penang fisherman

Old Fisher Guy

I enjoy taking a long walk around whatever city I’m visiting, just to see what the locals are up to. You get a much better feeling of the people and place than you’d get from hitting the major touri attractions. And you stumble upon unexpected treasures, photo ops you couldn’t have planned for, and the stray English speaking local for what is often a fascinating conversation. I’m easily amused, and equally fascinated by pretty much any foreign locale, but there are few places I’ve been where a morning stroll is as satisfying as Penang, Malaysia. Georgetown to be specific. This World Cultural Heritage City is a feast of colors, a miasma of tropical aromas, and a time capsule of colonial architecture gone exotic.

On my first visit, as short as it was, I’d made the eastward trip into Georgetown to the ferry terminal; a nice walk along the water’s edge, at least where the city’s design would allow. And spent an afternoon perusing the town’s main streets with a new buddy, Damen. The plan for my second visit was to take up where I’d left off: after breakfast a quick jaunt down to the water and a casual stroll south along Weld Quay to the clan jetties.

Georgetown is a great walking town. It is small and easy to navigate. All the little streets dump into main roads so it is difficult to get lost. The Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower rises above it all, so there is a ready focal point to get your bearings, too. The bonus with Georgetown is that any lane you turn down presents colorful snapshots; sometimes it’s the people you encounter, sometimes the architecture, in almost every case an exotic and interesting tableau of daily life.

With just a vague destination in mind and no schedule to keep, I hung around Church Street Pier for a while but wasn’t too impressed with the modern version’s attempt to provide a glimpse into the past, or the ambiance of the money-classed sailboaters who’ve made this their yuppie home away from home. Beyond a grassy square the ferry terminal squatted, a more realistic portrayal of the region’s maritime history and modern day seagoing traffic. Early enough in the day that the sun still angled off the calm water, I watched a moving postcard of boats, locals, and small groups of fishermen casting their lines from shore while their more well off brethren piloted small outboard boats painted as vividly as the buildings and windows the town is known for.

Georgetown Colors

Georgetown Colors

A short stroll later there was a break between buildings, a concrete pier running out into the turquoise waters – obviously a commercial pier – dwarfing a ramshackle wooden dock barely extending into the channel serving the needs and tastes of small locally owned boats. An old fisher guy had just docked, his modest wood boat painted a shocking blue that matched the tint of the equally garish aloha shirt he wore. I stopped for a while and watched him untangle his net, either finalizing duties from his morning’s haul or getting a late start on the day’s catch.

Fishing, back in the States, is considered a sport. We are beyond the hunter/gatherer stage. That’s what Safeway is for. Few fish to put food on the table, at least not in the sense of no fish, no food. And with all the electronics fishing boats are rigged with, I don’t know that it is really very sporting. I do know it is boring. I’m not a big fan of fishing.

But having grown up near San Francisco Bay and having spent several years in the marine industry, I’ve been fishing more times than I ever wanted or needed to. The version that primarily involves drinking beer while deckhands set outriggers, fix lines, and bait hooks isn’t too bad. When a fish strikes the cry of “Fish On!” goes up and then everyone argues about whose turn it is to reel that puppy in. The loser gets the work of hauling in the unlucky fish, the rest on the boat grab another beer.

I spent one cold spring evening hovering off shore of Angel Island with a few friends poaching Thresher Sharks. The city’s Italian restaurants pay good money for the shark meat. Four guys in an open boat can make a decent amount of cash but you have to keep one eye peeled for the Coast Guard and another on the sharks you’ve already hauled in. Sharks are stupid. Even for fish. Their little brains forget to tell them they are dead so even an hour after landing one and beating its head in you still have to watch out or risk a painful and bloody bite to your ankle. Even unharmed (you), the bottom of the boat looks like a bucket of chum by the end of the night.

Old Fisher Guy, however, wasn’t after shark. Nor did his tiny scow have outriggers attached, or electronics for spotting schools of fish lurking below. It was pretty much him, his boat of an equally ancient age, an outboard motor that wasn’t big enough or powerful enough to make headway against an incoming tide, and his multi-hued aloha shirt. But he had a grand smile the size of his head, filled with gleaming white teeth set off by his mahogany skin, and he flashed it when he noticed me taking his picture. And then came scampering up the dock.

Weld Quay georgetown penang

Still in Business, Weld Quay.

God knows what he had to say to me. He didn’t speak English. I don’t speak Malay. His voice was guttural, his phrases choppy, his oversized shirt caught the wind, billowing out and then losing the flurry to lay fallow again against his shrunken chest, the gusts punctuating his words with extra emphasis. Through gestures, a bit of pantomime, and lots of smiling back and forth we carried on a conversation that he seemed happy with. He clapped me on my shoulder, gestured to follow and led me over to a nearby shack that made the decrepit dock and his boat seem cutting-edge. Old Fisher Guy’s hang out, possibly his home.

Half of the space was taken up by a poorly covered patio, it’s roof riddled with holes, large portions no longer covered. It’d offer little protection from sun or rain. Corrugated tin that looked like scalvage laid across wood beams weathered by the one-two combo punch of salty marine air and tropic sun. There was an interior portion, but it too looked quite slatternly, too dark inside to make out any features of what lurked in the gloom. His prize, evidently the purpose of our visit, was a glass tank, it’s sides encrusted with algae, maybe 150 gallon in size, filled with murky water slightly agitated by a noisy pump blowing humid air into the tepid water.

Pounding on the side, he reached in and scooped out a silver scaled fish of moderate size. Dinner? A pet? A prized possession? Who knows. But his smile communicated it was something to be proud of so I made appreciative noises nodding my head in agreement to I know not what. Old Fisher Guy was a friendly chap and kept up a constant stream of chatter, stopping occasionally for me to answer with a positive noise or gesture. Then off he’d go blabbering away content with the story even though the listener obviously hadn’t a clue. And it didn’t matter. We were both enjoying each other’s company.

Some time during our conversation I must have agreed to spending more time with him because I got the shoulder clap again and we headed back to his boat. He scampered across the dock, quite agile for an old fart, and I followed a bit more hesitantly trying to pick my way across the pier, avoiding missing planks and aiming for footing on those that looked sound. The entire dock responded to our movements; I’ve navigated rope bridges that offered a more secure foundation. But I was curious. Both of his purpose and of his boat. He hopped off the dock into his dinghy signalling me to join him as he pulled the wadded net he’d left drying in the sun after him.

Georgetown Bike

Georgetown Bike

A good time to stop and consider where I was and what I was getting into, both literally and figuratively. But what the hell. Too old to be shanghaied and sold into a life of prostitution (I know, but I can fantasize), if kidnapping was the plan there was no one to pay ransom, the only valuable I had to steal was my camera – making off with it certainly didn’t require nautical skills. I carefully stepped into the scow, legs spread wide to evenly distribute my weight and keep us from capsizing knowing to do so would not be considered good form.

Old Fisher Guy had trouble interesting his boat’s engine in life again, until at last it sputtered, coughed, shivered, then began to tug the diminutive dory back away from the dock. He eyeballed me, a silent communication to get to it and do my job. My boating experience paid off; I expertly slipped the mooring line off its cleat and we drifted, or puttered – who could tell the difference – out into the channel.

The plan for the day was a stroll along the water’s edge and instead I was adrift with Old Fisher Guy in a boat barely as long as I was tall. He manned the outboard, I settled into the prow and we headed out to sea. Fortunately due to a lack power and gas that meant just barely off shore. It wasn’t just a boat ride though. Sometime during our conversation on shore I must have said I loved fishing. Or maybe he just needed free labor. He kept grinning though so I was reassured and when he zigged and zagged to a choice spot he cut the engine and began preparing his net.

Old Fisher Guy must have been at this for many years. He moved with an economy of motion, his gnarled hands expertly setting the net into loopy tendrils. Slightly crouched, weight on his back leg, with ballet like grace he let the net fly sailing through the air with the grace of a bird in flight to spread itself in a perfect circle across the surface, sinking slowly downward into the sea. He seemed to be counting in his head, nodding with the rhythm of the waves, and when the timing was right began pulling the net back in to see what treasures the sea had to offer.

Back home there are laws about the size of your catch. Depends on the species, but small, young fish get thrown back. A chance to grow, another day to swim, possibly another opportunity to get hauled in once again. Old Fisher Guy pawed through the meager collection of flipping fish he’d hauled on board, picking out the keepers and tossing aside those too small. His discards as often as not landed in the boat or bashed against the gunwale slipping overboard and leaving a bloody path in their wake; not quite the system for throwing back minnows we use at home. A small plastic pale color coordinated with his boat and shirt held the keepers. Both of them. Net fishing is mostly about a wish and a prayer.

But he was happy with his catch, and I grinned back at him congratulating him on his skills. And then the shoulder clap once again. Shit. My turn. “No thanks” wasn’t gonna work, he couldn’t understand me. “I really don’t like fishing” had an equal shot of success. “I haven’t a fucking clue how to fish with a net” wasn’t gonna a cut it either and besides, that was gonna become quickly evident. But Old Fisher Guy wasn’t a dummy and had already figured I was a novice. He looped the net, passing a handful over to me (wrong hand, a slap, okay got it) and then began his ballet like movements, slightly exaggerated, showing me how.

Fort Cornwallis Canon

Fort Cornwallis Canon

As much as I wanted to make him proud, I could see myself, big white guy in a tiny blue boat, legs spread knees bent, bouncing back and forth trying to get the right beat for a successful release while trying to not fall over board or send the entire boat bellyside up, All I could do effectively was giggle. Old Fisher Guy thought I was pretty funny too. I got a hold of myself, put on a serious face, tried a New Age Chevy Chase approach . . . get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball. A deep breath, coordinated lean, I let the net fly.

Old Fisher Guy‘s throw was graceful: art in motion. Mine mimicked the trajectory of a cannonball shooting out over the red brick walls of nearby Fort Cornwallis; a slovenly mess of tangled sisal plopping its way outward to land with a terrific splash. Old Fisher Guy didn’t do the counting thing in his head for my throw, instead he went with an uproarious laugh. Shaking his head in amusement he grabbed the net from my hands and began hauling the bundle back on board babbling on and grinning, amused and no doubt complementing me on my excellent try. Ah well, at least there were no tiny fish to suffer a future of a bashed in head.

That was fun, we’d both had a laugh, I figured enough, but Old Fisher Guy wasn’t done. He untangled the mess I made, patiently recoiling the netting and then tried showing me the stance, the hold, the release again. I got another shoulder clap: good luck, you can do it, or maybe: I need another laugh. Taking my position, with a silent prayer to gods who should ignore me for ignoring them for so long, I let the net fly again.

There was no ballet like movement in my stance or throw. Closer to break dancing I’m sure. But I managed to get at least part of it right. This time the net almost sailed, almost floated, almost spread into a circle. Well, at least it didn’t thud through the surface like a breeching whale on it’s return trip into the sea. Half of the net managed to float across the surface. Not a perfect circle, more like a big fat comma. It must have been okay ‘cuz old fisher guy did the count, slightly abbreviated. Then, not trusting me to get both parts of the act right, grabbed the net and hauled in the catch. I got a fish. Okay, it probably was a little on the small side. Maybe alone he’d have thrown it back or bashed its head in in disgust. But Old Fisher Guy took pity on me and nodded approvingly at the minnow, depositing it in the keeper bucket and moving to a full congratulatory clap on my back. I have a new skill, a new career option.

Clan Jetty Boat penang

Clan Jetty Boat

We didn’t stay out long. No reason to waste gas for the amusement of or over a touri. He cast his net a few more times filling his pail half way before we headed back to the dock, his boat’s ancient engine smoking and wheezing like a fire-breathing dragon with asthma. Dockside, I got to demonstrate again my limited mastery of nautical skills by properly tying us off.

I think that fish in Old Fisher Guy’s tank back in his hovel was once a minnow too, the sole catch of some other inept and skill-less touri, the humorous tale he’d been telling me close to what he’d be recounting to a future touri when showing off my catch that had finally grown into an actual fish.

A memorable morning; a walk that wasn’t, and I still don’t like fishing. But ask me about Penang and I’ll have a tall tale to tell ya . . . Yup, it was this big! And it didn’t get away.