Georgetown, Penang, a place so full of the ghosts of my past. From Chinatown to LittleIndia, Love Lane to Rope Walk, the travellers may look the same as they did – and I did – 28 years ago when I was last here to try to remember the Penang of my early Army childhood here, but hard as I try, I can’t find my town.
For a little girl of under three, Georgetown’s stories of jostick makers and copycat tailors were less interesting than the scent of my mother and the crush of her silk as she kissed me goodnight and left me for an evening at The Farquar Bar at the glorious Eastern and Oriental hotel. I swear I caught the smell of her Chanel no.5 as we sat outside the same bar last night, sipping a Planter’s Punch and drinking up the atmosphere of a thousand colonial ghosts, from Noel Coward to Somerset Maugham and the officers and wives of The British Army of the late ’50s and early ’60s. There’s something rather comforting about them settling here in my dreams as I raise my glass to the memory of my dashing, glamorous, adventurous trail-blazing parents. The E&O is one of the grand hotels of the world, a stop on the tour of life lived only by the curious super-rich who would parade the colonies from Raffles in Singapore to the Taj in Bombay and The Galle Face in Colombo. The British and Australian Armed Forces followed the tea and rubber planters and settled with the writers and artists who preferred their pink gins on verandahs cooled by punkah wallahs and later, the helicopter fans that bring back so many hazy memories for me now.
These days, the E&O’s brand new Victory Annexe, with its chic tope and off white decor echoing the Malay bamboo browns of the colonial era, is still big on memories. Its salt water infinity pool nudges the original hotel’s elegant heritage into a futuristic Malaysia, but unlike the shiny sky scrapers of Kuala Lumpur which have rewritten the capital’s history with barely a nod to its Malay or colonial past, The E&O celebrates it with a social history room that seems to be excavating the same stories as me. The bars and cafes, foyers and doormen are all from another time, with white socks and pith helmet. Whisky in hand and sitting at the bar, if I listen hard enough, I can hear the strains of jazz and the echoes of laughter from the bar. And suddenly there’s my mother in her silk and Chanel and my father telling his stories of Keenya and Benghazi.
As my teenage daughters eye the golden back packers stopping off in Georgetown on their own rather grimier tour of life, I know that they’ll be off soon too. The heat and bustle already calms them. Last year in a tin roofed roadside cafe in Sri Lanka as we listened to the thundering rain and the toots of the tuk-tuk, Ellie, then 16, sighed ‘It’s so peaceful here.’
I ask Jed to take a picture of me, new Georgetown’s own skyscrapers lining up against the the distant hills. I look at the horizon and compare it with a picture my mother took 48 years ago of my brother and me on the sea wall at the end of our garden. It’s the same – bar the skyscrapers. Could this Victory Annexe have been built on the very spot where we lived when we first arrived in Penang? I ask Kerana, the doorman. He remembers that there were flats here when he was a boy. Australian nurses lived there, he recalls. I have no-one to ask anymore, but I listen to the giggles of the ghosts and I know that this place was once my home.