fellow Brits raised this gem of Penang out of the marshes and harbors of the Malay dogleg—chiefly on the shoulders of Tamil coolies and through the desperation of starving Chinese refugees by the boatload. The throbbing colonial machine needed cash; cash could be had through maritime exchange—namely opium from Rajasthan and Bengal sailing around the jutting obstruction of Southeast Asia and up the gaping Yangtze into mainland China. Penang, convenient little island, commanded a stunning view of the Malacca straits—a priceless bit of safe-water sailing between rumbling Sumatra and the long shank of Malaysia.
Penang prospered in the north; Malacca city got a fair bit of commerce further down; and Singapore rounded the tip in the royal trifecta of Straits Settlements—now all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Before you could tip a teacup to Victoria, Penang boasted a capital named for King George, a bustling port, and a bristling fort, and more opium cascading through the system than anyone knew what to do with.
Chinese fleeing famine landed here looking for a means to feed a family, and ended in near-slave labor on the docks. Tamils fresh from India’s verdant south came hoping for escape from caste-system despair and ended up as more untouchables. Meanwhile, narcotics and gold and jewels flowed through by the ship-hold.
And thousands of thousands of lives came crashing into this colonial cornerstone—shattering, as often as not.
Colonial history is a mystery to even the most well-read historian and the most empathetic poet: the complex interplay of culture and language, class and cash, spices and sails, blood and glory, with a generous helping of human greed—and yes, I admit, courage and – desolation of untold thousands of never-penned biographies.
Penang, as a colonial hub, was an epicenter of opportunity—and a hellhole of despair.
Take as an example one Mr. Cheong Fatt Tze—a peasant laborer milling the docks and factories of Jakarta one morning, and a multi-millionaire diplomat tycoon of Penange the next. His “Blue Mansion” dominates the tourist hotspots of the island, pulling in visitors with glimpses of the fortunes that once slid through his fingers. Dubbed the “Rockefeller of the East,” Cheong Fatt Tze was in it thick with the trading game, and the trading game in those days was all about the opium.
Tour guides slide sweating foreigners through the rooms—the rooms that aren’t booked by guest, of course—and point to black-and-white photos of the man with both British and Chinese officials, of his hand-crafted beds and beaded shoes, of his feng shui obsession and polygamous dramas and Scottish steel columns and who knows what else.
Rainbow dragons of porcelain grace the facades and rooftops and corners of the things, guarding against evil and proclaiming the owner’s affluence in a moment.
Just down the street, just a mile away, the crowded wharfs reeked through the whale-oil nights: the drunken sailors and bearded captains, the brothels and opium pipes, the gambling and the plague, the frying ginger in oily woks, the gunpowder housed in the fort, which in hindsight was nothing compared to the powderkeg ready to rock the new world order.
Meanwhile, druglords of the Cheong Fatt Tze ilk hoarded prosperity on gilded fingers of trophy wives, and diamond-encrusted everythings, and feng-shui geomancers. The ruling clanmasters rose to power in Godfather-style turf wars and cutthroat tactics. The Perankan museum in the old city features a dining hall hung heavy with outsize mirrors—so the head of the table can view every entrance from his dinner seat.
A few more decades, a couple more generations, and the wealth of Cheong Fatt Tze had evaporated. His grandchildren sold of property bit by bit, sectioned off the ancestral home, and before the Japanese war machine rolled through, the once proud palace was filled with squatters. Dozens clamoring for water at the well, for time in the outhouse, for a moment’s quiet and a few free feet to stretch out and sleep.
On the docks, the same story scrolled on through the calendars. Clanhouses of five banded families rose to prominence above the slums and administered a form of social welfare and law and order for family after family landing and looking for work. Winding through the narrow alleys and centuries-old walls, you find a tiny entrance to the Khoo Kangsi—the most impressively preserved of the five. Kitchens and storerooms and bunks and offices spread through the compound and provided logistical realities for kinsmen fresh off the boats and needing to get on their feet. Kitchens and accountants are nice, but the heart of the whole shebang lies in the sprawling second-floor temple blitzed in indulgent trimming and buzzing with incense for departed ancestors. Either that or the upstairs rooms and terraces and balconies devoted to the Mahjong gambling obsession and clouded over with the smoke of opium.
Get off the boat, get yourself a room, and get busy with the gambling and narcotics.
Or if you’re British, get yourself a boat load of Tamil coolies—preferably a rowdy crowd from a Chennai prison—and stir them into the mix. How do you think Fort Cornwallis (yes, the Cornwallis) got its thousands and thousands of tons of stone stacked atop each other? And so another migration began—this time the Indian variety—and following fast on the heels of the laborers and rehab projects came the middle classes and the white collars. Next thing you know, Penang has a throbbing project of Masala and Chai brewing right smack in the middle of its downtown.
Why not—there’s ready cash and a heady heyday to chase. The Penang fire was ablaze. Its human fuel poured on just as fast as it could incinerate.
And somehow, someway, Billy’s wardrobe has access to its ghosts—skull crowned and scythe-wielding wisps of smoke conjured up from nothing more than a digital sensor on his phone and a well-fed imagination.
It’s a story too phantasmagoric, too extreme, to swallow. But I’m still talking about Penang and its colonialism.
“What do you suppose this means?” Billy rubbed his thinning gray hair and stared into my eyes.
There was a time when a reckless adventurer like Billy would have held sway in this city—his skin and birthplace would usher him through glass ceilings of power, off the scam-and-sweat docks and into the scam-and-smoke backroom deals. Today, though, it’s mirrored: Billy is the swarthy outcast in a city that purrs in (mostly legal, I think) revenue.
Penang got UNESCO backing to rebuild its colonial heyday. Georgetown is a retirement haven. The city rolls in tourism Ringgit.
Penang, this sweltering spike of green pin-pricking the azure stripe of the Malacca’s waterway, buzzed like a hive on fire for something like a century. Wealth untold snapped to a few hands as if magnetized; heartaches and addiction and sin hung round the necks of the rest. Murderers and boozehounds and gamblers and missionaries rambled through streets of vice and penance and curses and technology, and they stocked tight the coffers of the mightiest government of the globe.
Penang, Pearl of the Orient, spread Babylonian luxurious wide across the waters of the globe, and left destitute masses in her wake—fodder for Billy’s ghost stories.
Of course it couldn’t last. By the time the Great War was mowing down an entire generation of Europeans, Penang was on the downhill. After that trauma, no one needed to seek the far reaches of the equator to indulge in existentialist escapism, and few harbored a heart to push the colonial machine much farther. Penang limped on, spending its forefathers’ stockpiles like the bank account had struck an iceberg, a fiscal hemorrhage until its mansions lay busted and Japanese fascists came calling.
More ghosts—fodder for Billy’s mirror, more skulls to the demon’s crown.
By the time the Japanese retreated and England folded its colonial hand, Penang and its Georgetown were smoldering specks of a bygone world order.
The Blue Mansion was full of bickering squatters. The Khoo Khangi’s intake of immigrants had long since stopped. The Indian quarter stumbled along. No more forts to build; turbulent times struck back home.
Fast-forward sixty years.
Today, high-rise condos glitter in the night sky, and Georgetown boasts not only one of the top retirement destinations on the planet, but one the most bustling street-food scenes in Asia. The hipster vibes resonate across the street art and the coffee-mongering, while museums loaded down with divas’ diamonds and geomancers’ lore and drug-lord teakwood pay wistful tribute to the decadence of the past.
The clash of cultures whipped this microcosm of the globe into a flurry of make-me-or-break-me frenzy—an economic bonfire blistering through the island’s natural resources as if a new century were an impossibility, and the past a fever dream too distant to conjure back.
Two attempts were needed to resuscitate the Pearl. One, a tour guide waxed eloquent in glib, practiced sentences, involved smashing out the history of the place in order to raise a monolith of a tower in imitation of Hong Kong trinketry and electronics vending. This effort left hectares of history in rubble and a near-empty mega-mall-tower looming in its wake. That was in the 80s.
The 90’s attempt took the opposite approach, eschewing the tech-heavy and pandering to the past—a deliberate throwback to rolling days of colonialism’s prime. Restore. Rustic. Remember. Palaces stumbled from their graves; squatters by the hundreds trickled out their ramshackle partitions in the rooms of the world’s barons; imported restoration crews rolled up their sleeves for work.
UNESCO patrimony followed; interest grew; lax tax laws and robust health care wooed retirees. Life stirred in ancient veins; old money clamored vaults for release from tomb-like vaults.
The streets would rise again—hawker food that once knit body and soul of the downtrodden now became the object of grandchildren’s fascination. Artwork once reserved for royal weddings roused itself from arthritic knuckles and trembled slowly back to life.
By the time social media was buzzing Penang fresh, the city was on its second wind, regaling trendy visitors with story past story of its prodigal youth. The prosperity the drug money couldn’t nail down was found to be lurking all along—in the woks of the hawkers and the brushes and the painters and the hands of the downtrodden, in the temples and the hovels and the wharfs and the interplay of skin and religion and culture pulsing once again through the Pearl of the Orient.
Her treasure was here all along.
And it wasn’t in the opium.
Tourists line up ten deep for Wan Ton Mee or Es Cendol or oyster omelets or Kokkien Mee, artists twirl their mustaches and sip expressos, and Andy and I stopped one midnight hike back to the hotel to complete a tourist survey conducted by Penang’s ever-curious Board of Tourism – free refrigerator magnet for completing the survey!
That’s when Billy, seizing his opportunity, set down his beer and pulled out his iPhone, and pounced: “What do ya think it means!”
What does it all mean? That Billy’s haunted mirror has somehow encased the agonized souls caught in the whirlwind of quick cash and opium? That busted backs and broken dreams and sailors’ lecherous nights continue unforgiven? That souls eternal lie trapped in the Billy’s purgatory of Britain’s raucous id?
OK, Billy, here goes:
You need no magic mirror to stare the ghosts of Penang in the eyes.
A plane ticket will do the trick.