Heritage Daze

Wanna know what makes George Town’s fucking obsession with motorcycles especially maddening? It’s that they aren’t even necessary: the city is small enough that it’s easily coverable by bicycle. It’s true a lot of people do get around via bicycle – including there are more tandems in this town than you could shake a stick at…

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And when, after having been nearly run down in cold blood by ten million roars of dust and diesel, you see a seventy-year old Chinaman gliding noiselessly by on a modified bicycle carrying his entire restaurant stall, it just about breaks your heart: Once because it’s such a lovely scene, and then a second time because of what this city could be but – owing to motorcycles – isn’t.

But I’m trying to take to heart lyrics from an awesome/amazing Cloud Cult song (okay, pretty near all Cloud Cult songs of recent vintage are awesome/amazing…but that’s a story for another day) I’ve had running through my head a lot:

You know you are as small as the things you let annoy you
And you know you are gigantic as the things that you adore
Some days you give thanks, some days you give the finger
It’s a complicated Creation

Could I learn to adore motorcycles? Could I, instead of always giving the finger, give thanks following each encounter? Well, I’ll work on it. Won’t be easy, I fear. Heh heh, Cloud Cult checking into my brain yet again with more sage advice:

When it all comes crashing down
Try to understand your meaning
No one said it would be easy
This livin’, it ain’t easy-oh

But none of that shit’s got anything to do with to-day’s topic; viz., George Town’s just-concluded little Heritage Days Festival celebrating its 2008 listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (I had had it in my head, somehow, that the listing had occurred much longer ago than that. Apparently not.)

Most of the fun stuff is saved for later on, when the sun drops low and temps begin to moderate a little bit. During the day, you go inside for the boring lectures. Nah, actually, the two I seen – one concerning a small island near here, whose population of 3,500 people is struggling to maintain a traditional culture; and the other concerning the decline of traditional pottery-making arts – were quite interesting.

As for the fun stuff, several city blocks in the Old Town were closed off to traffic, and scattered around were artisans and craftspeople – along with their apprentices – making available the tools of their trade for the public to come and try its hand. Mostly, really, it was kinda for kids…

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But the crafts in which the artists engage – weaving, carving, engraving, molding, and cetera – not only form traditions dating back hundreds of years, but they also in the end produce figures as exceptionally beautiful as one’s eyes ever could want to see.

If you’ve ever wondered, for example, how it is that Shadow Puppets come to be so stunningly wonderful to look at…

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…here’s your answer. It ain’t by dint of mechanised machinery. It’s simple hand tools, and painstaking labour-of-love process.

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Or if you’ve ever wondered what’s the secret behind those drop-dead incredible Kolam creations…

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…it’s perhaps not that it’s so painstaking; but rather, that the rice flour materials are a-gonna literally blow away with the wind and wash away with the rain (and it rained in buckets just five or six hours after this) – so one’d better take fulfillment from the process, because the finished result is as ephemeral as can be.

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There were also a bunch of kitchen-artists serving up traditional dishes (natch), and a screening of a short-films collection. The latter I completely forgot about, ‘cause I wanted to check out the Krishnas and their Chariot parade.

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While I much prefer the Krishnas’ devotional music to the party music going on here, one can’t deny that that Chariot is a thing of beauty.

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Having learnt from the pamphlet I’d been carrying around for two weeks that…

If you participate in these Chariot festivals and see the deities riding on these Chariots, you will go, back to home, back to Godhead at the end of this life. – Srila Prabhupada

…there was no way I was going to fail to grab hold and give it the old heave-ho for a few hundred yards – although in paying too much attention to my camera, and not enough to my surroundings, I almost got myself trampled underfoot.

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At about the same time this was wrapping up, the Taiwanese community was just getting going throwing down over at Esplanade Park. The Taiwanese sure know how to turn out numbers: couple thousand visitors, by my estimation — and I’d never seen this shindig advertised anywhere; only knew about it ‘cause I’d seen all the vendors’ tents and the stage being erected a few days before.

The entertainments here took those of the other two Festivals out to the woodshed and mercilessly beat they dimpled asses down. Talkin’ jaw-dropping, breath-taking, buttocks-over-teakettle-sending routines from the Drummers…

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…the Dancers…

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…the Scarf-Wavers/Umbrella-Spinners…

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…and the Dragon Wranglers…

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There was also a Pop Diva and a Lion Dance performance. The former didn’t do much for me; the latter, while not bad, was nowhere nearly the same ballpark as those I witnessed at Bangkok’s Chinese New Year celebrations two years ago.

I’ll acknowledge that the footage presented here fails to capture fully the dramatic and thrilling visceral nature of these performances. But, in person, they were, as I say, thoroughly heart-stopping, soul-filling presentations.

Seemed to me a bit daft to schedule three big, but separate, parties all on the same evening. But in the end, the were timed out well enough to allow the visitor to conveniently take them all in consecutively – though it made for a rather long day (and I’d have liked to have attended the film screening).

And, the dark side. In case one thought that Thailand had Southeast Asia’s disposable-plastic-container market all to itself…

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Walking down the long city block housing the food vendors’ stalls were dozens and dozens of tables just like this, all mounded over in crap. Why were they all mounded over in crap? Because all of the garbage cans and dumpsters were overflowing onto the street…

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Fucking packaging, man. Fucking plastic fucking disposable packaging. Next to splitting the atom, it’s got to be the worst idea humans ever had. And this is just one small-ish festival in one small-ish city in one small country. Thinking of that in context of a place like the U.S. of A., whose population comprises 5% of the World’s total, but which creates 50% of the World’s waste…makes one wish it were possible to be any species other than human, doesn’t it?

But, Central Services swooped in overnight and took it all “away”. Out of sight, out of mind; let’s get on with the show.

And so we did. Monday morning, eight or ten of the older, more venerable places of worship in town – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian – opened up to the general public offering tours, info, discussion, and whatnot.

At the Kapitan Keling Mosque, it was the old song-and-dance recruitment routine. Gotta hand it to those Muslim hucksters, though: they’re really well versed in English, very charismatic, and’ve got their inane routines down pat. The one here this morning even busted out the old, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” line in response to an attendee’s question.

As idiotic as the religious are, though, you can’t deny they put up some outrageously beautiful structures. The Kapitan Keling, I think it must be the biggest Mosque in town; I think it’s probably not the oldest. But one thing is for certain: it is easily the most dazzling, both outside and in.

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Most of the Hindu temples are located outside Little India. But the one in Little India puts on a wicked Puja, and has got about the most gorgeous statuary you ever did see. Normally, they don’t allow photography, however. But during this Open House, it was shutters a-go-go. You gotta know farang was gonna be all over that shit.

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The Temple of the Hainan Chinese community was all lit up like Christmas Morning.

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The Temple is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea. According to the affable tour guide, everybody “comes out of the womb crying. You’re alive: you cry. But she didn’t.”

That was the first sign that she was going to be somebody special. As she went through life, her overwhelming compassion, it was eventually intuited, enabled her to protect from harm sea-farers out performing their oceanside duties. And so, having begun life as a mortal, she made it all the way to Goddesshood simply be emanating loving kindness. Here she is – followed by her right-hand lady, the Goddess of the Coast.

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This temple, like pretty much all the Chinese temples in town, is rocking some seriously eye-popping décor.

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In the evening, several blocks of Jalan Pintai Tali (don’t you wish you could live on a street called “Jalan Pintai Tali”?) were blocked off to traffic, and the Chinese went and got their Heritage on.

The street was super-super crowded. The temple in the middle of this street had waited ‘til now to do its Open House; but the line was butt-assed long, so I didn’t see in there. I did however see: the World’s biggest banjo…

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…the World’s biggest flag…

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…strikingly beautiful and eerie night-time decorations…

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…yo-yo aerials…

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…and the Chinese Westside Story. (Again, this performance was much more electrifying in person than the footage suggests.)

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Best of all, the Shadow Puppets we’d witnessed being made the previous day were now put into action.

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Such an evocative medium. I kinda want to make a Shadow Puppet movie – who’s with me?

And that was more or less that. So much awesome packed into such a small time-space. And, it’s really just the appetizer: the month-long George Town Festival begins on August 1st. Have just recently had a peek at the schedule, and am already trembling with anticipation to note that the man responsible for the Manganiyar Seduction, which I saw here two years ago – and the recollection of which still has me reeling in disbelief – is back, with the Asian Premiere of his follow-up production. Yeah, that’s gonna happen.

Maybe, in a back-handed way, this is where I can begin to pry out an opening for a détente with the motorcycles. George Town more enthusiastically than any other community in which I’ve spent time nurtures the arts and weaves them into the rhythms of daily life. And it’s the Durian capital of the Universe – and probably the People-Watching capital as well. And it’s got the allure of Little India, the mind-bending-beautiful music spilling out of the Mosques, incredible architecture, very friendly locals, crashing waves, epic thunderstorms…

If it weren’t for the motorcycles, I’d almost have no reason to ever leave this place. Rock it on, George Town, rock on. Every day here is a great adventure. Can’t wait to see what magic you’ll out with next. First, must force myself to get some sleep…

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