Rifle Range – Penang's colourful time capsule

Skewers of marinated chicken backsides waiting to be grilled inside the glass display of a hawker in Rifle Range Flats, Penang.

Skewers of marinated chicken backsides waiting to be grilled inside the glass display of a hawker in Rifle Range Flats, Penang.

I WAS filled with anticipation when work took me to see some people in Rifle Range Flats, Penang, last week.

After the appointment, I wandered about and had the pleasure of chatting with a hawker about her grilled chicken backsides. That's bishop's nose, for you.

But not all pressmen relish visiting this place. And you can't blame them because during the 2013 General Election campaign  someone in one of the flats filled a plastic bag with urine and threw it down at journalists and politicians walking below.

Thank goodness it did not land on anyone.

Two weeks ago, water rained down on journalists while they were photographing 14 motorcycles parked beside Block B that had been burned by arsonists. They saw soapy water gushing down from a washing machine outlet hose that jutted out of the rear balcony of a fifth floor unit.

When these press corp shouted in revulsion, an elderly woman from that unit barked back in Hokkien.

Ha mik? Mien sey, ah?” (What? No need to wash clothes, ah?)

Despite all this, I enjoy going to Rifle Range Flats when there’s a reason to do so.

The 3,699 flat units in nine blocks have 99-year leasehold titles. All are one-room affairs, except for four corner units per floor. The corner units have two rooms each.

Six blocks have 17 floors, while three blocks have 18. These nine blocks take up just 4ha, based on Google Earth Pro’s land measuring tool.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are estimated to live here, so the biological load is heavy and the place feels claustrophobic.

Boundary Road — the main traffic artery through here — is only 8m wide. The gap from one block to another is just 15m to 20m.

Yet going there feels like a socio-cultural exploration — an adventure — for me.

Rifle Range Flats is a living, functioning monument of humanity when it was not yet addicted to fossil fuel. It was built in 1969, the same year construction on the first Boon Siew Honda assembly plant started.

At the time, he kapcai (underbone) motorcycles were not yet the vogue, and cars were trophies of the rich.

Rifle Range Flats’ pioneers were cyclists. If you plan on exploring Rifle Range Flats, then carpool, or ride a bicycle or motorcycle. 

I froze wide-eyed upon seeing a tray of 24 skewers of richly marinated chicken backsides inside a glass display along the congested, haphazardly-placed hawker stalls below Blocks H and G.

The elderly lady sells it at RM1.30 a stick, grilled on the spot. Each skewer had five to six chicken backsides, depending on their sizes.

I tried to find out who loved to eat them, how many they might eat in one go, how she acquired so many chicken butts to sell, what the marinade was, how she cleaned them and so on. Journalists are hopeless busybodies.

She did not understand Cantonese or Mandarin, so I resorted to my broken Penang Hokkien – I am Cantonese Malaccan.

It dawned on me that Rifle Range Flats is the heartland of Penang’s Chinese folk, set back one generation. Their way of life has been preserved.

They are suffering.

Many of the lifts have broken down. The water pressure is horrendous because the pipes are clogged with rust. They do not have a multi-storey car park.

All these will cost tens of millions of ringgit to upgrade, so the state government has yet to get around to doing it.

But it is said that what cannot be changed must be endured, and if you can stop and observe, you will see patience on the faces of these Rifle Range folk.

I resolve to go back there later, when I am not being chased by deadlines.

Go to their market and buy groceries. Order a coffee, sit among the aged population and hopefully gain some small talk.

I also need to steel my nerves and try those grilled chicken backsides.

I did not dare that day and have been kicking my rear end for being a gastronomic coward.