Labuan – A speck in the South China Sea

November 13, 2008

If not for the half-hearted attempt by the Malaysian government to promote it as an offshore banking destination, there wouldn’t be a nice waterfront place at the edge of town (complete with aquarium), a spanking new airport and (fading) 5-star resorts, if all they had to attract tourists is cheap duty-free booze and “the chimney”, a remnant of their mining past.  The mall (only one) is a place I was told not to bother, and when Mcdonald’s opened their first branch at the airport this oct, half the 50,000 inhabitants saw the need to grace the occasion with a double cheeseburger & coke, no fries (machine not ready?)

When I visited Jandee for a weekend some weekends back (B.M.*), my expectations weren’t much, but they were clear; coconut trees, good seafood, sandals, and to experience first-hand east malaysian quirk.

What is the east malaysian quirk?  I have always thought that there was a kooky quality to all the east malaysians I’ve met in my life, namely Sabahans & Sarawakians.  First it is the way they speak, be it Mike Teo or Ambrose Pan, or that F&B manager circa 1996 at the JB Crowne plaza, or the guy from Tawau from Senheng who sold me my cordless electrolux vacuum cleaner, or countless nameless others.  It is their diction, a way of pronouncing something, not wrong, but in its execution, delivers “ton” instead of “tone”, flattens the middle syllable in almost every word, the result of which imagines “kookiness”.

Then it is a quality of (being) “laid-back”.  In the west (peninsular), “laid back” may have overtones of laziness, or perhaps some kind of sleepiness, in that kampung way of life.  In the east, laid back is an art form, it’s a simple, cheap, content way of life, almost like a fish jumping into your net. There is no fire in their collective butts.

And in that, should an anthropologist or a historian delve deeper, the myriad of indigenous tribes (including some until pre-modern times cannabalistic ones) assimilating into the ethnic malay mainstream, with chinese (another cultural seperation from western chinese) & indian thrown in, resulting in a slowly maturing identity disparate yet strangely unique (order from chaos?).

Some tower at the labuan seafront

Some tower at the labuan seafront

There were coconut trees, and yes I wore sandals but not in spirit (it’s not a beach culture), but the food was awful, except mee sasak (water noodle?), which is simply “fried” with water & “something-something”, with a twist of lime, and sublime, and then when I despair, at the darkest hour, thick skin (mine) introduced me to a place where I met possibly the best food on the island and perhaps the kookiest inhabitant: Jan’s mom.

Jan's mom

Jan's mom

They own Keharsons & live spaciously above it. She drives a big ass hilux. She looks scary, purses her lips & drops “bah” at almost every other sentence.  Jan tells me of her childhood tales with mom’s sense of justice and swift corporal punishments, kooky logic, and I can’t stop laughing, adding to her legend. She is very hospitable, very motherly, very frank- almost shamelessly so, in the end I conclude, in a most positive way, there isn’t anyone who is anything like her.

There were mashed up leaves of some sort, pastes of some other, preserves of something.  Jan’s Sikh grandmother passed down receipes which are otherworldly, and on that table, of which I had at least 3 meals that short weekend, was simple homecooking that intrigued in taste & form.  Chapati was the base staple, but they had this special rice from brunei, which tastes great.  There was this dried curry chicken, and this fried fish(es) which I had never had before, i suspect a different cooking style or way of seasoning, which was simple, tasty and direct (as in fresh). On that table, I felt vindicated about my own preference and approach to cooking; that it should be simple, and straightforward, and with the freshest ingredients.

I wanted to carry on eating all through that weekend.

* B.M.:Before-McDonald’s. It’s a new era! It’s now 1 A.M!

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