Category: George Town.

One hundred nights at the museum

Don Henderson From:The Australian January 30, 2010 12:00AM

YOU mean we’re living in the museum. Aren’t we too young to be in a museum? Haven’t you seen Night at the Museum? Who is Sun Yat Sen anyway?”

We have just told our children, aged 12 and 15, that we will be moving to Malaysia for four months and that our home is to be a museum, a former base of Sun, at 120 Armenian St, Georgetown, in the state of Penang.

I have won an Asialink residency to research my latest book, an adventure epic opening in the jungles of Borneo. My Asialink host and museum proprietor, Salma Khoo, has kindly offered for our family to live upstairs from the museum. There are, of course, certain restrictions. The museum is open from 10am to 2pm each day and this will limit our use of the downstairs area. There is no carbon or CFC-producing airconditioning, which is good for the environment, but what about us?

It’s actually quite a privilege, my wife Alison and I argue with our children, noting that two-time Booker prize-winner Peter Carey stayed there while researching My Life as a Fake. They are not impressed so we decide to bring out the big gun. “Dr Sun Yat Sen was one of the most influential people of the last century. Millions of Chinese would love to spend a night there.”

Our children point out that they would love to spend a night in an airconditioned hotel with a pool. Unfortunately for our children, as is the case in so many family discussions, the decision has already been made, and it is time to make the best of things.

We research Sun and search the internet for images of his Penang base, a traditional two-storey Chinese shopfront, built in 1875. By the time we board our flight for Malaysia, the children know Sun was a revolutionary leader and in 1911 he held meetings at the house we would be living in to raise funds for the Canton Uprising, which, although unsuccessful, led to the Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911, which ended the Qing dynasty. Sun became the first provisional president of the new Republic of China.

The children learn that Penang’s capital, Georgetown, Adelaide’s sister city, has recently been granted UNESCO World Heritage listing. This listing protects not only the buildings but the living culture of the area. Sun’s Penang base, our home for the next four months, is the start of the Penang Heritage Trail.

On a balmy August day, our flight touches down in Penang. The taxi from the airport winds through a labyrinth of one-way streets and we are glad we didn’t rent a self-drive car. The streets become narrower, older and less crowded until soon we are giving way to trishaws.

At last, the taxi stops in front of 120 Armenian St and we immediately recognise the house. The driver does his best to explain that it is a museum and it is closed. If we like, he could take us to a nice

hotel? He has dealt with enough crazy foreigners in his time to know when it is time to give up. He reluctantly leaves us ringing the front door bell.

We are greeted by the welcoming yet bemused smile of Mustafa, a student who lives upstairs. It is a relief we are not to be alone. Mustafa (Mus) shows us to the children’s room; noticing their nervous looks he points out the unique feature of peepholes in the floor. These are the same peepholes Sun must have used to check on visitors. Our children do not have imperialist assassination squads to worry about but they are a long way from home and the noises in the street are strange and uninviting.

Skip two months and the front doorbell rings twice.

Our daughter, who is perched on a table taking photographs of the street scene through the window, hops down and looks through the peephole.

“Is [the museum guide] Mai Loon here yet?” she asks. “It’s 10am.”

Mai Loon has arrived, and she opens the door downstairs to welcome the first group of tourists for the day. This tour is in Chinese but most are in English. Despite the language barrier we recognise Mai Loon’s recitation of Sun’s impassioned appeal to his Penang supporters for financial support at the Emergency Meeting of the Southeast Asia Tongmenghui in 1910.

“You can help shoulder the responsibility of saving our country by donating your money, while our comrades in our country are sacrificing their lives,” he cried, tears streaming.

Occasionally we unwittingly become part of the tours as they extend to the traditional nonya kitchen at the back of the museum where we eat most of our meals.

“And this is the Australian family who live upstairs,” Mai Loon informs the group without skipping a beat.

Then she launches into a story about the huge granite pounding stone that was once the focal point of the kitchen. It was used to grind spices and her mother always told her if anyone broke the bow it would bring bad luck. The only way to shake the curse was to run naked around the village. Our children give it a wide berth.

Sometimes the museum’s do-everything man, the effervescent Mr Yeap, tells us stories.

The children are particularly fascinated by tales of Sun’s matrimonial arrangements and the role played by his revolutionary companion Madam Chen Cuifen who, at 19, was smuggling firearms and gathering intelligence for the Chinese Revolution, while suffragettes were marching in the streets of Western cities.

Slowly, as with a new friend, we learn the best ways to enjoy living in our new feng shui-designed home. The traditional air well

allows hot air to rise and leave the house. This cools the lower floor, where we thankfully retreat on hot days. When it rains, we savour our Chinese tea by the louvred windows and enjoy the sounds of rain showering the plants in the granite well below.

We also enjoy the gorgeous painted tiles, the gilded partitions and grand spiral staircase. In the evenings, we sit at the dining table, a central feature of the museum and where, we imagine, Sun delivered his stirring speech almost a century earlier.

Suddenly the staircase creaks behind us. We look up, thinking it could be the ghost of Sun. There is a rustling noise at the base of the stairs and we all turn in that direction and see Mus walking towards us with a smile on his face. “I’m going out for pasembor,” he says. “Have you eaten yet?”

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Category: George Town
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