THE young boy liked travelling up north with his family. This was when the North-South Expressway was probably not even in the planning stages, when the journey from Petaling Jaya to Penang island took around six hours or so, unless of course you are caught in the balik kampung rush.
He was born and bred in good ol’ PJ, but his father had spent the first decade or so of life in Penang, including during the Japanese Occupation, and still had relatives there. Having come from a family whose wealth had been cheated from them, father had, at a very young age, traversed most of the island on foot selling kueh, so knew practically every nook and cranny.
The journey there was horrendous. The long hours in a car without air-conditioning (only later was the car upgraded) was exacerbated by instrumental music from the likes of legendary pianist Liberace and Los Indios Tabajaras, two guitarist brothers from Brazil whose brand of easy-going, laid-back music was beautiful, but all too easily sleep-inducing on trips.
But in this case, it was the destination that was important, not the journey. The enjoyment for the boy began with that short but thrilling ferry trip to the island from the mainland. It increased tenfold as soon as the ferry docked and he was off again in the car to the relatives’ place in Tanjung Bungah.
Penang, to him, was like a second home, not just an annual holiday destination. Tanjung Bungah and its hillsides were treasure troves filled with adventures, as there were many ridges to climb up to and crystal-clear streams to explore. The beaches of Batu Ferringhi were the scene of many a seaside picnic of nasi lemak and/or some other delicious dish prepared by his mother or aunt. The waters, too, were more fun than the other usual family holiday spot, Port Dickson, as the waves were more challenging than the normally sedate ones in Negri Sembilan.
The scenery on the island was one that always captivated the boy. The lush greenness of the hills, the cool air of “Penang Hill” (at least, then), even the twisting roads round the island on the Batu Ferringhi side, as one travels from Tanjung Bungah.
And, of course, the food. The tasty Sisters’ char kway teow, with the crabmeat on top, and the yam cake of that little, perpetually-crowded restaurant in Macalister Road, the Penang Road cendol, the kacang tumbuk wrapped in popiah skin and little nasi lemak packets from stalls outside the Pulau Tikus market — all were favourites. The boy, at this time, had not been introduced to the gastronomic delights of nasi kandar, though.
This was the most looked forward to of annual family vacations. The excitement of the trip normally left the boy sleepless the night before, which added to the effects of the lullaby-like strains of Los Indios Tabajaras’s Maria Elena during the journey to Penang.
As the boy grew up, some aspects of Penang changed, but not that much. It was still the same exciting time for him. Then, in his 20s, as the rat race took charge of him, there was not much time to travel to Penang anymore. Each trip he managed to make, however few and far between they were, proved to be somewhat saddening for him. Changes were happening, slowly still, but apparent nonetheless.
Fast-forward somewhat, and the young man is now middle-aged, with a family of his own. After many years away, a few trips to Penang in a short period of time leave him shocked and in despair. He thinks his favourite childhood vacation destination has been “raped”. Gone are the green, healthy faces of the hills, to be replaced by a concrete jungle of luxury apartments, terraced and semi-detached houses and bungalows. Where once he could stand and watch the waves crest and fall on the sands of beaches, he now sees only land and buildings, the sea a distant visage.
And what he reads in papers and online makes him feel sick. More reclamation work, he knows, is being carried out. More development has been slated for the island. He hears of landslides, he reads of massive flooding in areas where before there may have only been minor problems with floodwaters. And he wonders, does this have to do with over-development? Is Mother Nature fighting back?
Change, he knows, is inevitable. Change, some say, is perhaps even necessary. But the man now wonders whether Penang has changed too much. Has Penang changed for the better, or for the worse?
The writer has more than two decades of experience, much
of which has been spent writing
about crime and the military. A die-hard Red Devil, he can usually be found wearing a Manchester United jersey when outside of work