Penang-ites like to chat. It's one of the best things about the place.
Many older residents can be a bit stand-offish at first, but we've found that's usually because they're not confident of their English. In most cases if you're friendly and a little persistent the barrier falls, and this is when you can hear some great stories.
Walking up Campbell Street towards Cintra one morning we passed a big smoked pig's leg hanging in the entry to an 'everything' shop called Kwongtuck Sundries. The place looked, well, storied. The old man sitting at the counter glanced up at us without obvious interest, then back down at his paper. We were on our way to somewhere else and kept walking.
A couple days later we found ourselves lunching next door at Tho Yuen, an old Cantonese restaurant, where we ordered our meal from the stall at the front. The vendor's Hainanese-style poached chicken is fine, his roasted chicken is excellent, and his kiam chai boi superb, sharply sour and spicy with an intensely fowl-flavored broth. After two days of heavy-duty hawker stall chowing we were in need of vegetables, and Tho Yuen's female staff cooks choy sum leaves, lettuce, and broccoli just so, blanching the greens for thirty seconds maximum and then drizzling them with garlic oil and soy and oyster sauces.
We took a table on the sidewalk. Next to us was a collection of regulars seated around a couple teapots, all in various states of caffeine and comradery-induced gaiety. One man offered us some local cashews (perfectly toasted, crisp and tasty), another told us of family in California, still another listed the advantages of living in Penang (relatively little traffic, green space, good food). When the men learned that we were in Penang to work on a food story, they simultaneously turned to the shop behind them.
"You've got to check this place out!" they said. It was Kwongtuck Sundries. We hadn't noticed until then that their table sat directly below the big pig's leg.
"Will the owner talk to us, do you think?" I asked. The old man was once again behind the counter, reading a newspaper, studiously ignoring the activity right outside his shop.
"Definately!" they laughed.
And sure enough, when I approached and told him that we were interested in old foods in Georgetown eighty-year-old Woo Shee Khow lit up like a jack o' lantern, jumping up to grab a copy of a local newspaper featuring a story about his shop.
Kwongtuck has been selling liquor, packaged foods and sauces, dried fish and meats for over 170 years. The leg hanging in the entryway is 'Chinese prosciutto', salted and air-dried ham from Chin Wah district in Zhejiang province, forty-two ringgit a kilo. Kwangtuck used to receive stock directly from China, until Penang lost free port status. Now everything comes via Kuala Lumpur.
The shop also formerly sold a much wider selection of Chinese liquors, but that business fell off when Malaysia increased the duty on imported booze.
"But I won't complain too much about that," said Mr. Woo, referencing an old Chinese saying: Ren pa chu ming, zhu pa fei. (A man is afraid of becoming well-known, a pig is afraid of getting fat.)
Mr. Woo is the fourth generation in his family to run Kwangtuck, whose name is a combination the first character of his great-grandfather's hometown (Kwangtung or Canton) and another character, de in Mandarin and tuck in Cantonese, which means 'virtue' or 'moral character'.
On a wall at the rear of the shop hang two black and white photos. On the left is Mr. Woo's father as a young man, on the right his grandfather, in traditional Chinese dres. "Taken during the Qing Dynasty," Mr. Woo proudly told us.
We've developed a bit of a fetish for old Chinese shop houses. Architecturally speaking Kwongtuck is gorgeous, its high wood-beamed ceiling exposed and original wooden staircase intact. Light streaming through the shop's characteristic interior air well floods its rear reaches. Standing in the front, amidst boxes of dried squid and sea cucumber, you can squint your eyes and almost imagine this little slice of Georgetown a hundred and fifty years ago.
We would have liked to hang out with Mr. Soo a bit longer, but we had another appointment to keep. We'll be back.
Before we left, Dave asked Mr. Woo to pose for a photo. He agreed, but insisted on donning a proper shirt first.