In Love with a Pearl


I have a special affinity with Penang. In my 23-year career with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), I spent almost four years over two postings living in Penang. When I arrived in 1977 at Air Base Butterworth, it was one of the largest fighter bases in the RAAF with two squadrons of Mirages, several Iroquois helicopters, a couple of DC-3 Dakotas, a Canberra bomber, a maintenance squadron, a base squadron, a hospital, an Army Rifle Company and the Headquarters of the Integrated Air Defence System. At that time, the Australian military was still involved in operations against the Communist Insurgency.

I was a fresh-faced, naive 21-year-old. I’d never been overseas before and all of the sights, the sounds and the smells were a great culture shock for me. But I adapted quickly and, within a week, I’d met the love of my life; a week later I’d moved off base and onto the island; and four weeks later again I’d asked her to marry me. Forty years later, we’re still together.

There’s an old saying: you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. I wish I’d known on my first posting to Penang, what I knew second time around. I may not have made all the same mistakes or gotten into as much trouble the first time. But, I suppose, that’s what life is all about – getting experiences – just as long as you learn from your mistakes, and the experience doesn’t kill you.

Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Butterworth was a very different place in 1990 when I returned to what I’d left a dozen years earlier. Instead of an Australian military population in excess of 4,000, we now numbered just over 400, with the majority made up of the Australian Army Rifle Company. All up, there were just over 100 RAAF personnel on base, with no permanent aircraft.

The housing we were offered bordered on palatial. Where previously we’d lived in groups of double-storey semi-detached houses with red-polished concrete floors, this time around we lived in a three-bedroom, three-bathroom with polished marble floors condominium on the 17th floor of a 27-storey high-rise tower. The condominium had two pools, tennis courts, a gymnasium, covered parking, security guards and a mini-market.

The majority of my RAAF colleagues socialised with other RAAFies. Most had little contact with others outside of their work group. With family close by, and friends we’d made at the church we’d joined, we spent most of our time socialising with the “locals”. We loved eating out at the numerous restaurants and hawker stalls in and around George Town, and our friends and family members loved visiting us in our condo.

Now, speaking of eating out, Penang is renowned for its food. With influences as diverse as Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Nyonya and Thai, it is delicious and appetising, hot and spicy, sour and fiery, and all-in-all mouth-watering. I have not only tried “interesting” dishes; I love some that I would never have thought I would. Trying to choose a favourite Penang dish is nigh on impossible – there are so many from which to choose. But here is a sample of those I love: char koay teow, fish head curry, roti canai, Hainanese chicken rice and pork rendang.

Penang was not just the birthplace of my wife, it was also where our son was born, but not as you might imagine. Sadly, we couldn’t have children. So, within weeks of arriving back on posting, my wife asked if we could adopt. It’s a long story, so I won’t bore you with the details, but we put out word that we wanted to adopt. Shortly after, a friend of a friend of a friend knew someone who was pregnant and didn’t want to keep the baby. Some weeks later, we met the parents and agreed to take the child. That was in April. Our son was born in August. We went to court and eventually the judge agreed that we could adopt him. The whole process was ridiculously simple.

In the two decades that we’ve been back in Australia, we’ve visited Penang four times. Each time has been an occasion to catch up with family and friends, to eat lots of yummy food, to buy some inexpensive, good quality clothing (did I tell you that Penang is a shopper’s paradise?) and to visit many of our old stomping grounds.

On our last visit, we travelled with another couple and stayed at the City Bayview Hotel. The rooms are a good size and the included breakfast catered for both Western and Oriental tastes – how would one like to try roti canai for breakfast? The hotel is close to several banks, an assortment of hawker stalls and restaurants, and is only a short trishaw or taxi ride to a number of tourist attractions, department stores and jewellery shops.

We hope to visit the Pearl of the Orient again next year, so long as my health holds up. And while I’m looking forward to some more char koay teow and fish head curry, I’m sure there are new dishes I have yet to try out.

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