Seberang Perai is where my roots are but there was a time when I couldn’t wait to fly the coop. In 1990, the bright city lights beckoned and I thought that studying at Universiti Malaya would be my ticket to the world. I graduated and worked as a reporter in Kuala Lumpur, and have now lived more years there than I have in Penang.
With this book, I was intent on documenting other people’s stories and experiences of living in Seberang Perai. But in mapping out the mainland’s ebb and flow, and how it is interwoven in people’s lives, I couldn’t help but contemplate my own beginnings here.
Growing up in Seberang Perai, I had no notion of the Penang Master Plan or policies. Yet we were all players living on its stage and shaped by its plots.
My family moved from George Town to Butterworth when I was a toddler. When I was 10, we moved from Butterworth’s busiest Chinese neighbourhood on Jalan Raja Uda to the new quiet township of Seberang Jaya.
In the old house, my uncle ran a workshop making aluminium doors in the front half and reared pigs in the backyard. Our new home was a small cluster house in neat rows – called taukua (beancurd) houses – built by the Penang Development Corporation. And so we went from living as an extended family to a nuclear family.
It was also the first time we had Malay and Indian neighbours. In those safer times, kids roamed about freely in the neighbourhood and we fluttered from house to house. I learnt to eat rice with my hands at my neighbours’ table, chat and quarrel in colloquial Malay and I knew not to call on my friends during the Maghrib hours. There was no need for a 1Malaysia slogan.
As a teen in the 1980s, I didn’t learn about Penang’s industrialisation drive and how it had transformed the state. But we were surrounded by factories and became part of the workforce.
Money must have been tight in our family of five children, but I don’t remember feeling poor or helpless. Our school grades were good, and there was always work to earn extra money.
At home, my late grandmother would enlist the children to help with contract work from the factories – whether it was sorting out gunny-sacks of rubber bands or attaching some type of casing or other. After school, we took turns to man our guava stall at the Seberang Jaya swimming pool where we all learnt to swim.
During school and semester breaks, I worked in factories. I got demoted from sewing collars to snipping loose threads on my first week at work, and measured reams of wire even in my sleep when I was working on QC duty.
It was so easy to get work that it simply didn’t make sense to be idle at home. The work was mundane and the pay paltry, but I relished the self-reliance of earning my own keep. My foundation was mostly laid in those formative years.
Though I left Seberang Perai 26 years ago, my sense of belonging is ingrained. I go home frequently but I didn’t explore much of the mainland till we started working on this book. Up till then, I was more familiar with the island’s history and more excited about George Town’s reinvigoration.
In over a year of traversing the mainland, I have gotten to know and admire its people and communities. I am especially in awe of their strong communal ties. In many villages and towns, individuals are working together for the greater good – to uphold traditions, support recycling projects and raise funds for the community.
Life is not always easy on the ground and people have grouses. But many ordinary Malaysians strive for high ideals and work tirelessly to keep the country’s foundation strong and solid.
I thank Think City and the Star Media Group Berhad for supporting this book project. And I also thank everyone who has helped us in one way or another in documenting the stories and images; they were all generous and giving.
My hope is that this book will open your hearts to the people living away from the centre; that their stories will resonate with all Malaysians, and that the mainland will figure when you think of Penang.
Ivy Soon Editor, Women&Family, Star Media Group Berhad