My last post was about my 1988 trip to Kanchanaburi with my mum. Another time I’ll share more photos and diary entries about our adventures in Songhkla and Hat Yai in Southern Thailand, and our week in Burma during the 1988 military crackdown. Now I’m getting back on track with the inspirations for Bamboo Heart, by posting about my four days in Penang in 1985, my only visit to that beautiful island.
It made a huge impression on me, enough to stay with me for decades and inspire the setting for two story-lines in Bamboo Heart, separated by fifty years. I would love to return one day.From photos and videos I’ve seen of modern day Georgetown, it is transformed from the low-rise, low-key atmospheric port I visited full of streets of shop-houses and colonial buildings into a to a bustling modern city of glass skyscrapers, although I understand that all the colonial buildings and Chinese shop-houses have been carefully restored and preserved.
Below are some photos of Georgetown that I took in 1985, and which inspired the sections of Bamboo Heart in which Laura visits Penang in 1986 on her quest to find more about her father’s past and track down the elusive Joy de Silva.
My visit to Penang was on a Bangkok to Bali Rover with Trailfinders, my first experience of travelling outside Europe. We had started out in Bangkok, visited Ayutiyah and Pattaya in Thailand, then boarded a night train to Butterworth in Malaysia. According to The Man in Seat 61, the trains look just the same now as they did then. I remember a fantastic night’s sleep on linen sheets and a cheap tasty meal washed down with Singha beer in the restaurant car.
At Butterworth we took the ferry to Georgetown – a great lumbering square boat. There wasn’t a road bridge then. I remember crossing the straits at sunset, standing out on deck in the warm evening, and watching the red sky and the mountains behind the town coming closer.
We took rickshaws to the Cathay Hotel, which features in Laura’s story in Bamboo Heart. I remember it being a shabby old Portuguese Villa, once beautiful and imposing, but even then very run down. The rooms were huge and high ceilinged, and it was unbelievably cheap. I don’t remember now whereabouts it was in Georgetown, but in the book I set it in a busy quarter, full of loud bars and cafes. I’ve googled it and it now has a certain shabby-chic cachet – described in the New York Times as follows: ‘You could say that the Cathay Hotel comes up short in just about every category. Except for that most elusive, yet most important measure of a hotel’s allure: character. There, the Cathay Hotel gets six stars.’
Here is my picture from 1985. My camera obviously didn’t like to tropical climate! All the photos from that trip came out dull and dark.
I would certainly have stayed at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, but all we could afford was a coffee on the terrace. I think that coffee probably cost far more than a night at the Cathay Hotel. I made up for it by having Tom stay there on his first night in Georgetown.
We hired a jeep and toured the island, drove through the suburbs of Georgetown, into the hills and over to Batu Ferringhi, a beautiful white sand beach, which even then was fringed with modern luxury hotels. Here are a few photos I took of Penang beaches on that trip. Those beaches inspired some of the important scenes in the book, featuring Joy and Tom (I hope that isn’t a spoiler!)
We also took the funicular railway up to Penang Hill to see the wonderful views across the shimmering straits towards Butterworth and the mainland. I remember eating satays in the little cafe there. I have used this location in both Tom’s story in the 1930s and Laura’s 1980s story.
We also visited the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery (this isn’t my photo, but again, a key scene in the book takes place inside this bulding)
The below photo (which is mine) of rickshaw riders resting in the trees near the museum in Georgetown inspired another scene in the book, I won’t say which one… if you’ve read Bamboo Heart, you’ll be able to guess.