Mostly we remain in the bar area, smack in the middle of the lounge with the second best view of the band playing (the best view must be on the cloth sofas). Somebody, a new friend, shows me through to the bakery and courtyard and front restaurant and fine dining areas. The low lighting persists. People are seated, or standing, meandering, picking out cakes, scanning bookshelves, laughing, smiling, looking around to see who else is there, laughing, smiling more. There’s an art exhibition upstairs for the works of local artists. We amble back to the bar area where the music band, having finished its own spin on “What A Wonderful World”, is now putting its own quirk into a Malay song.
For an English Literature student, this place screams Cultural Dissemination Necessary. Consider, for example, what it means for such a distinctively indie “Western” setting to be so successfully commercialized in Malaysia. Consider the jazzy atmosphere, the expats tapping their feet, the heritage architecture, the hand-painted murals, the big cat out on the front porch. This isn’t East-Meets-West as much as West-Meets-Old-West. Not that it’s a bad thing, but certainly it’s a stimulus for cultural anatomizing. “Where’s the wayang kulit?” must be a question that occurs not only to me.
What China House obviously provides, however, is a place other than Gurney for everybody to haunt (and we Penangites enjoy haunting). Perhaps to eyes that have left the country long enough, this is Culture in capital letters, but to those who’ve followed it bloom and be in the red, this is a boutique café that has become a way of life. It’s fun. People like coming here. They talk softly, they smoke outside, some men slap hands together in brotherly fashions, ladies come in in short skirts and lots of skin (a feminist issue for another day though), and most people show too many teeth grinning. Maybe, at the end of the day, this is what matters. If you think, but not too hard, and if you’re looking for a pint or two with music loud enough to put a beat into your stilted conversations, this is, without doubt, the place to go.
153 & 155 Beach Street, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.
Image from www.chinahouse.com.my