The Glories
Of Penang

All together I spent three and a half weeks in Penang before the President Monroe nosed over the horizon, and this much I will say for it: if you ever want a perfect honeymoon spot, a place where scenery and climate fuse to produce unadulterated witchery, where life has the tremulous sweetness of a plucked lute-string and darkness falls all too soon, go to the Hotel Plaza in New York. Of all the lethargic benighted, somnolent flea-bags this side of Hollywood, the port of Georgetown on the island of Penang is the most abysmal. At the time I was there, its recreational facilities consisted of four Tarzan films, a dance hall housing eighty-five pock-marked Malay delinquents, a funicular railway, and a third-rate beach situated five miles from nowhere. If, after exhausting the potentialities of these, you retained any appetite for sightseeing, you could visit the Ayer Itam temple and the botanical gardens. The former is possibly the largest, and unquestionably the dullest, Buddhist temple in Malaya, and no wastebasket is complete without a snapshot of this historic shrine. The botanical gardens boast many varieties of cactus not found anywhere, not even in the botanical gardens. The day I was there, I waited almost three minutes for them to show up, but never caught so much as a glimpse of a thing resembling a cactus. I related the incident subsequently to a group of passengers aboard ship who were discussing occasions on which they had failed to find cacti, and it was unanimously agreed that my experience was by far the most unusual.

I doubt if anyone short of Dante could describe the cookery at the Western & Occidental Hotel; I have heard it defended on the ground that it is no worse than the fare in any British colonial hotel, which is like saying that measles is no worse than virus pneumonia. The meal usually led off with an eerie gumbo, identified as pumpkin soup, puce in color and dysenteric in effect. This was followed by a crisp morsel of the fish called selangor for want of a more scathing term, reminiscent in texture of a Daniel Green comfy slipper fried in deep fat. The roast was a pale, resilient scintilla of mutton that turned the tines of the fork, garnished with a spoonful of greenish string and a dab of penicillin posing as a potato. For dessert there was gula Malacca, a glutinous blob of sago swimming in skimmed milk and caramel syrup, so indescribably saccharine that it produced a singing in the ears and screams of anguish from the bridge-work. As the diner stiffened slowly in his chair, his features settling into the ghastly smile known as the risus sardonicus, the waiter administered the coup de grâce, a savory contrived of a moldy sardine spread-eagled on a bit of blackened toast. The exact nature of the thimbleful of rusty brown fluid that concluded the repast was uncertain. The only other time I saw it, awash in the scuppers of the President Monroe, the sailors called it bilge.

§     §     §

We made the run across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon in four days; it was the season of the southwest monsoon, marked by leaden, overcast skies and frequent squalls. Most of the ship's ninety-odd passengers were branch managers and representatives of American firms like International Harvester, Standard Oil, and Goodyear Rubber, bound home on leave or en route to other stations. They were a glum, abstracted lot who laughed little and spent the day discussing freight rates and tariffs. The only thing distinguishing us from the Sedalia Chamber of Commerce was the small contingent of Spaniards, Italians, and specious Central Europeans with cropped bullet heads and saber-cuts on their cheeks. The latter fervidly assured you that they were Swiss, but they showed a suspicious tendency to prick up their ears and whinny whenever a Strauss waltz was played. Far and away the most spectacular character on the ship, and a little whiff of gelignite that at times bid fair to explode the whole male passenger complement, was Mrs. Fuscher.

Mr. Fuscher, a tall, mealy German said to have been a very eminent Nazi in the employ of I. G. Farbenindustrie in Shanghai, was espoused to a lady who, to put it mildly, had been richly endowed. Every time she strode on deck in the pitifully brief halter and shorts she affected, eyes popped like champagne corks and strong men sobbed aloud. It did not seem possible that mere wisps of silk could confine such voluptuous charms; in fact, there were those who lived in the hope that a truant gust of wind might create a sensational diversion. On one occasion, I lashed myself to the brink of nervous collapse reading the same sentence over and over in Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic desperately trying to ignore Mrs. Fuscher as she stood silhouetted against the sun in a diaphanous sports dress. I thought it rather poor sportsmanship of Hirschfeld, incidentally, to show her a sketch presenting me as a wolf baying against the moon, when he himself was so patently on the prowl.

Fuscher, needless to say, was fully aware of the electricity generated and took care to guard her like the Jonker diamond. Then, by a stroke of luck, he was suddenly taken seasick and it was every man for himself. I saw my chance during boat drill when I encountered the lovely creature hopelessly ensnared in her lifejacket like a wounded bird. I quickly drew her into a dark companionway and managed to squeeze her into it properly, though it naturally required a certain amount of fussing with the straps. Just as she was giggling, "What are you doing, you foolish boy?," Hirschfeld slithered around the corner in his typically sneaky fashion.

"Hey, that's no way to put on a lifejacket," he snapped, shouldering me aside. "The tapes go over the front, like this." I let him demonstrate his method for what it was worth (and it was worth plenty, judging from the hammerlock he took on Mrs. Fuscher). We had almost reached the tickling stage when I glanced up accidentally and beheld Mr. Fuscher, arms akimbo, glowering down at us.

"What is the meaning of this --- this Schweinerei?" he grunted. His wife blubbered out a breathless account of how helpful the American cavaliers had been, but he cut it short midway and marched her off. It was just as well, for the man was patently a dangerous lunatic of some sort and might easily have misconstrued our kindness to his wife. Traveling about the world in these disturbed times, one cannot be too careful to avoid situations like the foregoing, where perfectly laudable motives may lead to the gravest consequences.

--- S. J. Perelman
Westward Ha!
©1998, Burford Books
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