Selected Ambient Work #4: Out of office

Trying to be a good sport in Penang and dutifully check out all the things that people tell me i should check out, but failing, because i am just such an incorrigible city girl that if there isn’t a 7-11 or Starbucks within arm’s reach i start to feel a little unmoored.

Whenever you tell your friends you’re going to Penang, they start telling you all the things you should do (most of those things not being things that you can’t do in KL anyway, in some variation or another), they gush over how charming it is and ask you to pass their regards to x and y and z. After two years of being KL-locked, I had forgotten how much pressure there is in travelling. On a two-night solo trip out to Penang, I rediscovered the unique pains of being an out-of-towner and “away from keyboard” all over again. It’s as if work is so important that people want to know that, if you’re taking time off it, then you’re really living your life to the max–that being the only viable excuse for taking leave.

When you’re in George Town, it’s frowned upon (among my hipster friends, at least) to book the five-star hotel, so I dutifully book the boutique hotel. May god forgive me, but I felt a pang of regret the instant the booking went through – why did I listen to my hipster friends? Deep down, what my soul really ever longs for is the carpeted hallways, the air cons going at full blast, the white towels, white bathrobes, white sheets, the heavy glass bathroom doors, and the concierge in uniform. It’s as if by going for the boutique experience I was already giving in to the pressures of ‘making the most of my time’ by discovering ‘hidden gems’ in Penang. Perhaps in rebellion to this initial failure, I then declined to book a flight into Penang, against my friends’ advice, choosing instead to travel by bus. My friends think I’m ridiculous (and poor), they say that by flying you can reach the island in an hour, whereas a bus ride wastes 5 hours of a day. But what they don’t understand is that a holiday, for me, is the luxury of wasting time. Luxury comes, sometimes, in the form of physical extravagance — the five-star chain hotels — and sometimes it comes in the form of the low-class and meandering, such as by taking a bus instead of flying. Once, I was in an artist crit session where the artist kept talking about how he tries to “optimise” his working process as much as possible, and I felt so revulsed.

My first night here, I panic about what to eat. I’m wandering around, I walk out to the Esplanade and I see many Malay families loitering around and being lackadaisical near rubbish. I see a newly-wedded couple and their entourage traipsing around the Whiteaways Arcade and taking wedding photos. Teenagers zoom by me on beam electric scooters. I go out to the edge, where there’s a Malay food court overlooking the sea, and where P and I once had a nice afternoon sharing beer on the seawall. The part overlooking the sea is boarded up now. It was bad enough before when there was just trash everywhere, and young children playing around in it, but at least you had the redeeming view of the sea. Now children play in a playground against a backdrop of blue hoarding. I walk out, out, out, getting in a weird funk whenever I have to navigate the crossing of traffic.

I reach a little enclave down a dead-end road where there are motorcycles parked. It’s the continuation of the sea wall, a little part of it that hasn’t been boarded up yet. The ground has sparse patches of grass, like the spiky sweaty short hair of a Chinese boy. Young Malay and Indian families are sitting on the few metres of wall. I’ve been the only Chinese person I’ve seen for a few minutes now, walking from the Esplanade over to here. Down below are craggy rocks with rubbish all in their crevices. Some fishermen are out there, casting sad lines into the shallow waters. Crows hop from rock to rock. I lift myself up on the sea wall, feeling weird, and a lizard starts crawling towards me except it’s not like a typical lizard you’d find at home — its back has a dark petroleum sheen and it is totally, utterly smooth. It’s like a cross between a worm and a lizard. I smoke until I’m lightheaded and the rocks below look a bit too possible.

For dinner, I think, OK, fine, I’ll take up a recommendation so that I can honestly tell my friends that I did at least one thing they told me to do. A friend recommended a Nyonya restaurant, saying the food there is “bombbbbbbbb”. It’s clearly a restaurant meant for families only, and all the tables there seat a minimum of 4 people. I order fried rice and, feeling bad for only ordering a single dish, a petai omelette. The omelette is extremely fragrant and the fried rice very good, the petai is spicy and offensive, just the way I like it, but everything is entirely too much, and I have nowhere to plant my eyes while I eat. All I do is eat, eat, and keep eating. It’s like that Method Man song. (Yeah, torture, motherfucker, what? I’ll fuckin’, I’ll fuckin’, sew your asshole closed, and keep feedin’ you, and feedin’ you, and feedin’ you, and feedin’ you.) They have seated me next to the toilet. The family at the next table over is eyeing me and probably wondering about me, and one of the women there is missing an arm. Imagine how I must have looked, struggling to finish my family-sized dinner, for a woman with one arm to pity me.

The next morning, while having breakfast, two coloured-hair Zoomers (the only other guests I’ve seen in this boutique hotel) walk by the breakfast window and wave goodbye. I feel lost. The night before, I went out on a walk around the neighbourhood to shed some of the fullness from my stomach, but I kept spiralling and I couldn’t find my hotel. It was only after walking up and down the same street with an illegal bar and Indian men of all ages smoking and drinking on the sidewalk outside five times that I realised I had to turn a corner. For dinner that night, in order to avoid a repetition of the night before’s fiasco (of putting myself in an awkward situation where I eat too much, and of not being able to recognise the streets at night) I just bought some nasi kandar takeaway and ate it back in my hotel room, OG style with my hand — because they didn’t provide cutlery.

Passing through the streets in a Grab, I see things. The motorcycles swerve by a little too close. On two separate occasions, I pass by people performing prayers and burning offerings out on the street. I see heads in windows, bent over work. I see a lot of weathered people, people on bicycles and people wearing old polo t-shirts and threadbare cargo shorts. Despite all my initial reservations, there is most definitely a charm to this island life that can’t be found in Kuala Lumpur. There is sincerity and directness in the way people go about things here. It doesn’t seem like there’s much regret to be found around here; each day comes to an end and then the next one begins again. The streets are quiet after dark, but without the apparent threat of danger. I think it could be easy to find meaning and structure here, but it also seems just as easy to start spiralling.

I try to be a Zoomer. At a cafe within a warehouse, with gravel on the floor and plants growing to the ceiling, I’m getting the full Zoomer experience, I’m being served bright dishes by people who look younger than me. My French toast comes garnished with flower petals. I can’t help comparing my servers to my barista back home, who has a beard and thick dark glasses, and not the cheap wiry metal K-pop-inspired ones that these guys have, nor their soft brown highlights. Every single person working here (and some of the diners) is wearing Converse.

There are two guys sitting at different tables who look like twins. Both wear the wiry circular glasses, both have half their heads bleached silver. Both are wearing generic graphic t-shirts and pastel shorts. What I like about this place is that they give me water with the table service, but the glass they give me for the water is as small as (and perhaps is) a shot glass.

Selective rust, IKEA stools (pale pine and white), random plants that keep dying, and exposed ceilings. Cement. Don’t get me wrong: for all the disdain in my tone, I actually like this place. My elaborate french toast is good, and so is the coffee. Such cafes are invariably a part of the Zoomer experience, the Zoomer architecture. They are places where you can go, alone or with a friend, to have something in one hand that you can keep sipping on while you scroll your phone in the other. Such places invite you to take pictures and talk about mindless nonsense or to click away on your laptop feeling a little productive. At the family-style restaurant of two nights back, I wouldn’t have dared to bring out my laptop, even if I had had it on me. There, the son was waiting tables and his mother was doing accounts at an unoccupied table.

I feel very at home in places like this cafe. Their toilets are clean, but because of the current mood, I feel like I can only allow myself to enjoy these things at an ironic distance. But the truth is that I like this setting, I like all the tropes that are familiar to my age, I like the bleached highlights and the scuffed-up Chucks, I like my iced coffee and I like the caramel syrup on the french toast, I like that everyone is so busy on their own phones to pay any attention to me alone on mine. I like these places to disappear and zone out in public.

Even though I am not staying at the chain hotel nor having coffee in the Starbucks, the spectres of these institutions are deeply felt within the contemporary architecture of George Town. The boutique hotel still has room cleaning service, hot water, and a rule against smoking indoors; the cafe still has its Instagrammable elements. They are the same things updated for the local context. A certain degree of old-world charm is good for the soul because it reminds you that things haven’t always been this way, that the possibility exists for the present moment to be radically different from what it is. But sometimes I just want to go somewhere and let the overwhelming and unstoppable (and therefore comforting) tide of globalisation (the IKEA-Instagram complex) consume me, unburden me of the pressures of discovery.

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