He’s got a stripey sort of gray, overweight and friendly, and not too shy to sit on your lap. Or to follow you to bed for that matter – out through the café and atrium, out the barred door to the guest rooms, and inside the cozy-chic urban bungalow. She’ll snuggle and purr as long as you keep fluffing up her belly and her chin.
She’ll stay as long as you’ll let her.
The other is a wily sort of cream, sleek and long and also fat, who prefers to watch with beady eyes from corners and crevasses where she can squeeze her too-wide behind. She doesn’t purr. She isn’t nice. Just pretty.
Kent grinned his sly grin when we observed his cats and paused to pet them a moment. Then, from under the counter, he pulled out a cardboard box with a tiny pile of fur bunched in the corner. Three more kittens mewed and stared back from the shadows.
“I just picked these guys up the other day,” Kent confessed. “Couldn’t find their mom, so I had to do something.” His housekeeper was already warming a bottle of milk for the mid-morning feeding, and while Kent showed us through the café and atrium and guestroom, Andy couldn’t stop trembling with anticipation – not simply at getting a chance to revel in the artsy flair that makes Georgetown (Penang’s capital city and historic goldmine) so trendy—but also to pet some seriously adorable kittens.
The artsy city and the cat-haven guesthouse were a match made for Penang. After all, we all know that cats have something artistic about them.
And Penang’s Georgetown is most definitely a city for cats.
And Kent is the perfect fit for both—a thirty-something hipster with a day job in a bank, a side job running this guesthouse, a side-business publishing photos for postcards that he sells in his foyer (to anyone who isn’t busy petting the cats), and a fluent command of three languages. He talks freely of business school in NYC and road trips through America’s winding Midwest and family dinners in Chinese and Hakka dialects.
He also calls the shots on the antique-heavy decor of his place, supervises the menus choices, and nurses abandoned kittens back to health.
If there’s anyone in Georgetown fit to be a microcosm of itself, it’s Kent.
The city is swimming in hipster vibes, from the social-media frenzy surrounding its murals to its steamy, creamy, spice-and-soy-sauce dishes calling your name from rink-a-dink shacks and greasy carts. It’s the kind of place the pleads for a mustache and skinny jeans and the ability to converse intelligently about no less than eight manners of brewing coffee.
The place is hip alright.
But hold off on the Toms shoes and steaming espresso – Georgetown’s also about a hundred and three degrees out, with the sun crashing down on the bustling little street scenes. You may get your get dose of art and culture alright, served up with a smoky side of heat-stroke.
But that’s Penang—it’s a place that caters to tropical cats.
Yes, cats. There’s something artistic, something mystic, about the cat—that enigmatic, lounging, unpredictably angelic devil—that makes it the perfect companion for an artist. Something about the brooding, and the self-indulgence, and the stroke of lurking genius, that suits up the kittens for a career in the arts. Something about the self-complacent self-dredging that seems like so much time so lazily wasted on so very little, only to have that latent thinking burst forth in a frenzy of brilliance.
A dog? Well a dog is a different animal—uh, literally. A dog is down-to-earth as a factory and practical as a hammer or a sawhorse or a tractor. Loyal. Industrious. Unflagging. A dog is blue-collar (sometimes literally), something reliable, and it knows its place. A dog suits a city like Detroit. Or Pitsburg. Or Tulsa.
A cat is custom-made for San Francisco.
Tearing ourselves away from Kent’s smooth banter and purring kitties, we struck out with a mis-folded city map and a Canon ready for action. Cute kittens aside, Andy was all business on the Penang photography trail. Even the Cat Café – the tremendously fluffy little set-up just a few doors away from Kent’s homestay—couldn’t distract her. Buy a coffee; pet a cat. What else could a trendsetter possibly want?
Maybe a map of that buzzing street art.
A few years back, Georgetown amped its online presence by sponsoring an up-and-coming Lithuanian artist to create a series of murals celebrating the city’s heritage. Doesn’t sound so buzz-worthy, you say? Well, the brain-child of Ernest Zacharevic involved murals in three dimensions, in true-to-life scale, and peppered throughout a series of semi-popular but mostly-local and out-of-the-way places. The result has been a boom in selfies with iconic images of Bak Pau steamers and motorcycle-halves protruding from walls and mischievous kiddos up to trickeries. Instagram yourself with Bruce Lee ninja-kicking or watch an eight-meter tall Tamil gentleman row his canoe down a blistering side street. Children on swings and bikes and basketball games keep the spirit of the aging city young. And the perpetual presence of a nearby hawker with cool fruit juice or Es Cendol doesn’t hurt at all.
A thousand cities have museums celebrating heritage, but Georgetown’s stroke of brilliance—in a city already steeped in museums and history—came in making the entire UNESCO heritage zone a giant scavenger hunt, in which tourists roam side streets sampling cuisine and hunting up the next iconic image.
More likes on your Facebook profile, of course, and ten minutes of Snapchat glory. And a pretentious little tale to sift the next time you recline in a café stocked with Indy music and fair trade coffee with locally sourced organic soy milks and vegan menu options and an owner who also painted the decorations on the wall and where Apple is the mantra and Windows a curse word.
Georgetown wall-art features celebrations of the city’s mixed cultures, odes to the hardships of colonialism, symbols of the proud past, and yes, cats. Cats twenty feet long along an unassuming street, cats hidden in a bucket ready for washing, cats eyeing juicy rats, and cats in procession for a Chinese clan’s holiday.
Andy came out of her corner swinging: batteries charged, memories cards emptied, well-rehearsed routes to the most popular shots, and props including hats and balloons and a Coke.
I played along: dragged the tripod, feigned surprise at cartoony monsters, exchanged dragon kicks with Lee himself, hung on for dear life to a run-away bike, and sweated myself silly traipsing across the winding old alleys to hunt down the little red dots marked on the tourist map. We plodded down back alleys, asked directions in mangled Malay, stumbled into hidden art courtyards full of handlebar mustaches and international wall-art, got acquainted with the public transportation, and stopped not infrequently for a teh tarik or a rojak or an oyster omelet.
It was exactly the sort of eccentric behavior you’d expect from a cat—or a couple a dehydrating tourists. Good thing so many guys with their little fruit carts wheel patiently through the streets.
Speaking of which, eateries in Penang are something of an art form in themselves, ranging from the blatant mess-making hawker carts to the, well, regularly messy hawker carts. I’m sure there are other types of food around the place – the trendy café with chalk art on the wall, the blatantly messy hawker cart. Oh, I said that one already? Did I mention the trendy café—? Already that one too?
So if you’re not into coffee bars – likely to be co-habitated by cats – or hawker carts, you’ll be treading on unknown soil to me. The entire time Andy and I roamed the twisting, sweltering streets, we found our sustenance in the hawkers alone.
Much of Georgetown’s tourism revolves around this institution of the hawker – the guy who provides a quality, cheap meal served up from a boxy wheelbarrow consisting of a huge can of propane and a wok as old as your grandmother and a shelf full of ingredients gleaned from the ripest spice markets of Asia. They start wheeling out after noon, and are in full swing by twilight, and will jungle up in street corners and intersections deep into the night, slinging their wares into Styrofoam boxes and plastic sacks.
Some get a regular spot, renting a bit of sidewalk from a friend or neighbor. Some keep on the move constantly, roving the city like an ice cream truck full of chili peppers and MSG, ready to sling a bowl of spicy noodles at the next customer in line.
Because Georgetown has such a long and variegated colonial history, its food carts have been blessed with an abundance of flavor – the curries of India and the seafood of China and the spicy blends of rice and noodles of the Malay peninsula. It’s a combination unique to Britain’s Straights Settlements, and not likely to be repeated anywhere on the globe. The hawker garners no small share of attention for the city.
People fly more than a few time zones to taste a bit of Penang glory.
How to choose a hawker: Conventional wisdom says that you go to the cart with the biggest line. It’s the group-think mentality, the herd instinct, and the human-sheep factor rolled into one. “Go to the ones the locals know,” fellow sheep would tell us. “They know which is the best.”
But maybe they’re all ignorant tourists like ourselves.
And there’s also the cunning little trick of a hawker recruiting friends and family to stop by en-masse to “publicize” their buddy with an instant long line, and then trust the herds to perpetuate that momentum. It works. Each new face on the scene sees the hawker with a long line, assumes it’s because that one’s the best, and drifts into the same. A ten-minute line might generate an hour of business, and maybe more, while the rival hawkers stand silently by pretending not to notice.
It’s all good – tomorrow the fickle line will shift and bring a burst of prosperity for today’s down-and-outer. Business comes to the hawker in bursts of herds, and as long as there is visible line of customers, others are going to blindly jump in, hoping to taste a Roti Canai, or a Wan-tan mee, or a bee-hoon seafood or a Laksa Assam—just as long as some random other guys are waiting around to possibly enjoy it too.
For the hawker, it’s a delicate question of timing. As the first customers strolls up in the lunchtime heat, the food must be doled out slowly, but with a perception of hurry. Keep that guy in line for the “advertising” factor as long as possible, but make it feel like a busy sort of fast-food production.
If the plot works, if that hungry guys sticks around long enough to garner a little crowd, well, then, that line grows a little longer, and those people watching get a little anxious, and a buzz of anticipation grows.
Then the performance begins. Yes, the performance.
And it’s heaven-help-the-poor-souls cleaning up afterward.
The propane gets cranked up till the fire roars like a jet engine, blue flames licking greedily across the hide of that ancient wok. The steel is practically glowing, surely thinking that this is the end—that’s it’s returning to the smelting furnace from which it was born. The rice is dumped and the noodles flung and the broth slung wildly into the mix. Soy sauce sprays promiscuously about, and the sambal splashes everything with constellations of the chili-seeds. The hawker’s hands fly like larks with a death wish and the garlic smoke rises to a smiling moon. The pavement and the countertop are stained with the over-splash, and the knife clinks wildly across plates and boards and bowls and spoons.
Yes, a hawker with a waiting queue is a mesmerizing thing to watch.
And the customers grin and shovel steaming broth into their bellies with the aid of tiny plastic spoons, bamboo chop sticks, or incredibly heat-resistant fingers.
I watched for a while one thin man pouring through the Wan-tan mee like a house afire. His wiry limbs slipped through motions practiced ten-thousand times: his eyes wore an iron glare of laser focus, never leaving the tiny counter directly in front of him. Pots of broth boiled mercilessly—hot enough to slay a dozen medieval dragons, I’d say—and the propane tank was roaring through somersaults to keep up with the wild demand for flames and gravy.
I elbowed my way into line and tried to calculate just how much a man could make in the art of hawking. If I figured something like two dollars per plate, and he was currently dishing out something like eight-hundred and fifty plates a minutes, adjusted for human fatigue and eventual market saturation, and considering the overhead cost of the ingredients, and his time spent prepping, and his team of runners and dish-washers and a cooking understudy…
Well, true artists seldom earn just recompense.
But consider this curious little episode as an illustration: One late evening Andy and I were passing by one of the most famous wall-arts of the city – the child on the bicycle one. We saw a Thai family – mother and teenage son – taking some photos, and we offered to help them. Courtesy required we run through the usual Asia shots: together, together goofy, jumping, peace sign, and we threw in the hang-on-for-dear-life-to-the-back-of-the-bike ones at no extra charge. As we were saying good-byes in a smattering of broken languages, a kindly gentleman passed by and listened in. He must have been close to seventy, with a neat polo shirt tucked nicely into pleated trousers. His deep-set eyes, two pools of calmness and meditation, could have belonged to Confucius himself, and his gentle demeanor bespoke a lifetime of serenity. His wife strolled like a proper aristocrat, with a careful beehive coiffed atop her regal head. The gentleman asked a few questions in hard-to-decipher English, questions about Thailand, about the shutter speeds we were using, about how we found the city we were visiting—which happened to be his hometown—and so on. As we were both proceeding the same way, we fell to chatting a little more. He asked me about my students, how teaching in Asia compared to America – questions that revealed an intellectual curiosity and deep-rooted habit of reflection.
I thought that surely this man must also be a teacher—perhaps a professor at a local university. Surely such habits of thoughts, manners of reflection, of patient listening, bespoke a lifetime spent deeply digesting literature or debating the classics, or lecturing on schools of philosophy.
So I put the question to him: What do you do?
And what did you work before?
I was floored by his response. A slow grin and one word: “Hawker.”
The paradigm of humble grace and resilience had spent his working years dishing noodles to countess thousands in the very streets we now strolled. And he had somehow managed a functional command of a variety of languages, an ability to converse intelligently on a range of subjects, and a retirement account. Who knew?
Thanks to this gentleman, I started to see the hawker archetype not as an low-class loud-mouth shouting out prices of salty foods and snatching greasy bills from customers, but rather as a hyper-specialized niche-dweller of a city of art: a veritable chef whose sole fare is a single dish—or maybe two—and whose adult life is spent crafting the flavors and textures and spice over a span of tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of repetitions.
Perhaps a hawker’s is a life of building wealth a few cents at a time, of scraggling over prices for ingredients, toiling odd hours into odd schedules, of scrimping and saving to put children through school, and enjoying idle moments of newspapers perusing and political discussing under shaded corners when no customers could be found.
Georgetown is a place where a hawker can do more than merely eke out a living. He can thrive. That speaks volumes of the place: a city who appreciates her hawkers is one who appreciates her history, and her art, and one who, well, appreciates her cats.
Maybe that’s why Kent was not just keen to pick up some recipes for his own café, not merely satisfied to take snapshots for himself, not content to say oh well with an office job, and not ok with watching a few kitties go hungry in the streets. No, he is a product of Georgetown, and an emblem of the city. Of course he takes pride in his cats.