Malaysian memories

Malaysian Memories

My 74 year-old father sprinted barefoot across the hot sand before being hoisted high into the hazy Malaysian sky.

As the speedboat made a languid turn back towards the Batu Ferringhi beaches of northern Penang, he could see south and east – beyond the island – to the mainland coast.

He had completed his National Service here, at RAF Butterworth, 55 years ago and I had brought him back, in search of some of those indelible memories.

We visited his old camp, now a base for the Australian Air Force. Security was understandably tight, and our pleas for the veteran radar operator to explore fell on deaf Aussie ears.

We could access the beach where the flimsy wooden barracks – bashas –  had been erected amongst whispering palm trees, and where young local dhobi wallahs Trixie and Girlie washed the shy young man’s kit. But the huts were long gone. A pervasive sense of decay now inhabited this area, where the south-east London teenager had quickly grown up.

Dad and best mate Rusty would hop onto the ferry for frequent R&R visits to Penang. More than 50 years later, we based ourselves on the island for the nostalgic return. No bashas now though. We stayed at the exquisitely restored late 19th century Cheong Fatt Tze mansion on Lebuh Leith, a refined street on the outskirts of its gritty capital,  Georgetown. The contrast could not have been more stark.

Penang constantly evokes the history of colourful Malaysia. On every Georgetown corner there are reminders of its multi-layered colonial past. Decaying Chinese architecture and ramshackle market stalls; the entrancing smells of chilli-laden Indian curries and more aromatic local laksa; Sir Francis Light’s statue and the cannon pointing towards the mainland a constant nudge of British influence.

We revisited some of the places Dad recalled, but they had faded along with some of the memories. Instead we derived simple pleasure from eating humble street food, sipping the same Tiger beers that Dad and Rusty had shared, exploring the intoxicating markets and concluding that the past is probably best left undisturbed.

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