Marco Ferrarese: Penang’s Dirty Secret

source: Marco Ferrarese

Image Chan Kit Yeng

Penang-based Italian writer Marco Ferrarese’s first claim to fame in Malaysia was Nazi Goreng, a novel that marries skinhead bildungsroman with the narrative of Orientalist pulp fiction. The book was surprisingly potent in Malaysiana, it was obvious that Ferrarese wasn’t your regular expat with a cursory understanding of this country – and this was proven time and time again by his write-ups on Penang in numerous publications. When not writing general guides on the touristy side of the island he now calls home, Ferrarese chronicles more niche stories such as the rock’n’roll tycoon of Penang. This isn’t a man who is for the recent homogeneity of the island, Marco Ferrarese looks beyond the artistic façade of George Town…

The first time I arrived in Penang in 2007, I was struck by the multitude of temples of different faiths, the ethnic diversity, the smell of food wafting up from gigantic bowls filled with soy and curry. I was coming from ugly white tourist-infested Southern Thailand, and immediately felt the respite I was looking for. To make a long story short, I fell in love with the place first, with one of the residents a few nights later, and ended up staying until now.

That’s why I know very well what most visitors feel arriving here. Penang is magical: it has a particular charm that hooks some people under the chin as if it were one of Leatherface’s meat hooks. And trust me: it pulls you in, and you are gone forever. However, living here is a much more complex affair than the one night stand you mistook for a marriage vow. In fact, Penang’s a smart bitch, it traps you into that corner named George Town, and makes you think that’s all it got. Thus newcomers end up staying there, spend their time there, and look for other fools like them only there. I believe it’s not casual that fate brought Ernest Zacharevic there too. Those paintings are just another illusion to lure you there, and make you think that you are mingling with the best without need to go anywhere else. Pardon me if I say that you have understood nothing about Penang.

I live in a nondescript area towards Air Hitam, a name that most people like you, the visitor, won’t even know. Where I live, I’m the only white drop in the choco-yellow cocktail. Locals have stopped asking me and themselves why I am there, and everything is now natural. I get smiles, not indifference. And more importantly, it’s cheap there. One of my months costs just a bit more than one of your nights out in Kuala Lumpur.

There are a few places I won’t ever name where I like to go run and relax after a long day spent typing away. Over there, the forest is so thick and fresh that my lungs smile inside my chest each time I go. And when I need a dip, there are a few – not more than two, I’m afraid – beaches that always make me imagine if Francis Light and his crew felt the same awe upon discovering this island. No rubbish, no fat Arabs on jet skis, none of their children are floating in the air, attached to some diabolic parasailing creature. No horses sh!tting on the beach under the weight of Iranian or Anglo-Saxon women either. No way.

In Penang, secret societies still exist: I earned my space in one that doesn’t like to share the island’s beauty with you. And it doesn’t matter if, at times, life at our margins is not much more exciting than a bite and a steaming cup of coffee with friends. That’s why we had to sacrifice George Town, to give you a few dance clubs and bars where you can feel alive. We also had to dirt a few walls to make you feel like you are “stranded in the arts.” Please stay, it’s your playground.

But our cult is special, and we don’t like sharing. Penang’s secret is simple: everyone has one. And each person is a key to a new experience. It might sound frustrating, but that’s how you can easily spend a lifetime here, and never want to leave.