Occupation: A managing director at an industrial chemical company, Joe also founded Community Works, a nonprofit that helps low-income craftswomen sell their wares. He and Iranian artist Shahram Entekhabi filmed more than 300 on-the-street interviews for the project I Am…, which explores the concept of identity in multicultural Malaysia.
This story appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.
I’ve lived all my life in George Town, except for seven years studying in London and Manchester. In England, I never thought about home, but when I came back, I wandered all over the city. That’s when I fell in love with it.
I love the streets. The British founded George Town in 1786, but before that this area had always been a trading post. We have nice architecture: English, Chinese, Indian, Malay— everything from shop houses to old colonial buildings. But George Town is still vibrant and alive. It hasn’t been Disneyfied like Singapore, which is really beautiful but rather sterile.
We’re very cosmopolitan. George Town has always been a place that pulls people in. Once you get connected, you meet some of the most interesting characters. There’s an American lady I know, Betty. She’s 85, lived in China and Australia, and after visiting once, decided to come live in Penang. When I grow old I want to be like her—wanting to take the reins and live.
I have another friend, named Eva, a 68-year-old transvestite. When you walk into her little room, plastered on all the walls are the most fabulous pictures of her when she was younger, looking just like Ava Gardner. I’m enthralled by her history. She was always a kept woman, never worked a day. Now she’s fat, popping out of her shirt, receding hairline, but still a lady. We go to coffee shops and talk about her life.
I especially love the coffee shops. There are hundreds—Chinese, Indian—I don’t even know the names of half of them. They have a relaxing, old-world feel, with marble tables and beautifully made wooden chairs. Now they’re better known as places to eat, but some have really good coffee—Malaysian coffee, blended with orange peel and cinnamon. It’s fabulous and fragrant. For me, an ideal day starts with my coffee and my roti, reading the newspaper.
When I have time, I go to galleries. George Town has always been very nurturing to artists, and we’ve had a rather eccentric lot of people here. But lately there has been a resurgence of creative energy; many people are opening up galleries near my shop, Sentuhan.
In that same area, there’s a boutique hotel going in. But real people still live there. We have the newspaper vendor, the scrap metal man, the Indian woman in a sari walking down the street. There’s a woman, Bajan, who sews batik for us. When I met her, she was living in this squalid room in a guesthouse with laborers and prostitutes. Now she has a better room. But she’s a complicated person: Bright, talented—she hasn’t enough to eat, but she feeds dogs and cats on the street. What a kind soul.
Just around the corner is Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, which we call the Street of Harmony. In that area, you find Kapitan Keling Mosque [Sunni Muslim], the Malay Mosque [Shafi’i Sunni Muslim], Yap Kongsi Temple [Chinese clan temple], Goddess of Mercy Temple [Taoist], St. George’s Church [Anglican], and the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple [Hindu]. You have all the religions, and you see all the people: schoolchildren, beggars, merchants, travelers, the whole community. We’re the Benetton of Asia. Nobody feels like a foreigner.