Sunday, 31 July 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 4

Back at Heeren Street, disaster struck. Melody came down with a pounding headache and I was dispatched to a nearby 7-Eleven to get a strip of Panadol.

Fresh from The Shore, we returned to the Jonker neighbourhood and took a coffee break at Backlane Coffee, another hipster café, to wrap up the day. The ambience and décor made us café rats feel at home and we quickly settled in. It was also near our hotel.


Backlane Coffee - this might be the back entrance; another
doorway opens to a real back lane


After ordering, Wendy paid up. Earlier, we had pooled an equal amount of money for food and drink for our stay and left Wendy with the purse. Among Backlane's signature items was a drink where you poured milk over frozen owl-shaped coffee cubes in a glass.

Melody's malaise was apparently due to the late nights she'd been keeping, along with the stress of dealing with debtors in her freelance gig. She'd been agonising over one client who'd been late with a hefty payment, but she didn't want to sound pushy while chasing it.

Properly caffeinated, Sam gave Melody some advice and taught her a few lines in Cantonese, though I felt the words had a similar impact in Malay. I think it was along the lines of:

Tauke, lu tak cantik la macam ni. Bukan saja lu cari makan, saya pun mau cari makan.
(Boss, you ain't bein' pretty. You're not the only one scrapin' by here. I'm also tryin' a make a livin'.)

Saya punya kerja lagi susah. Tauke dah hutang berapa bulan belum bayar lagi. Saya banyak buat kerja sama lu. Ni macam tak cantik, tauke.
(I got it rough too, y'know. You been owin' me for months, and I done lotsa work for you. This ain't pretty, boss.)

I'm sure Sam must've used these lines before; they were too polished to be "new". Her gig involves lots of money, tough customers and tougher bean counters.

We laughed quite a bit, which is always pretty. Melody sounded a little better; I think she had half a mind to hire Sam part-time as a debt collector. And "Lu tak cantik/You ain't pretty" became our catchphrase and, later, our hashtag.


Owl be chillin' at a cool backlane coffee place, yo (photo by Wendy Lok)


Guess you could say our evening at Backlane Coffee was a real hoot.



30 December 2015...

I was left with The Ladies the next day. Melody chose to stay behind to do some work for a client or two. She seemed to feel better, and Sam's cantik pep talk might have given her freelancer's spirit a huge booster shot.

To my surprise, everyone liked the hotel's breakfast buffet. Something to do with the neighbourhood, I suppose, where every other shop is considered part of the area's cottage industries and everything was still prepared and overseen by locals.

We made our way to Jonker Walk, which Sam and Wendy were hankering to explore. In addition, Melody gave us an errand: find the alley where some 3D murals are.

The morning was pleasant. A few shops were open or in the midst of opening. Outside a closed shoplot, a large tray of barley grains were being sunned, suspended on an upturned plastic chair. I haven't seen much of that for a long time.

The Ladies spent a good part of the morning at Simpson Wong's Top-spinning Academy at 79 Jalan Tokong. At this institution (it's on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet), patrons are guaranteed mastery of top-spinning in two minutes by Wong, who also sold tops and assorted bric-a-brac.

Perhaps sensing my less-than-enthusiasm for the sport, my tennis elbow made itself known after lurking in the background for a while. Sam and Wendy took to it like ducks to water.

Simply put, the keys to top-spinning lay "in the wrist" and how the string is wound. The string must be wound tight around the spike and firmly around the rest of the lathed wooden body. One length of string is wound around the thumb. The whole thing is then thrown in a downward angle, launching the top.


Top-spinning class in session (photo by Wendy Lok)


Well, that's as best as I can describe it. Worried about my elbow, mosquitoes and the impending warm weather, I didn't pay close attention.

Having spun tops before, Sam picked things up quickly, making several successful attempts. She also shot a video of Wendy's learning process. It took Wendy a little longer.

We passed by many other shops en route towards the murals. Staff at a biscuit shop were pulling out trays of freshly baked biscuits for the day. By "biscuit", I mean Chinese pastries of all sorts, without or with fillings of sweet mung bean powder, molasses, lotus seed paste or some savoury stuff which might have been pork or anchovy sambal.

A dodol workshop made the local version of taffy the old-fashioned way, with a huge wok and wooden stirrer. Sam and Wendy sampled some. Later on, Sam purchased a bamboo steaming tray from a rattan-goods shop. At the shop opposite, a tinkerer finished up a metal utensil he was making. I bought nothing, since I hadn't drawn up a shopping list.

Even with the influx of tourists and out-of-towners like ourselves, I began wondering whether these businesses can survive. The first time I dropped by as an adult, I gawked at scenes from my childhood I'd thought I'd never see for real again.

Many of these sights in Penang have vanished or retreated into quiet, ever-shrinking enclaves, preserved by necessity and the tenacity of the locals, with help from the state government. Having these around was comforting, letting me pretend I hadn't aged much since I last encountered them.


Not sure if this is the real Aik Cheong shop. It was almost mid-morning
and it's still closed. Few shops around Jonker Walk opened before 10am,
probably waiting for the crowds. Or maybe it was their rest day.


We left the shops and drifted towards the more historical part of the quarter. Along Jalan Tokong (formerly Harmony Street), we strolled past the trio of holy places: the Cheng Hoon Teng (Azure Cloud Pavilion) Temple, the Kampung Kling Mosque and the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, all of which were at least two centuries old.

Despite the irritating smoke from burning joss sticks, I felt wistful over how harmonious things might've been, compared to today. What would those uptight weirdos upset over places of worship think of these temples sitting side by side on this tiny road?

Who knows why we took that turn at a junction into Jalan Hang Kasturi, but shortly after that, we found what Melody asked us to look out for in an alley to our right. A huge stone-encrusted concrete bollard stood in the middle of the entrance.

In the age of social media, these "3D paintings" provided photo opportunities for the Instagram-crazy. One interacted with these images: "holding" a rose while "wooing" a local maiden (no risk of angering her machete-swinging father), "handing" an Indian moneylender his dues, "painting" a Nyonya lady's windowsill, "shaking" the hand of an orangutan, or looking up in fear at a rearing, salivating bull.


Outside East and West Rendezvous, where Nyonya goodies are sold


Of course we took photos. Melody might need photographic evidence of our find.

We also managed to reach the mausoleum of Hang Jebat via an alleyway between a row of shops, around the orangutan mural. I enjoyed poking fun at the poorly written text on one of the signs, despite a notice saying that it was being "fixed".

(Whoever it is, you're taking too long. I was so annoyed I was willing to do it for free.)

Hang Jebat was one of ancient Melaka's famous five caballeros, who included the famous and loyal Hang Tuah. When Tuah was framed by jealous officials and wrongly sentenced, Jebat went on a vengeful rampage for his said-to-be-dead buddy.

Tragically, Tuah - who was revealed to be alive - had to kill Jebat for the kingdom's sake, establishing himself as a role model who put king and kingdom first. Lately, some are holding up Jebat as a symbol of rebellion against a cruel and unjust government - bros before bosses and all that.

As the day wore on, the heat crept up. Past 11am, we reached another shop with another weird name: East and West Rendezvous at 60, Lorong Hang Jebat. Besides serving cendol, it also stocked some of the usual "local" Melakan goodies in what used to be an old house's hall, big enough to fit a cendol "stall" - a stationary cendol station, really.

This morning, we'd walked in on the staff and lady boss stuffing bamboo-leaf pockets with white and blue glutinous rice and savoury fillings.

Zongzi! sang our hearts. We'd found a place where Nyonya rice dumplings, another Melakan Nyonya staple, were made and sold.


Zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) being wrapped before steaming, at
East and West Rendezvous


I don't know why part of the rice is stained with the juice from the blue peaflower - it's not the morning glory, a different plant - but it made for a nice colour contrast. The filling looked savoury, probably minced pork stir-fried in soya sauce.

Sam and Wendy wanted a load of dumplings, some for their friends and relatives. We - or, at least, Sam and Wendy - were assured that, even without refrigeration, each zongzi can stay fresh for up to 48 hours. I wasn't convinced.

But there weren't enough dumplings on hand for their order and the lady boss said the dumplings might take a while - fifteen minutes, maybe? So Wendy and Sam confirmed how many they wanted and we went elsewhere to wait.

We ended up at Bikini Toppings, a quirky café nearby whose main offerings were coconut-based. Every other item is a Bikini-something: Bikini Ice Cream (ice cream with coconut), Bikini Shake (ice-blended coconut water and flesh with choice of ice cream), Bikini Jelly (jellied coconut water in the shell), Bikini Wrap (didn't ask) and Bikini Spaghetti (ditto). "Bikini Juice" was plain old coconut water.

Aren't there better ways to engage customers than having them decipher cryptic menu items?

At least we enjoyed what we got. My coconut shake wasn't as legendary as the stuff from Pantai Klebang (which we planned for but couldn't reach), but it was still good.

They even had a "bikini" T-shirt. You know, the one that makes you look like a broad when you wear it. We thought it would make a nice present for Melody, who's fond of such kitsch. But we thought the better of it after some half-hearted wrangling - what if the "bikini" is the wrong colour?

"Oh, there he goes again!" Sam exclaimed as I returned the used utensils to the counter - a little thank-you to the shop and the city that made our holiday so pleasant. "Again", because I'd nurtured this habit back ... way before meeting The Ladies, I think. And it depends on the shop.


Sam's "Bikini Jelly" - just coconut jelly in the shell, really. A welcome
respite from the mid-day heat at Bikini Toppings (photo by Sam Fong).


Amused, the lady boss recalled a similar story about a kid who came with his parents and started helping out at the shop, just to bask in the smiles and attention he was getting. "When it was time to go," she concluded, "the boy cried and said he didn't want to leave!"

High five, kid.

Nyonya dumplings finally in hand, we made our way back to the hotel. Lunchtime loomed, but we held out until we got back to fetch Melody.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2 and part 3. Read part 5 here.

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