By Dato’ Zawiyah Baba
The 4P or Persatuan Pustakawan Pesara Perempuan or Association of Retired Women Librarians is an informal gathering of retired women professional librarians. It started as a small lunch gathering initiated by Rosna Taib after her retirement and relocation from University of Technology Malaysia (UTM), circa 2003. Dato’ Dr. Zaiton Osman, Rohani Rustam and R. Rajeswary attended that first lunch. The subsequent luncheon meeting had more members including Datin Mariam Abdul Kadir, Khoo Siew Mun, the late Shahar Banun Jaafar and Datin Paduka Shahaneem Hanoum. The group agreed to call themselves the 4P and Datin Mariam gradually became the group’s activist. The objective of the gathering is purely social, to keep in touch with women colleagues and build on their friendship without the pressure and stress of work. As more female librarians retired, the group became bigger with more than 20 members. At least half of them regularly attend monthly luncheons usually held in the Klang Valley.
The Penang visit was the first outstation destination for the group. Members who went on the Penang visit were Datin Mariam Abdul Kadir, former Director-General, National Library of Malaysia; Datuk Norhayati Kamaluddin, former librarian at Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM); Dato’ Zainab Abduk Kader, former Chief Librarian, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) & Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM); Dato’ Zawiyah Baba, former Director-General, National Library of Malaysia; Puan Ramlah Khalid, former librarian, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Puan Maimunah Kadir, Chief Librarian, Perdana Universiti and former librarian, UKM. Puan Rashidah Begum Mohd. Fazal, former Chief Librarian, USM joined the group in Penang.
The idea of descending on our good friend Rashidah was activated when plans for a much looked forward to visit to Taiwan had to be postponed. There another colleague, Datuk Adeline Leong was waiting for us. She had just been appointed to an ambassadorial role in Taipei and the 4P group thought it would be a good time to visit the island republic and catch up with her news. For some of us too it would be a first visit to the island republic. So when our plans stalled, we thought it was a good opportunity to keep our promise to Rashidah to have the 4P monthly luncheon at the famed Pulau Mutiara and birth place of the legendary Malaysian film icon P. Ramlee.
Travelling on the ETS
The other attraction was making the journey by train, the ETS or Electronic Train Service. It was a novelty for some of us especially Zainab and Ramlah. Furthermore, as we are all above 60 years of age, we qualify for the 50% discount for senior citizens. Little perks like this matter for retirees. The train journey caused much excitement and terketaq-terketaq especially for Zainab who worried whether she could get on the train in time. She was under the impression that it went like the bullet train in Japan causing much amusement among family members. The rest, Mariam, Norhayati, Maimunah and yours truly were more relaxed with a couple of trips on the ETS under their belts. Following a pre-departure luncheon cum birthday celebration for Datin Mariam on 9th April at Yati’s house in Damansara, we grouped at Platform B on 1st April for the 9.30 am train to Butterworth.
Our train departed on the dot at 9.30 am from KL Sentral and arrived at Butterworth station sharp on time at 1.38 pm. It was a pleasant enough journey made more interesting and exciting by each other’s chat and laughter. With Ramlah and Mariam around, there were bound to be loads of noisy banter. There to greet us when we arrived were En. Rosli and his team of drivers and assistants with three vehicles to transport us. After the preliminary courtesies and freshening up, we were taken directly to the jetty to board the historic ferry to cross the Penang Straits to the mainland. Somehow the ferry seemed smaller than I remembered it and the crossing took a shorter time. The sea was relatively calm and we managed a couple of wefies on the ferry.
Our itinerary for the 3-day Penang escapade was planned mainly by Mariam and Yati who also handled the entire transport and logistics arrangement including purchase of the train tickets. The programme was very much a gastronomic as well as cultural adventure which suited us to a T. We were to savour the best that Penang has to offer in food, culture and history including the ferry crossing to the mainland, which we had not done for decades!
Our gastronomic adventure actually began on the train itself. Fear of hunger on the 4-hour journey must have prompted Ramlah to bring half her kitchen with her as we enjoyed nasi goreng, cupcakes and home-made pizza barely an hour after we left KL Sentral! Then there was sardine popiah from Yati and curry puffs contributed by Mariam. But there was a limit to our gluttony and we contented ourselves with said delicacies, saving ourselves for the goodies in store for us at Restoran Minah in Gelugor, our first stop on the mainland.
Our first destination was lunch at Restoran Minah in Gelugor, or so we thought. I have enjoyed lunch there a couple of times whenever I visited the Universiti Sains Malaysia campus in Gelugor some decades ago and was amazed to know that the restaurant was still there. I can still recall their delicious kari kepala ikan and fried chicken especially and eagerly looked forward to sampling these dishes again. But surprise, surprise! Instead of the Restoran Minah, we stopped in front of the gates of a private residence! Lo and behold, there was Rashidah walking towards the gate to greet us!
It was such a pleasant surprise for us except for Mariam and Yati who planned the whole thing. Rashidah had prepared a wonderful spread for our lunch and we realised that we did not miss out on anything as she had brought the best of Restoran Minah’s to the table and added her own specialities including pajri nenas, kerabu kacang botol, ikan rebus and varieties of ulam. What a feast it was, washed down with delicious chendol from the most famous cendol stall in Keng Kwee Street no less. Her husband Faruk met us briefly with friendly greetings and then returned to his work. The prospect of joining a bunch of talkative and enthusiastic women would be too overwhelming for any sane man! Rashidah continued to spoil us with gifts of ‘siap jahit’ kain batik, a book on 101 Stories of Old Penang by journalist Shukor Rahman, prepacked acar buah as well as a notebook and corporate ‘recyclable non-woven bag’ from USM Library!
Then on to our residence for our three day stay at Gurney Paragon along Pesiaran Gurney. It has to be one of the most spacious apartment that I have ever been in. There is a large balcony which faces the glorious sea and accommodates a lie-in platform with mattress as well as a garden table and chairs. This comfortable apartment belonged to a friend of Yati’s who kindly and generously allowed us to stay as guests. The lift which stops in front of the door to the apartment was so fast that you felt the same altitude sensation as if on a plane!
That evening we had dinner at the Gurney drive hawker centre to sample the usual favourites like pasembor, rojak, fried kwayteow, mee hailam, mee soup and satay. After dinner, we had a much needed rest in our bedrooms, each one enjoying the comforts of a queen-sized bed. I must say that our programme kept us so busy that we did not have time to watch any TV or read the newspapers, something I normally could not do without on a daily basis.
Nasi Kandar is of course a must when you are in Penang. We sampled ours at lunch time after viewing Penang’s street art, at a well-known nasi kandar restaurant known as Thajudean Hussin’s Nasi Kandar. It was very crowded, no doubt attesting to its popularity. Not being a big fan of nasi kandar I did find the food quite tasty. However, the restaurant’s ambience and services needs some serious doing up and improvement. It was like a furnace in there. Most respectable restaurants would have an air-conditioned upstairs room for customers who prefer to eat in cool comfort. But not this one. A very rude waiter startled us by literally plonking a drink order with such force that it overturned the glasses on the table and spilled water over the table. The supervisor explained that he is new member of their staff from overseas. I have often observed that new male workers from overseas in mamak restaurants seem to have a problem serving women customers, as if resenting it, until they get used to the idea that women form a significant portion of their customer base.
After a day’s visit to Penang’s cultural sites, our group, with the exception of yours truly, amazingly still had the energy to go out to sample Penang’s sotong bakar at Padang Kota or Esplanade, after a short rest at the apartment. From the testimony of those who went, it was to die for, with Ramlah raving in poetic delight in its exquisite taste. Although I am not that fond of sotong, I guess I should give sotong bakar a try next time. On the way back they could not resist a sighting of the now infamous bungalow at Jalan Pinhorn with selfies to show for their trouble. Another dish that visitors must sample is the mee udang served at Ayu’s Mee Udang at Teluk Kumbar near Balik Pulau. It was really tasty especially with generous large fresh prawns in the dish. It was a long drive to get there from Persiaran Gurney but it was well worth it.
On our second day, we discovered some of Penang’s cultural attractions. We had breakfast in the apartment that day, to save time for our cultural tour. Our first stop was the Rumah P. Ramlee complex. I noticed that there have been a lot of improvements since my last visit more than a decade ago. The house itself has been turned into a gallery with artefacts and photographs, which makes it more interesting and worthwhile visiting. An auditorium and museum has been built adjacent to the house where more blown–up photographs of P.Ramlee during his extensive film career are displayed with a few artefacts. The exhibits and artefacts here could be improved though in terms of its quantity and quality. We purchased P.Ramlee t-shirts as souvenirs. Our visit was made more meaningful with a narration of P.Ramlee’s life and times by a close childhood acquaintance of his, Pak Haron.
Our guide from the Ministry of Tourism, Encik Wan then took us on a tour of Armenian Street to view street art in Penang, a number of which has been captured on canvas and celluloid especially the two children on an oversized bicycle. Not to be outdone Mariam, Maimunah, Ramlah, Yati and Zainab too posed on that famous bicycle, murals of a dinosaur wall drawing and a large cat on another wall so they have something to show to their grandchildren! Further down the street we came across brightly coloured beaded slippers and creative batik handcrafted items. Then we found a shop devoted to patchwork upholstery and bedding, tea-shirts with street art motifs and crafts made from iron rods. There are of course staple souvenirs like are key chains, fridge magnets and other small items depicting street art to take away.
The Peranakan Museum was next and I would consider this the highlight of our cultural visit in Penang. It is housed in the very building occupied by the founder of the Hakka Clan in Penang and is full to the brim with artefacts. The architecture of the house or museum itself is an artefact. There were large portraits of the founder and his wives, families and immediate descendants. The artefacts range from furniture, rosewood inlaid with mother–of-pearl or plain rosewood, ceramics pots and vases, beautiful complete porcelain dinner and tea sets, wide range of jewellery, mostly gold and many encrusted with intan or diamond offcuts, including kerosang, hair ornaments, bangles and anklets, jade, silverware, and even china designed with western motifs for western guests, bench and contraptions for opium smoking and large ceramic and porcelain decorative plates. There is also a small gift shop where one can buy some souvenirs but they could do better with postcards or miniatures. I have visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore and daresay that in terms of artefacts the one in Penang is far richer.
On the way back, we stopped at the Masjid Kapitan Kling for our prayers. This mosque is about 200 years old and is the oldest known mosque in Penang. The structure is still very strong and it is well maintained. Here, Mariam fulfilled her niat or intent to pray in this historic mosque, while the rest of us too shared the privilege.
We started out later than usual on the third and final day. We headed for Teluk Bahang for a favourite destination at Jeruk Pak Ali where one can purchase all manner of local fermented fruits and dried seafood and other titbits as well as other eatables to your hearts’ content. It really is a must stop and we purchased quite a bit to take home.
For lunch that day we had reservations at the Pan Mutiara Restaurant complex in Batu Maung. I would say this is a high-end Malay restaurant with kari kepala ikan as their house speciality. We feasted on a variety of dishes, including fish and chicken, squids and beef and a variety of vegetable dishes. It was the first time that all of us dined together with Rosli, Jojo, Linda and the rest of their entourage. These two, especially encouraged by Mariam’s prompting, left us in stitches with their jokes and hilarious stories. After prayers at Pan Mutiara’s surau we stayed for more chit-chat before we crossed the second link bridge and stopped at the rojak tonggek stall close to the railway station. It was called so as we had to dip the fruit rojak into two bowls of rojak sauce by bending over slightly and in doing so, our bottoms naturally sticks out to prevent it dripping on our shirt-front and also tudung! This posture inspired the name.
After this unusual experience, we headed for the Butterworth Railway Station. Rosli, Jojo, Linda and the others kindly helped us with our luggage to the waiting room to wait for the 7.10 pm train to Kuala Lumpur before saying goodbye. We were less noisy on the journey back probably due to fatigue and spent the time quietly chatting with our seat mates. We made good use of the surau or prayer room, equipped with ablution area. However, Mariam and Yati prayed in their seats as the prayer room in Coach ‘C’ was rather small and not equipped with chairs. The buffet car which was also in Coach ‘C’ serves nasi lemak, recently proclaimed as one of the world’s top ten nutritious breakfast by Time Magazine, fried bee hoon and beverages. The nasi lemak was of reasonably good quality and tasty, but bee hoon was too sweetish for our palate.
Our train arrived at KL Sentral slightly later than scheduled, about 11.25 pm instead of 11.05 pm, not surprisingly as it stopped as just about every station along the way. Overall we found the train journey very comfortable and enjoyable especially with the right company. My extended family used to holiday in Penang at the Penang Mutiara, but the hotel was closed for renovations more than 10 years ago and has not reopened until today! I enjoyed the Penang visit this time much more than I expected. This was in no small measure due to Yati’s excellent organisation, very comfortable accommodation and excellent logistics support, the experience of new eating places and cultural attractions of Penang, the efficiency and warmth of the local guys and girls assisting us including Ton the housekeeper and Rashidah our member-on-the spot for her gracious hospitality. Most of all, we enjoyed each other’s company, the chit-chats in our rooms and the lounge before an outing, during meals or at breakfast, in the train or car while travelling. Each one contributed in their own way to make the visit a fun-filled, gregarious and memorable one.
I would like to thank Mariam, Norhayati, Rashidah, Maimunah, Ramlah and Zainab for their comments on the Penang visit for this article and for their warm and cheerful friendship, sometimes gregarious, but always fun and humorous, throughout our journey. We look forward to the next adventure!