Bukit Mertajam might well be off the tourist map, but it has more to offer than just being George Town’s satelliteby Marco Ferrarese
If you asked any of George Town’s foreign tourists what they think of Bukit Mertajam (BM), you’d get a vacuous stare at best. “Bukit what? Is that food?” This answer shouldn’t be surprising: This vibrant and historical town in Seberang Perai, the mainland of Penang, is an insiders’ secret that has no place in any of the usual travel guides.
This is 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, most of Penang island’s “real living heritage,” which has been converted into expensive foreign-owned boutique hotels, old-china-themed restaurants, and aseptic cafés for hipsters, is conversely very much alive in BM. What’s more, from September 2015, becoming the northern hub of the upcoming high-speed train service from southern Thailand to Kuala Lumpur, things are expected to pick up very fast in the area.
At the foothills of the rounded, savagely forested hill that gives the town its name – and that, please note, can be leisurely hiked or biked – the town center looks like Georgetown a decade ago. Market floors are still slippery and dirty, and heritage shop-houses, instead of brand new paint, are covered in vines and are slowly dying under the strokes of the unforgiving tropical sun.
Jalan Pasar, the pulsating earth of BM, is a slice of that tatty Asia, which is being upgraded in the mad rush toward the aseptic, globalized, and Western-looking “modernity.”
On the contrary, a walk through BM’s old town is a walk back to Malaysia’s recent past: Before we even get to the market, we stumble upon Ong Hair Salon, a shop that was probably renovated last in the late 1960s. Its swinging door, a piece of wood that resembles the entrance to a psychedelic saloon, hides the world of Madame Ng, 74, and hairdresser extraordinaire.
The shop is a concoction of old-Malaysian-Chinese style and features 1960s memorabilia, and even sports a row of still functioning vintage wall-hanging hair dryers ready to teleport customers back to the times when Jane Fonda got her perm for Barbarella.
Continuing around the corner we bump into Khaa Zee chicken rice shop. Here, rows of perfectly roasted ducks hang from the ceiling of the five foot way, dripping fat and sauce over a layer of aluminium foil which has been cautiously slung all over the pavement. It’s mid-morning, and business is in full swing. We try to ask to one of the workers if he thinks that Penang’s development, somehow, is leaving BM behind. “I wouldn’t know,” he answers, “because I’m always busy working.”
The real town center, at whose heart is the Pek Kong Cheng temple and the bustling hawker stalls surrounding it as a protective shell, is just meters away. Straight opposite, we find relief from the sun under the awning of Mr. Cheong’s herbal tea stall. This smiling Chinese uncle 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, and it’s a waste because this is a very old and historical place. The temple itself is over 100-years-old.”
Before we can even complete a full circle of the string of stalls that coils around the temple’s outer walls, 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, owner of the Yahaa kopitiam, to invite us to try their coffee.
Shien invites us to sit, and 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 dog’s face, exactly as trendy baristas do in George Town’s swankiest cafés. “I have learned the technique on You Tube, and then observed how they do it in Penang,” he says. Contrary to expensive George Town, Yahaa’s art-coffee cups are sold at RM4.50 only. “We use local nanyang brew, avoiding imported beans and foreign coffee machines,” explains Shien.
Not far away Miss Lai, 55, keeps up her extremely good business. The rice bowls are garnished with black soy sauce and fresh duck meat and they sell like hotcakes. “I took over 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 local foods. Believe me, Indonesian and Singaporean tourists buy my rice, freeze it in packages, and mail it back to their countries,” she says proudly.
Miss Yasoodah, 45, who sells flowers at the far end of Jalan Pasar, agrees 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. Without thinking of buying real estate, I suggest you listen to these locals, and give Bukit Mertajam a try.