Bukit Mertajam offers some rare authenticity


Bukit Mertajam might be well off the tourist map, but it has much more to offer than what its reputation as George Town’s satellite suggests. We take a walk to the town’s centre and meet its protagonists.

If you ask any of George Town’s foreign tourists what they think of Bukit Mertajam, at best you’d get a vacuous stare. “Bukit what? Is that a food dish?”

This answer should not be surprising. In fact, this vibrant and historical town in Seberang Perai has been totally forgotten by both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides. And if foreigners are nowhere to be found, don’t think that Penang’s islanders are in excess in Bukit Mertajam either; to them, Bukit Mertajam – or colloquially known as BM – means principally Auto City, Juru’s bustling artery of dance clubs, fancy diners and car showrooms. On the other hand, most complain that the town itself is too dirty and rough compared to the island, and when there for the good food, they rarely linger.

Quite a pity, for there’s plenty to enjoy in BM, if one is looking for a more “authentic” side of Malaysia. Truth be told, there’s plenty of “real living heritage” to be found in BM. What’s more, from September 2015, with BM bound to become the northern hub of the upcoming ETS train service from Thailand to KL, things are expected to pick up very fast.

There’s already a lot to do in BM. At the foothills of the rounded, savagely forested hill that gives the place its name, the town centre looks a lot like George Town one decade ago. With slippery market floors and heritage shophouses covered in vines and peeling paint, there’s no pretence of being “boutique chic” and trendy.

A walk through BM’s old town is a step back into Malaysia’s past. Before we even get to the market, we stumble upon Ong Hair Salon, a shop that probably had its last facelift in the late 1960s. Its swinging door, a piece of wood that resembles the entrance to a psychedelic saloon, hides the world of Ng, 74, hairdresser extraordinaire. The shop, filled with 1960s memorabilia, sports a row of stillfunctioning vintage wall-hanging hair dryers, ready to teleport lady customers back to the time when Jane Fonda got her perm for Barbarella.

Ng, whom we interrupt as she works the fringe of a Malay customer, says that “these days the business is not too good, and my rent has already risen to RM1,000 a month.” She hopes that the landlord will not increase it further, or she’ll have to struggle to keep this piece of heritage from going belly up.

Continuing around the corner, we bump into Khaa Zee chicken rice shop. Here, rows of perfectly roasted ducks hang from hooks over the five-foot-way, dripping fat and sauce over a layer of aluminium foil that has been cautiously laid out on the pavement. It’s mid-morning, and business is in full-swing. We try to ask one of the workers what he thinks about the contrast between the island and BM. “I wouldn’t know,” he answers, “because I’m always busy working.”

We leave them to attend to their tables and continue a few metres to the real town centre, at whose heart is the Pek Kong Cheng Temple and the bustling hawkers that surround it. Right opposite, we find relief from the sun under the awning of Cheong’s herbal tea stall. He pours us two excellent sugar cane and chrysanthemum drinks. “Penang’s tourism has left BM behind,” says Cheong, 68, who has manned this stall for the past 47 years. “Problem is, contrary to the island, there’s no hotel or guesthouse for foreigners here. The town’s never been properly developed. I think it’s a waste because this is a very old and historical place. The temple itself is over 100 years old.”

“To be exact, 129 years old,” says the courteous lady who takes care of Pek Kong Cheng Temple as we enter to gaze upon its small but sumptuous altar. “Here, Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien and Cantonese people coexist and come to worship,” she adds. A few people enter the round gate to pray; our presence makes them awkward, so we decide to step out and dive into the corridor of stalls that coils all around the temple’s outer walls. Before we could even complete a full circle, a young man comes forward and tugs at my arm. I think I have done something wrong, but it turns out that Seah Ming Shien, 17, has been sent by his father, the owner of Yahaa kopitiam, to invite us to try their coffee.

Seah invites us to sit and disappears. He comes back about 10 minutes later holding a soy coffee in one hand and a coffee-cum-milo in the other. He has sculpted the foam of the latter in the shape of a puppy’s head, exactly as trendy baristas do in George Town’s swankiest cafes. “I have learned the technique on YouTube and observed how they do it in Penang,” he says. Unlike in George Town, Yahaa’s 3D-coffee is sold at RM4.50 only. “We use local nanyang brew, avoiding imported beans and foreign coffee machines,” explains Seah. His dream is to become a chef and start a business together with his father. “I love BM and I want people to come here and see what the real heritage of Penang can be,” he says. “George Town is too hectic, always traffic and jams, but there’s a lot of tourism there. I hope that soon people will acknowledge our value and will come visit here, too.”

Tourists or not, Lai, 55, sees no problem in keeping up with her extremely good business. The rice bowls garnished with black soy sauce and fresh duck meat that she serves sell like hotcakes. “I took over the business from my father-in-law 33 years ago,” she says. “BM will never be Penang’s spare wheel because people are attracted by our different food. Indonesian and Singaporean tourists buy my rice, freeze the packages and bring them back to their countries! Some foreigners come here with their local friends, too. Many young people read about me online and come to try my speciality on weekends. Truth be told, I am always busy.”

Yasoodah, 45, who sells flowers at the farther end of Jalan Pasar, agrees with the fact that BM hasn’t been left behind by Penang’s tourism gold rush. “Buying homes here is still far cheaper than on the island, and people keep moving in,” she says.

Some do complain about BM, however, like the crowds of immigrant workers who occupy the side streets behind Jalan Pasar. They queue up at the local Maybank ATM to withdraw their salaries, and then, bills in hand, push at the counters of the international money sender next door. Manoj Khumar Thalir, 26, comes from Nepal, where he has a wife and three children. “I want to leave Malaysia and return to Nepal as soon as possible. There’s too much work to do here, and the pay sucks,” he scoffs. “I get RM900 a month, and my agent keeps RM254 for administration fees. It’s ridiculous.”

Some things, unfortunately, still remain a common problem both on and off the island.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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