Cinema, Coffee & Sinful Desserts

Over the past few years (and way before Georgetown was declared a UNESCO Heritage site), many people have been intrigued and more than fascinated with old Georgetown.

There’s a wealth of history and nostalgia in every crack and pore of these crusty, musty buildings we call pre-war shophouses. Many have a link to their past when they come across these buildings. Many love the quaintness, the charm and the memories which have somehow brought them to Penang. Some aren’t even Penangites.

We got to know Kopi Cine from a friend.

Ann had come from Langkawi but she was gushing about these row of shophouses in Stewart Lane and Armenian Street which had been turned into retail shops, guest house and cafe. It helped that she knew the owner of these business ventures. It helped too that Nic and I too have met the highly successful yet no-nonsense lady proprietor some time ago on one of our trips to Langkawi.

We decided to check Kopi Cine out one night.

It’s not Kopi Cine as kopi orang cina. It’s Cine of Cinema. Its Chinese name says, Kah Fei Dian Ying which means Coffee and Cinema. A mouthful and one that will certainly cause little ego fights about its pronunciation.

Kopi Cine is owned by the same people who own Bon Ton in Langkawi. Bon Ton is classy, elegant and sophisticated, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining or staying there.

Kopi Cine is also a bit of hunt for people who’ve never ventured down the funky-smelling lanes and alleys of old Penang (for want of a better word, funky means anything that smells awkwardly disturbing but you just cannot place yourself to describe the vulgarity).

It’s on Stewart Lane, a narrow strip of road that’s more residential than touristy. This is the road just before the Goddess of Mercy Temple and certainly it is not your backpacker Chulia Street pub-drinking place.

The night we were there, we overheard a young girl asking, “Where’s the aircond dining section?”

If there’s any indication of what place you might step into, be forewarned – there’s no aircond dining section in Kopi Cine. It’s pure hot cond – it’s au naturel air which we call breeze. It’s open to the street and with its bright lights, it’s a beacon on a dark, silent street devoid of tourists.

The cafe is narrow with a dark wood bar running down on side and a few tables down the other side. It’s like those European cafes where its appeal lies in its cosiness. You get to doodle on the table too with Buncho crayons as you wait for your meals. You may also take home the white mahjong paper with your doodles if you so please.

Kopi Cine opens from 9am till 11pm and serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts and lots of alcohol. (If you so please and have the budget for a bottle of bubbly, yes, you can get that here too! In fact their wine list is extensive, considering it’s in Stewart Lane. The wine list looks like something out of E&O’s wine menu!)

Food selections are limited but whatever we ordered that night, we actually loved it.

I ordered a Middle Eastern platter of Mezze which is good for vegetarians (not that I am one but sometimes I like to think I’m eating healthy!). The Mezze came with a good 8 quarters of soft pita, hummus, eggplant dip, dukka and salsa. If you like comfort food, you’ll find the hummus and eggplant dip highly satisfactory.

Nic’s order of BBQ Chicken Tikka was tender and juicy and he also had enough pita to mop up the side of cucumber salad, raita and spicy dip. Ann’s lamb sausages with mashed potato was a hearty meal.

We couldn’t leave without attempting dessert, stuffed as we were. Bon Ton is famous for its desserts and who could pass up a chance to try its homemade gula melaka ice cream? Plus, as Ann revealed, the desserts were less pricey compared to Langkawi.

My apple and guave crumble came in a tiny Chinese tea cup with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream on the side. It didn’t look like a lot but it was sweet and filling. Ann’s steamed apple pudding with gula melaka ice cream was a delight. I especially loved the intense sweetness of the gula melaka resonating in the mouth. As its ice creams are homemade, it was also sheer pleasure digging into Nic’s layered ice cream cake smothered in chocolate sauce.

Of course don’t expect Kopi Cine to be your regular cheap eat.

It’s not.

It’s not when it has champagne on its menu.

It’s not when you realize it’s really like 32 The Mansion but tricked down to look rickety and rundown. I guess shabby chic is the order of the day. (And to recreate this look, here’s a hint: you can get most of the decor featured from SSF in Anson Road.)

The Reading Room is next door but the books aren’t for sale. A 60s Chinese movie plays silently, projected on the uneven walls at the back. Upstairs is the Stewart Lane Residences where you get to stay and experience the ambience of the forgotten Penang. Like some arthouse movie where nostalgia rings deep.

Yup, returning to your roots is in vogue again.

The Gentleman and His Stories

This is a story of James White.

He was a true adventurer in his time.

When I heard he had passed on, I felt that we had all lost something precious.

He was in his 70s but he was such a good-natured grump – I used to tease him mercilessly about how handsome he was when he was in His Majesty’s secret service. He’d turn red and mumble (as the British tend to do – they ‘swallow’ their words!) but I knew he was often pleased that I read his stories – little did I know that in his London days, he took on a lowly paid security guard job just so he could spend hours writing up his stories from his days in pre-war and post-war Malaya.

He loved the Far East.

I treasured this friendship because we would share, for hours on end, our love for books, art and technology.

For a man in his 70s, James was never afraid of technology. He lived on a modest pension but somehow he would be able to get himself the latest Canon digital camera. Photography was his love, besides his four fluffy cats called Ice, Gin, Lime and Tonic!

A gathering of friends, old and new at Bon Ton Langkawi to celebrate James
A gathering of friends, old and new at Bon Ton Langkawi to celebrate James

I didn’t know how emotional it would be at the special sharing session at Bon Ton. It’s true that you’ll only know who your real friends are when you die.

Because at that session, hosted by Kyri (James’ Langkawi friend) and Marianda (James’ UK friend), only the real friends turned up.

Kyri (standing) and Marianda
Kyri (standing) and Marianda

Somehow Langkawi is like that. It is a big island but it is very kampung-like. News travel fast and I bet everyone knew James had passed away. The community can be nice but most people can be bitchy. I’ve heard enough gossip to know this to be true. Like Nic often says, Langkawi reminds him of the 1980s series “Fantasy Island”. It is an island where troubled souls come to escape their problems. And when troubled souls meet other troubled souls, the sparks fly.

Marianda reads tributes from James' friends who emailed her
Marianda reads tributes from James' friends who emailed her

The session was to piece together James’ life -prior to Langkawi (his Hong Kong days, his London days) and post-Langkawi (what he did on the island). Included were our own personal journeys – how we each met him and what we loved about the man who was totally indefatigable.

James often told me stories of his upbringing – how he got his surname White, his Cantonese amah (he was born in Hong Kong) and his jungle tales of Borneo (as a planter). He rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous (Kate Moss was one of them!) but he was never starstruck.

Instead he’d gape with wonder at the local bomoh he’d found, or the orang asli he befriended in his days. Such was his attitude. This white man could speak Tamil and Malay (and I think, probably native languages too) as he traversed the jungles of Malaya and Borneo in his younger days. He puts many of us Malaysians to shame today with his incredible knowledge of the land, its myths, its jungles and its people.

These meanderings of his fascinated me to no end. No doubt he’d repeat them each time we meet but I put it down to being old and forgetful. Or he just wanted to drill the stories into me. I became a fan of his stories, so much so that he emailed me his stories, asking if I could help polish them up for him. He also gave me a hastily stapled together version, in a booklet form.

I’d often remarked to Nic that I’d like to help James do P-O-D or Publish On Demand as a surprise for him one of these days. Somehow it was relegated to the back of my To Do List. I thought this year would be a good year to do it. And now James has passed on.

As I’ve said, James made my life richer (and he taught me how to appreciate gin!).

I will never again meet someone the likes of him. The world doesn’t make unique beings like that anymore. He was a British gentleman till the end, a little upset and lost at the new world. He valued love, friendship and honour and he trusted people.

But he wasn’t very fortunate because his old-world heart trusted the wrong people – he used to recount bitterly how he’d been ripped off by his “friends” on the island. Perhaps his heart broke a little each time someone turned his life upside down. I know I’d be bilious too.

Therefore, meeting his UK friend, Marianda threw up a deep connection. I was calm when I got news that James had passed on but upon meeting Marianda, I collapsed into her arms, hugging her as we both wept at our loss. Intuitively, he connected us both.

My promise is that we’d keep James’ memory alive – all his beautiful stories (fiction or fact, who knows?) of him as a planter, spy, adventurer, son of the earth.

So this year, I hope it is one of my projects – to help edit through his stories and put them on a website so that all those who knew him would be able to read his Far East tales.

I hope to get an edition published too and those who buy the book will be contributing to his favourite charity or organisation. The orang asli were his favourite people besides the Indians. We were thinking that maybe the Indian temple in Kisap would be the beneficiary (he had, after all, been cremated in a pyre at that temple, as per his last wishes). Then again, all these are just my ideas. I wonder what his friends have in mind.

Final send off for James White
Final send off for James White

The next day, all of us who could make it, set off in a boat to a spot near Pulau Dayang Bunting. James’ ashes would be sunk there.

The spot we chose was secluded, near a hilly cliff-face of scraggly rocks and tall tropical trees. Two white-breasted eagles swooped overhead and landed on a tree, watching us, watching them.

Tropical flowers to line the way
Tropical flowers to line the way

They started singing as we each grabbed handfuls of cempaka flowers (taken from Kyri’s garden) to scatter into the mesmerizing green sea. We took this to be a sign that yes, James would like this very spot.

Marianda reads one of James' poems
Marianda reads one of James' poems

His London friend, Peter, used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel a tiny hole at the bottom of the clay vessel which held the ashes. Marianda read a poem aloud – a poem penned by James in the days he started to write. In the poem, James likened himself to a bear. Some shaman told him once that he was a reincarnation of a bear, a ‘beruang’ and I think James loved the idea.

As Peter released the clay vessel into the still waters of the Langkawi sea, we all wished in our hearts for his eternal peace. He would rest well in these waters. He was finally in his tropical resting place.

James' final resting place
James' final resting place

Johnny, the other owner of The Lighthouse restaurant, popped open a bottle of champagne to toast the final send-off. James would have been pleased.

So this is for you Tuan Besar (that’s what I used to call him) – the journey has ended but we will keep your stories alive.