Do Nothing and It Shall Be Done: Placemaking in Balik Pulau

By Sheryl Teoh

February 2024 FEATURE
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THE DRIVE TO Nada Natural Farming café itself is a treat. Past the Balik Pulau old town, you make a turn that takes you winding through traditional Malay villages. Eventually, you turn into Jalan Kuala Sungai Burung, a narrow dirt road flanked on one side by a large expanse of verdant paddy fields, with the hill range on the far horizon, and a little irrigation canal on the other. Tucked away in one of the many of shoots of Jalan Kuala Sungai Burung is Nada Natural Farming, a quaint café with the admirable and enviable mission of doing nothing (nada in Spanish).

Jerry, the owner, co-founder and cook extraordinaire at Nada Natural Farming, believes in the dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing. This philosophy has spilled over to the entire conception of Nada, from how it is run, to what it is meant to be.

The story of how Nada came to be is as serendipitous and random as what you could expect from a place whose concept is “whatever happens, happens”.

Que Sera, Sera

When Jerry came across an advertisement in for an empty plot of land in Balik Pulau in late 2018, he was immediately interested in leasing it. The post did not mention the specific whereabouts of the land, but as a Balik Pulau native, Jerry could vaguely tell that it must be somewhere near Pantai Malindo, a popular sunset-watching spot; after all, he grew up spending much of his time there.

Upon signing the contract to lease the land for 10 years, Jerry and YenNar, his wife, still did not have a concrete business plan. They only had two firm conditions for the running of the place: first, that it is a café, to fulfil YenNar’s long-time dream; second, that it is a place for children and pets.

It was back-breaking work clearing the four-acre overgrown farmland. Jerry and YenNar soon realised that it was impossible to manage the land without heavy machinery and manual labour. In the nine months that followed, they levelled the ground, did some basic landscaping and constructed three rustic huts: one functions as the restroom and wash area, the largest one in the middle is the main seating and dining area, and the last one near the back is the kitchen and storeroom.

Pushing past the wooden gate to enter the grounds of Nada is like stepping into a fairy tale. Framed by blue skies, a quiet stream on the left, swaying elephant ears on the right and the bucolic countryside beyond, it felt like a scene straight out of a Miyazaki film.

Jerry and YenNar’s strategy towards the wilderness that is constantly threatening to encroach into their plot of land is simple: Let it be.

“We do what we can to manage a small part of the land—the front lawn, the main seating area, the kitchen and the backyard… By that, I mean I want visitors to feel comfortable and safe in this space, and not have to worry about snakes or unwanted encounters with wildlife. But other than that, the remaining swathe of the land, we leave it alone and let nature take its course. What Nada looks like now is a natural, organic process; I won’t take credit for it.”

Jerry’s philosophy of coexisting with nature without the need to subdue and control it is refreshing and inspiring. It has also become his modus operandi in running Nada, from formulating the menu to curating experiences and cultivating relationships.

“We are often asked by people who come here what else there is to do. Is it a petting zoo? An organic farm? And my answer is always: Nothing. We want people to come here and just enjoy doing nothing; take in the scenery, watch the sky turn from blue to pink to orange and then pitch black. That is our idea of the perfect visitor.”

While many city folk would balk at the suggestion of doing nothing, in a place as idyllic and placid as Nada, it is easy. In the daytime, the warm air and bright sun lull into you a quiet contentment and a laziness. At night, fairy lights strung across the ceiling look like thousands of fireflies. From the outside, it is the only lighted building in the stretch, bathing its surroundings in an ember glow.

While waiting for my food to arrive, Dawn, Jerry and YenNar’s loquacious six-year-old, takes me on a tour which starts with a former puddle where children could play in the mud (it is now filled in with elephant ears) and ends with mulberry picking (I can’t reach the taller ones so you have to pick them for me). Songyi, a white puppy with brown patches tail along happily as we trudge through tall grass, small pails in hand. Six mulberries in, Dawn is happy with the yield and indicates for me to follow her back to the café.

Nothing Turns Into Something

Over time, without meaning to, Nada has evolved into a place of experiences. Occasionally, indie and folk music bands perform live under the starlight, local small food and beverage vendors—mostly friends of the husband-and-wife duo—set up stalls in its confines, and arts and cultural workshops such as clay-making, tea tasting and handmade papermaking offer visitors one-of-a-kind experiences.

Asked how he curates these events, Jerry says that they place less emphasis on their collaborators having a unique selling point. “What we value more is the interaction and how they fit into this place.”

Since starting Nada, Jerry has made invaluable friendships and connections. In a way that befits his philosophy of just letting things be and seeing what happens, Nada is a space that allows things, including relationships, to happen naturally and organically.

Jerry says that while he has tried to use local resources in manpower and ingredients, it has been tough given their limitations. “We were not mature enough as an establishment,” he admits. And so, he does not force it.

One thing that he insists on is using locally sourced seafood in his dishes. He says that the difference in taste profile between seafood caught in small, sampan boats and those harvested from big fishing vessels is marked.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—Jerry’s laissez-faire attitude towards the place, by happenstance, Nada has become one of the most attractive places of interest in Balik Pulau. Its location, sequestered in the sleepy back-of-the-island, is far from strategic in a business sense. Still, it has so far managed to bring hordes of urban dwellers and visitors to this less-seen part of Penang, contributing unexpectedly to the local community.

“We buy our staff meals from this mak cik that sells Mee Udang just outside and we’ve been doing this long enough that there exists some kind of honour system between us. Payments can be settled the next day, or the next few days,” Jerry beams with pride at this small progress in making meaningful relationships within the community.

From the outset, it has been impressed upon me that Jerry is fiercely protective of the kind of vibe Nada gives of. An engineer by profession, he gave up his career to start this venture to spend more time with his at-the-time infant daughter. As his daughter grew older, Nada’s raison d’etre became to entice her to want to spend time with him and his wife.

Dawn bustles around the café, talking to patrons and helping her mother take orders. In the midst of upselling their homemade kefir to me— “get the strawberry lychee too,” she urges—she tells me that her favourite thing to do here is to talk to customers.

They want to focus more on children’s activities in the future, YenNar tells me. In the pipeline is a pop-up market where children will do the selling, inspired by a similar successful endeavour at Dawn’s school.

As I pull out of Nada’s gravel driveway, I muse about how they have, in fact, managed to do what the government has been trying to do for a long time— revitalise and rejuvenate Balik Pulau—by doing nothing more than cultivating the right environment for the space to thrive naturally.

Sometimes, things really are that simple.

Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.