Penang, Here I Come is a delightful comic book travelogue by Pami Ismail which charts his journey in the Malaysian State that is endearingly known as the Pearl of the Orient. I’m a big fan of graphic novels, but I hadn’t read one in years. So imagine my glee when I got my hands on one by a Malaysian artist. Georgetown – the capital city of Penang – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Written with simple prose and heart-warming sketches – the illustrator and author takes us on his journey through Penang as he presents us a with slice-of-life narrative through his travels. From music to places of worship, from man-made monuments to nature, from tradition to modern-day Penang – this book has it all.
As a descendant of Singaporean merchants, the history, heritage and folklore of the Malay Archipelago are embedded in me through folklore – the stories that were orally passed down generation after generation by the wayfaring merchants that decided to call this region home. As I flip through the pages, I rediscover the places and stories with a new pair of eyes.
Comics and graphic novels have a way of both simplifying and adding depth to our world. Artists imprint their perception of the world on the way they draw these images – in some ways simplifying concepts to their bare essence; and in other ways tinging these images with more complexity than what existed before.
The special thing about graphic novels is that I am re-seeing the world as the artist sees it – in images and places that are familiar, yet depicted with a certain indescribable originality.
I ended up spending a few minutes gazing at the sketch of the batik factory. When I was a kid growing up in Singapore, it was commonplace to see men wearing batik shirts. These days, I rarely see men wearing it; but the tradition of batik-making is found in various countries in the region. Javanese batik, in particular has a long history – with diverse patterns that have been influenced by a variety of cultures.
Southeast Asian cities are a sensory delight. One that you have to experience for yourself. Ismail’s book made me long to visit someplace I’ve already been numerous times before – if only to relive the experience.
As I gazed at the many images of food that I couldn’t get my hands on, I was reminded of my recent trips to Malacca. One of the frustrations of travelling through foodie heavens like Malacca and Penang is all the food one desires to eat – and the limited time for which to sample everything to your heart’s content. There is only so much I can squeeze into my stomach in a day.
As I reached the closing pages, I strongly felt that one cannot truly understand or appreciate the depth and breath of Southeast Asian cities by flipping through a book. This is a region where one really needs to immerse themselves in the folklore – the legends, fables and handed-down stories – that make this region unique in its own right.
As I flipped through the pages, I found myself smiling at the images with a certain sense of homesickness. Perhaps it is not for the places themselves – but for a time period that lives on inside my memories like an old friend that I once knew and haven’t seen for a long time.