Penang: At the Cathay Hotel

Room 8, Cathay Hotel, Penang, Malaysia, February 10, 2008 4pm

There was no question: I couldn’t leave Penang without spending at least one night at the Cathay Hotel. But it was completely booked. I begged, shamelessly. I showed up twice a day to chat up one or another of the elderly Chinese men who manned the marvelous, Art Deco front desk with its vintage square 1950s clock above. I even pulled out my secret weapon: I chatted them all up in Cantonese.

Yauh mouh fong ah? Ting yaht yauh mouh gei wuih a?

Mr. David Chan, a wiry fellow missing all but two of his top teeth, shook his head. “Mun jo ah!” Full up. Chinese New Year, la!”

Mr. Michael Wong was more sympathetic. He cracked open the Cathay’s heavy, dusty black leather ledger to a page scrawled with numerous names and obscure notations pencilled in and scratched out. “Maybe Sunday, lah. Waiting list, put your name here.”

The column of hopefuls already had four or five names on it. I recognized one of them: the dour retired Scandinavian engineer who’d been my seatmate for 24 hours on the train down from Bangkok. No way was I going to let him keep me out of a room at this inn. I angled harder.

“Wah! Wong sin saang. Gam do yahn ah! So many people already. Mr. Wong, what can I do?”

He looked pained, in the way that many Chinese in business do when you ask them to deliver something that they can’t. I’m familiar with this expression, and I suddenly felt bad about pushing my case too hard. Mr. Wong was doing me a solid, really, just by opening up the book.

A moment or two passed uncomfortably, silently. I could hear nothing but the sound of the sweeper stroking his old-fashioned Chinese straw broom across the dingy tile floor. Mr. Wong was lost in thought; his eyes didn’t make contact with mine. Then, to my surprise, he looked straight at me and smiled. “Okay you come, okay, come on Sunday. Give me fifty ringgit deposit now.”

Reaching into a desk drawer, he pulled out a yellowed, crumbling paper pad that appeared to have been salvaged from an attic sale, and wrote me out a receipt.

I folded it carefully and tucked it into my wallet for safekeeping. It was my ticket to paradise.

You’re probably wondering by this point what all the fuss is about. Or, to frame it in the preferred lingo of the travel section of a famous American newspaper:

Why Does Everyone Want to Stay at the Cathay Hotel?

Since it was busy season, Chinese New Year, I had arranged a place to stay before arriving in Penang: what we travel writers would call a “decent mid-ranged hotel for the business traveler.” It had a comfy bed, a nice view of Penang’s harbour, reliable a/c and hot water, it even came with a free breakfast. And it was totally, utterly devoid of personality.

The Cathay Hotel has saggy beds covered with brown China-made fleece blankets printed with flowers and the slogan “Happy. Forever. Wishes.” Water, sometimes verging on lukewarm, sputters from an overhead shower fixture, then drips into the rust-stained tub for hours afterwards. Guests are issued two striped dishtowels, each the thickness of a paper napkin.

Breakfast? At the Cathay, you’re on your own.

In nearly every measure of traveler comfort, my “decent mid-ranged hotel” ran rings around the hotel I lusted after. Except for that most elusive, yet most important measure of a hotel’s allure: character. The Cathay Hotel has six stars worth of it.

The Cathay Hotel is what I’d call a “magnificent pile”. I’ve stayed in other piles, around the world: The Olaffson Hotel in Port au Prince, Haiti. The Broadlands Hotel, in Chennai, the Z Hotel in Puri, India. The Royal Hotel in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji (the oldest continuously operating hotel in the South Pacific!). Hotels that were once the homes of maharajas, wealthy opium traders, Presidents-for-life. And that now slumber in quirky decline. They’re an endangered species, and you’re lucky when you find one before it’s torn down to make room for a shopping mall, or “restored” into boutique-y sameness.

There’s nothing same about the Cathay Hotel. Not even the rate! The first day I arrived, it was 110 ringgits. The second and third day, it dropped to 75. If I’d stayed longer, maybe they’d eventually end up paying me to stay here.

But, after one last snapshot and a “Joi Gin” to Mr. Wong, I had to move on.

Malacca beckoned. And then I had to rush back to Hong Kong for my meeting with Michael Zhang, Translator of Many of Your Articles.

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