Fractured Identity: Reflecting on The Gift of Rain in Penang, Malaysia
J Brandon Lowry
“The most rewarding way to see the place one lives in is to show it to a friend.” –
Tan Twan Eng, The Gift of Rain
Walking through the narrow streets of Georgetown, on the island of Penang, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been here before. The shuttered windows overlooking roads never intended for modern vehicles. The covered sidewalks known as the “five-foot way”, which are almost never five feet wide. The roadside food stalls and trishaws. Georgetown almost feels like one of those rare places that seems to have forgotten to keep traveling forward in time with the rest of the world.
On one block, you can be walking past a majestic and solemn mosque, only to run into crowds of drunk and rowdy tourists on the next. Trishaws pedaled by aging, stick-thin local men carry gawking and snap happy visitors. Looming above it all, the towers of the nearby western-style resorts and hotels are constant reminders of the staggering inequity between the haves and the have-nots.
It’s a familiar story for the Malaysian people, one beautifully captured by Malaysian-born lawyer-turned-novelist Tan Twan Eng in his debut novel, The Gift of Rain. Set in Georgetown in the years just before and during World War II, Eng explores the elusive and multifaceted nature of Identity through his character Phillip Hutton. Born of mixed English and Chinese heritage, Phillip struggles to find himself in a place where he is Neither rather than Both. When he meets an older Japanese man who offers him a new identity, Phillip is forced to make an impossible decision, one with mortal consequences.
The mixed identity of Phillip Hutton mirrors that of Penang. Georgetown itself is a former English colony, and was a major hub of industry in the century before the war. Much of the architecture of Georgetown reflects this history, whether in the form of colonial row-houses or gigantic mansions that serve as landmarks for the city. There are both Catholic and Anglican churches, and cemeteries filled with tombstones graven with English names. This influx of wealth brought in Chinese and Indian immigrants, in addition to the native Malay people. Most of the English left when the Japanese invaded, but the environment of mixed cultures survives.
The signs of this mixed nature are everywhere in Penang. Literally. On a single block you’ll find businesses advertising in Malay, Chinese, and English. Though each group has their own mother tongue, the vast majority of the locals speak English, using it as an agreed upon middle ground for interacting with one another and with the tourists that come to the island. In places, Chinese and Hindu temples stand side-by-side with the old colonial housing. There are dividing lines, to be sure, but they simply add to the character of the city.
Another holdover is the dependence on outside wealth. The island of Penang survives primarily due to its tourist economy, attracting visitors from all over East Asia and Australia. Some come here to get a taste of the finer things that may be a bit out of reach in their own home countries. Others come to wander and explore the little side streets, admiring the street art and taking in the local cuisine. Still others, primarily young travelers on their gap year, come to take advantage of the cheap hostels and cheaper drinks. Regardless of whether you consider yourself a “traveler” or a “tourist”, there’s a lot to see and do in Penang.
Most of the locations mentioned in The Gift of Rain actually exist. If you’re so inclined, you can follow The Gift of Rain Trail, a list of local sights put together by Penang Global Tourism. But the best way to experience this place is to simply wander the welcoming streets of Georgetown. Grab a seat at one of the roadside tables, order a bowl of whatever the locals are having, and just take in the sights and sounds of the people around you. Lose yourself in the street art that adorns the crumbling plaster walls. Take a hike through the jungle to the top of Penang Hill; I promise, the view is better from up there than from any fancy hotel penthouse.
By the end of the novel, Phillip learns to reconcile all of the different aspects of his identity, understanding that his split nature is precisely what defines him. This too is the story of Penang. The mansions, the temples, even the view from atop the hill, these are not what makes this place great. It is the mix of different cultures blending together to create something entirely new and unique, the weaving together of all these disparate threads to form a whole. This is the true identity of Penang.
About the Writer:
J Brandon Lowry is O:JA&L’s Contributing Editor for Literary Tourism (Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific). Lowry is a PhD scientist turned full-time traveler and writer. He is a freelance science writer, travel writer and editor for The Places We Live, and creative writer on Medium. While traveling the world with his wife, Dr. Lowry takes cues from the environment around him to inspire characters and locations for his first novel, a science-fiction sibling rivalry tale.
Images: Photographs by Jen and J Brandon Lowry.