I am a Penang girl. Every time people ask me about my homeland, my thoughts fly over to one house painted in green along Jalan P Ramlee. My grandpa’s house.
My grandpa’s house is located a stone’s throw away from the home of the legendary Tan Sri P Ramlee. This is where my grandpa raised six children and got them all married.
Grandpa’s house is the only house painted in green along this road – he believed green was an auspicious colour and he wanted all of us to live happily under one roof. But every time election season came around, the green of the house would be obliterated by a sea of blue flags.
Yup, my grandpa loved BN. Every election month, he would decorate the entire house in Barisan Nasional flags. I still remember 10-year-old me waving at Tun M during many of his election visits here. The image of Tun chuckling as he pointed his finger at grandpa’s house is still fresh in my memory – Tun M must have been amused to see an old man more excited of the election than he himself was!
Penang was the only home my grandpa ever knew. With his old bicycle, he would go around the island collecting rental for his employer – that was his rice bowl. Knowing the family needed a stable income, he rented a tiny space along Jalan Dato Keramat to start a stationery shop for his eldest son – it was called Ahmat & Sons (I wonder if anyone remembers the old shop).
Time flew and soon everyone’s family expanded. It was time to move out and build their own nests around Penang Island. My uncles, aunties and cousins then found their new homes in Tanjong Tokong, Georgetown, Jelutong, Ayer Itam, Bukit Bendera and other places around the island. (If you are in Penang, remember that any mamak you meet could very well be related to me, seriously!)
Anyway, without most of his children around, my grandpa took care of his beloved house himself and made sure everything was in order. Every weekend when we visited, he would be busy wiping the windows and sweeping the lawn. He insisted on doing everything around the house himself.
My grandpa spent everything he had on his house. He took much pride in it.
Living in Penang back then was amazing – except during the rainy season. You see, Jalan P Ramlee was the worst place to live during rainy seasons, thanks to the enormous floods we endured. Every Penangite knew that.
During these floods, grandpa had a hard time moving all his furniture and electrical appliances to the second floor of the house. That was when he’d call my dad and all my uncles, aunties and cousins to help. We would be scurrying around hurriedly storing away things away on the second floor before the first floor was submerged in water.
I still remember my dad criticising the BN state government back then – he and my uncles thought the state government should have taken measures to prevent this annual flood. And having one of the dirtiest rivers in the country – Sungai Pinang, flowing in our backyard, didn’t help. The drainage system made things worse, what with so much garbage piling up and clogging the longkangs.
But thanks to Umno Kampung Rawana, we had our Rukun Tetangga (Neighbourhood Watch) people ever so ready to help out. They delivered simple meals to the houses while Gerakan efficiently provided boat services to those who had to go to school and office.
The real work however began right after the floods subsided. That’s when the entire area would be submerged in slimy mud and icky-gooey stuff the river vomitted. While we were scrubbing the house and the streets, my uncles used to tell me stories about floating poop during the floods back in the old days when my grandpa’s toilet only consisted of a hole in the ground and a bucket underneath.
Gross as those stories were, it still tickles me every time I recall those wonderful days.
My grandpa passed away at the age of 95. He died in his own bed, in his beloved green house.
A few years later, Penang fell into DAP’s hands. A lot of changes took place. Developments mushroomed around my grandpa’s old house. Penang seemed a lot cleaner and modern. Sungai Pinang finally looked like a river, not a floating garbage dump. And the drainage system was improved.
But with all the good things we experienced, bad ones emerged too.
The development was unstoppable. More land was reclaimed. Many hill slopes were flattened. Buildings sprouted up everywhere. New residential areas bloomed. Traffic got worse. And the floods? Well, those got even worse too.
From once a year, my grandpa’s old house was submerged in water a few times a year. The once strong and tall walls of the house began shaking and looked drab. And with all that moving of furniture and shifting of appliances, along with cleaning and scrubbing and washing, my uncle – now in his 70s, finally decided to let go of grandpa’s last asset – his green house.
Today, for the first time in 60 years, my grandpa’s house is empty, all locked up. Nobody wants to live there. Nobody wants to rent a place which goes under water a few times a year.
While Penang blooms with development and new land opens up promising astonishing sea views, plenty of other areas on the island are being sacrificed. While outsiders grumble about the drop in food quality, perhaps only true Penangites understand how lifestyles and people’s attitudes have changed alongside the massive development.
No matter how developed Penang becomes, I don’t think it will ever match the Penang I grew up loving. So much has changed. Too much, in fact.
Penang may have been awarded the World Heritage City title, but sadly I have lost my heritage in the heart of Penang.
But I am not alone. Like me, many people have lost their heritage in Penang. And I believe more will be losing theirs in time to come if people continue to ignore the devastation that is so obviously taking place on the island that once used to be my grandpa’s home.