An earlier version of this essay appeared on the blog Where Is Your Toothbrush?
My favorite pastime in George Town, Malaysia, on Penang island, aside from wandering the narrow streets lined with crumbling shophouses in the colonial core, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; eating delicious, inexpensive street food at hawker stalls and food courts as well as hole-in-the-wall restaurants; and hunting down the famous and more recent specimens of fabulous street art, was figuring out the human maze: George Town is home to residents of Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage and, correspondingly, of Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faiths. More than anything, I enjoyed people-watching. A dozen faces have stuck with me.
Faces of Penang #1: The kavadi
During the annual Hindu Thaipusam thanksgiving festival, several of the young men bearing kavadis, peacock-like ornamental structures, and golden skewers speared through their mouths, carry dozens of small brass pots hooked into their torso. When these decorations are installed and removed, these men’s faces bear a trance-like expression as if their consciousness were floating in another, ecstatic realm, transcending the pain they are experiencing.
Faces of Penang #2: The lottery man
The Chinese man with a face like a landscape puts down his chopsticks on the table at the Leong Lee Tim Sum Restaurant and takes the entire stack of scratch-off tickets from the Indian salesman. Smacking his lips, he inspects each ticket, ignoring the salesman who glances at his watch and shuffles his feet. As the elder finally makes his selection, I imagine he was reading the serial numbers to avoid unlucky and to pick the lucky ones.
Faces of Penang #3: The trishaw driver
The trishaw driver pedals by, slower than walking pace. A tiny boombox somewhere below the parasol blasts a popular Chinese tune to draw tourists’ attention to his garish contraption. A cluster of long beard hair growing out of a mole on his otherwise closely shaved chin flutter in the headwind. With a blank stare he hacks up an impressive dose of phlegm and spits the lump out toward the open sewer.
Faces of Penang #4: The homeless man
Strolling down Chuliah Street I glance at a group of Indian homeless men loitering around a shuttered storefront. One of them, leaning against the rolling shutter with one leg bent and the other stretched out, sees my gaze, waves, and screams, “Happy New Year!” Repeating the wish over and over like a bad pun, he laughs, spit ejecting from his toothless mouth.
Faces of Penang #5: The durian husband
I decline the durian puff from the vendor at the end of the Chew Clan Jetty but I venture to take a few licks from Lindsay’s durian ice cream. Laughter from the shadows intervenes, and when my eyes adjust I spot a middle-aged Chinese man, perhaps the vendor’s husband, laughing his head off at my expression. Afterward, I see his guffawing face whenever I pass a durian fruit stand or walk by durian tea boxes on supermarket shelves.
Faces of Penang #6: The woman in a niqab
The Arab tourist couple walk in the usual manner: the man, clad in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt, a step or two ahead of his wife donning a black niqab. How is she holding up in the perpetual 93-degree heat, covered like that from head to toe in a black cloth? Then she notices me, her dark eyes like lakes on satellite images, enlarged by the black makeup. I look away in embarrassment but she continues to stare.
Faces of Penang #7: The kopi grandma
Only the grandma is working at 7:45 a.m. at the Chinese family-operated Baba’s Guest House in Batu Feringgi, chopping vegetables. Sleepy-eyed I ask for black Nescafe, no sugar, no milk. The shock in her face jolts me awake. I repeat my request but the wide-eyed look remains pasted into her expression. Finally, her daughter emerges from around the corner, explains I don’t want kopi-o, sweetened coffee drank in Malaysia, and makes me the instant coffee. The old woman keeps shaking her head even as she picks the knife back up.
Faces of Penang #8: The boy protester
The little boy on the #101 bus from Batu Feringgi kneels on his seat holding onto the backrest with one hand. He shakes the other hand in the air as if pounding an invisible door and chants incomprehensibly like a protester yelling slogans. Exiting with his mom, he blows us a kiss.
Faces of Penang #9.1 & 9.2: Laksa father, laksa son
We search for an open laksa stand around the foot of the hill in Air Itam featuring the Kek Lok Si temple. As we devour the variation of the fish soup featuring chilli peppers and garlic, we watch the hawker dish the brew out with calm and resolve of a cook who is both proud of his work and well-aware of its quality. As we leave, the owner’s son asks us how we found the place and is surprised to hear it wasn’t from Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations. We had sat at the table the famous show host occupied filming the segment, while the staff were too busy with orders to notice him. We say goodbye and the father waves back with a smile of someone reluctant to be in the spotlight.
Faces of Penang #10: The girl in a pink headscarf
A minivan with front windows rolled down turns the corner scattering tourists out of the way. The vehicle is full: the Malay parents and a baby in the front, three children in the back. A girl, no more than 10 or 11 years old, wearing a pink headscarf, gazes out the window with a blank, wistful stare of a kid whose vacation is ending tomorrow. Suddenly her eyes focus on the street scene and as I peek inside the passing car to count the passengers, she gives me a wave and smiles.
Faces of Penang #11: The street artist
On a sweltering afternoon, a man dressed in black paints a sidecar of a dim-sum delivery bicycle on the wall. I pause to watch him mix the paint for the new street art piece in which children holler for the goods. He notices me but retains the look of concentration beneath his black cap, focused on his work, drawing the lines, ever so carefully, to finish the piece by nightfall.
Faces of Penang #12: The vampire grandpa
I meander through throngs of tourists taking photos and buying trinkets on Armenian Street. No one is paying attention to a Chinese eldertaking an afternoon nap in the shade outside a shophouse, splayed in a plastic chair with his legs propped up and his mouth open to reveal two bottom teeth mirroring a vampire’s. Walking by the same spot on an evening a few days later, on the second day of the Chinese New Year, I see the old man help his grandchildren light firecrackers, his two-tooth grin never leaving his face at the kids squealing in delight.