September 18, 2008

#37 Penang

Malaysia is home to many colourful and quaint people but you should look no further than Penang if you're seeking to find out what it really means to be Malaysian. Of course, Penangites will contend that they are different and unlike the average Malaysian because of their many virtues. This should be expected, considering the fact that all Malaysians profess to be superior to the other.

Penang is a state in Malaysia that is divided into two sections: Penang Island and Province Wellesley (mainland). Whenever a Penangite tells you where they're from, you must ascertain which side they reside on. If they wince with their reply, you can take it as a sign that they're from the mainland. Islanders are proud of the fact that they live on the side that constitutes one of Malaysia's most attractive tourist destinations and the delusion that mainland Penangites envy them and their inflated property prices.

There are certain things you must know about Penang. The first is that the medium of communication in Penang is Hokkien. It is not an exaggeration to say that Hokkien is the only language you will need to use in Penang. Such is its ubiquity that even residents of Penang who aren't Chinese can speak it. It is best that you study it extensively should you choose to live in Penang. And yes, locals will be able to detect the slightest variance in your Hokkien dialect and increase prices in accordance with your linguistic faux pas.

There is also a stigma attached to Penang people, the notion that they are stingy with their money. This is not true. They're just miserly by nature. However this parsimoniousness has turned out to be a good thing for Penangites. The cost of living in the state is comparably lower than others by virtue of their tight fists and would probably remain unchanged if not for the laws of economics. To paint you a picture of the purported penuriousness of Penangites, consider this aphorism: "A fifty cent coin is as big as a bullock cart wheel to a Penangite".

Which brings us to what is arguably the most defining trait of Penang: its cuisine. The hawker food scene of Penang has always been touted (both by locals and Malaysians) to be the world's best. Normally, you would be advised to to take such grand claims from a Malaysian lightly but this is one occasion where it bears credence. Penang hawker food is of such fame that they have inspired generic gastronomic adaptations from Taipei to Cape Town. Foreigners from distant lands travel far and wide to personally experience the best of Penang's culinary offerings. It is of course hugely ironic that their palates, which have grown accustomed to the diluted version of the meal back home then find that the original is "not as good as expected".

In your endeavours to befriend a Penangite, commend them on their food and the warmth of their people. If by a slip of the tongue you were to mention the frugality of Penangites, there's no need to fret. They will thank you for the compliment.


kaioucat said...

Hahaha! This is true. Sometimes I feel there is a lot of similarities between Penangites and Singaporeans - they speak Hokkien, can be very stingy and kiasu/kiasi, love to gamble, and they share a fair amount of history together. One huge difference is the taste of their food lah. Oops, I hope I did not just open the pandora box of Msia-Sg dispute again.

munytang said...

the part bout penang islanders are so true. Me and my friends were just discussing about the very fact that island Penangites seldom visit mainland. lol.

Anonymous said...

Why visit the mainland when you've got everything on the Island? And DVDs are RM4, so no complaints from me about the cheapness of the place :P

Ashleigh said...

Whoa! Never knew someone would take frugality as a compliment... And I like that aphorism, did you make that one up? =D

B.H. said...


I wish I did. The original version is in Hokkien and I would have quoted it as such if I could recall it accurately.