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Tale of two ‘hippie’ cities


Penang has some things in common with San Francisco – the island, too, is unconventional in many ways.

IT’S summer time in San Francisco but it is no ordinary season. Yes, this is the 50th Summer of Love – so branded because exactly 50 years ago, in 1967, this American city was the centre of a cultural revolution. This was where it all happened.

In those epic months, San Francisco embraced hippie culture – the so-called flower children – where young people joined forces in the name of love and peace to protest against the Vietnam War.

It was the age of The Beatles and their psychedelic experiment with Indian gurus, Scott McKenzie with his monstrous hit song San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair), Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, and The Rolling Stones, among others.

As my pick-up van crossed the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the music of that era automatically played in my head. Vivid memories suddenly flooded my mind – not just about San Francisco but Penang, too.

It was a time when the phrase “Make Love, Not War” caught the imagination of the world, with young men sporting long hair and beards, and in Malaysia, it was Penang that probably experienced this counterculture movement more than other states – or perhaps it was just the island state.

You see, Penang was part of what was called the Hippy Trail (along which Americans and many Australians and Europeans made a low budget hop overland to Asia) beginning with Istanbul and encompassing Katmandu, Goa, Bangkok, and other parts of Asia. Penang was one of the preferred choices. Unbelievably, many hitchhiked all the way there.

These young people claimed that they were searching for spiritual enlightenment (after all, “all you need is love”, say The Beatles in their Magical Mystery Tour album), standing up to rigid, conventional lifestyles and the Establishment. But really, was it just an excuse to smoke pot and have free sex?

I was in primary school when Penang was suddenly invaded by hippies (hygiene was surely not their priority!) in their colourful tie-dyed clothes, walking the streets of George Town, especially along Chulia Street and Rope Walk with its line of low budget hotels.

A new industry sprang up in Penang, as young locals who embraced hippie culture sold burgers and other Western food to cater to these Caucasian hippies.

Homes in the beach areas of Teluk Bahang and Batu Ferringhi were opened to these foreigners for US$1 a night and I suspect many illicit items were also sold by some locals.

For students in the island’s St Xavier’s Institution who had to walk past these streets and strange-behaving hippies, it was an eye opener but for most Penangites who were long exposed to foreign culture and visitors (Penang being a thriving port) it appeared to be just another phase of life and culture.

The smell of weed could always be detected in some cafes and the authorities began to frown on the free spirited behaviour of the hippies. After all, these were not exactly the kind of tourists that could contribute to the state coffers.

There were many complaints from locals about the topless – some even nude – hippies who flocked to the beaches and soon, the police acted. There were even reports of some hippies getting kicked out of Penang.

Innocent Boy Scouts like us, who were on camping trips in Batu Ferringhi, would go to the nearby Chin Farm to swim at the waterfalls where we would run into these hippies. But, of course, we didn’t report our encounters to our Scout Master as we wanted to go back the next day!

But Penang in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an unusual place. As much as these hippies wanted to run away from the war and the Establishment, in Penang they ran into the many US Marines who stayed on the island as part of the American military’s “rest and recuperation” (R&R) programme.

The hippies hated these men in uniform but Penang was one of the few approved holiday destinations for the soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

All US military personnel serving in Vietnam were eligible for R&R during their tour of duty – a minimum of 13 months for Marines, and 12 months for soldiers, sailors, and airmen – and for many, on their first visit to Asia, this could also mean their last as the war took its toll on these young Americans.

The other approved destinations were Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo.

Needless to say, Bangkok was the most popular choice as Penang was regarded as “too mild” for these GIs (a noun used to describe the soldiers of the United States).

Americans from Vietnam would be flown into the Royal Australian Air Force base in Butterworth on the mainland side of Penang before they took the ferry across the channel to Penang island.

It was an interesting cultural experience for me as a kid. Suddenly, there were many GIs at my Penang home as my aunt, who worked as a hotel receptionist, would invite some of them to visit a typical Malaysian home. Whenever she played tour guide, I was always asked to come along as the “chaperone” in case these Americans had naughty ideas.

So I was in the company of both hippies and soldiers as a boy growing up in Penang. Even in the 1970s, some of these hippies didn’t leave Penang after developing a liking for the island, and they became long-term residents at the low budget hotels and homestays – a term which was already in use in Penang in the 1960s.

Strangely, these colourful memories of a bygone era have never been recorded in school history books; perhaps they are regarded as inconsequential but they will be remembered as part of popular history.

Not many Malaysians are aware of the hippie era and the American GIs in Penang.

Fast forward to 2017. The hippies are gone. Mostly dead. The Summer of Love has been commercialised to get tourists to spend money on nostalgia.

Urbane, ambitious and trendy hipsters, busy with their mobile phones and note books in fashionable cafes, have taken over from the hippies.

Silicon Valley, located in the southern San Francisco Bay Area, is home to many start ups and global technology companies including Apple, Facebook, and Google.

It’s still very unconventional and very anti-establishment even if making money is on the agenda – although these hipster CEOs, who prefer jeans to suits, see themselves as advocates of social causes. To be represented in a Pride Parade is also a commercial consideration in San Francisco.

But Washington DC and Donald Trump are hugely detested here, and that perhaps is something that hasn’t changed in 50 years.

San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Penang still has a relatively low cost of living but in terms of properties, it’s among the highest. But I love these two cities for their many unconventional ways and openness.

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now the group's managing director/chief executive officer and formerly the group chief editor.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.

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