about us Articles Classroom Join Us Search Links   Logo
Reed's Travelogue
Submit Article
Back to Articles Archive

The Same but Different: Cultural differences within Penang

October 11, 2000

Late one evening while the three of us sat watching a copied VCD of The Gladiator – any new Hollywood movie can be bought on the black market in Malaysia even before they come out in theaters in America – loud booming sounds wafted up into the ninth-story apartment. We paused the movie and walked out onto the balcony to see what must have been over 300 Chinese procession-ing through the streets of Penang. They were in cars and on truck beds and on foot, following several statues of Buddhist goddesses, also in cars and on truck beds. Every now and then a holy man wound through the parade, people surrounding him so he wouldn’t injure himself in his trance-like state. “Oh, that had to hurt,” said Bruce as one of the holy men misjudged the high sidewalk and crumpled to the ground.

Drums banged away and chanting mingled with car horns and stamping feet. Uninvolved traffic seemed not to care much and wound its way slowly past the devout. We must have sat out there watching the spectacle for over an hour. The apartment sits on a corner and we could hear as the parade proceeded to the next round, gearing up and breaking open into the intersection every few minutes. The downed holy man was finally carted off by one of the procession vehicles; people picked him up and threw him horizontally into the back seat of a compact car. What a crazy thing to do on a Friday night, I thought of the parade and not necessarily the throwing of holy men. The festival was actually the final day of a nine-day worship to a Chinese goddess and therefore, according to the little man who works as the apartment gate operator, Friday was quite an auspicious day for the festival to occur.

Earlier the previous day, just around a different corner, the three of us had seen the weekly preparations for the Friday offerings performed by the Hindus in Penang. After swinging through Little India to look at saris, eat Indian sweets and see Hindu statues – where a pair of our Indian friends bought me a pottu, the red dot worn in the middle of the forehead – we checked out the evening’s preparations. The Hindu temple was actually just about to close when we walked up, took off our shoes, washed our feet and headed inside. People were still saying prayers and honoring the gods as the holy men went about their business, blew out candles, closed curtains and shuffled up the stairs in one of the side walls “What’s that Param?” I asked, pointing to a wing of the building that looked suspiciously like a modern day kitchen, something a bit incongruent with the brightly colored shrines and offerings. “A kitchen.” he said, and Param’s fiancé Malane explained that they usually make the big feasts inside the temple itself – it being a self-sufficient temple where the holy men live on the second floor. Penang, as an island, happens to be a little short on space, and because of this the temples have to accommodate much more than they would if they were in India, where entirely different buildings would house the holy men and contain the cooking facilities.

It was funny to relate this modern Hindu temple with a story my friend Bruce told me about watching Param participate in a Hindu festival held in Penang last January. I suppose because it’s still legal here – as opposed to places like Singapore – the annual festival of Thaipusam is reckoned to be the most authentic the world over elsewhere in the world. The pious follow a long laid-out route through the city to a temple on the Penang hill. Throughout the year the devout make prayers in honor of their loved ones and they vow, if the prayer is granted, to participate in Thaipusam. Carrying large pots of milk on their heads and performing self-mutilation, they celebrate the festival throughout the day. “There were some gruesome sights on display,” recalled Bruce. “Hooks in backs being kept taught by partners holding strings like reins tied to hooks, forks of various shapes and sizes piercing cheeks and lips, and bells hooked onto all parts of bodies so that when the wearer danced or jumped, the bells sounded and the hook dug in just a little more.”

Having traveled through both Buddhist and Hindu countries these happenings, although different, were familiar to me. The thing that really surprised me came while walking back from the photo shop yesterday. I was speaking with my friend Ric about arranged marriage – the pluses and minuses of it in our minds – when a beautiful song came through the air. I stopped walking and looked around. The street we were walking on was a busy one, cars and scooters flying past. But what caught my eye as I listened to the song were the abundant headscarves and skullcaps. The song crescendo-ed and I turned to Ric, “That’s the afternoon call to prayer.” Malaysia is a Muslim country.

I’m certain that Penang, being the technology center of Malaysia, is more tolerant than the rest of the country, but it is a hyper-example, on a small 285 sq. km island, of the cross-roads that Malaysia represents. Be it for positive or negative reasons Penang is taking globalization in hand but is managing to hold tight to those ancient traditions as well.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
Back to Articles Archive

Back to top