It was my Dad who said it first. “That singer,” he whispered, over the sound of a particularly special Malaysian band. “Is she actually a man?”
He is, I realise, very possibly still scarred from my parents’ last trip out to join us on our travels. That was the Philippines. A nation where he couldn’t walk more than thirty yards down the street without some chancer endeavouring to sell him Viagra.
I think his personal record (best? worst?) was six pushers over two hundred yards in Manila.
Perhaps the nine year old was dawdling at the time. But it wasn’t good for the ego of a man who, although a grandfather, only just passed sixty.
Anyway. My dad has a point. Were we in Thailand, or, for that matter, the Philippines, at least one of the chicks would have been born with a dick, and most likely still retain at least an attenuated version of the original.
“No,” I hiss back. “One, that’s a woman’s bum. Two, we’re in Malaysia, where they probably hang you for that. And, three, if either of them had been born a man it would have been the one in the hooker boots and tartan miniskirt.”
“Yes,” my ma joins in. “That’s definitely a woman’s bum. It is odd the way they all wear those sort of sixties boots, isn’t it?”
Having clearly learned nothing from yesterday evening’s musical entertainment, she continues, “Now, is the pretty one going to sing? Or does she just stand there and jiggle?”
(She’s the pretty one, mother! She JIGGLES. Just like the pretty one did last night! The man plays the Suzuki starter keyboard. The girl with the voice sings. The pretty one jiggles!)
At their grandspawn’s request, we are, all four of us, spending the evening in a restaurant which, I have to say, would count as the height of sophistication for almost any child.
It is on the thirteenth floor.
It revolves! (It was Z who spotted not only the restaurant but this magical quality, from the street.)
It has a buffet! The dishes might almost be silver!
The buffet includes (drum roll….) a real, live CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN. AND an ice-cream freezer, a la the best gelaterias, from which one can HELP ONESELF, with a REAL SCOOP.
Now, I have to confess that a revolving restaurant is pretty exciting for me too. If only it didn’t revolve so bloody fast.
There must be some sort of optimum pace at which a restaurant revolves. You want it to be going fast enough for you to get a distinct view each time you turn to look out of the window, and, for that matter, at least one full revolution over dinner. But not so fast that you feel you might fall over or inadvertently do the splits.
Essentially, like all revolving restaurants, the revolving restaurant at the Bayview Hotel, Georgetown (which I would recommend you visit, if you’re in the area), centres on a stable core, fixed to the building below, which houses the kitchen and, in this case, the buffet and the stage.
Around this revolves a mobile outer platform, with tables nestled at wide, tall windows, offering panoramic views.
It’s quite disorientating. We sit down. (By the puddings.) Chat for a while. Go up to the buffet, which has revolved (far faster than the skyline, being nearer to the centre) and find ourselves by the salad.
I should emphasise here that we are, all of us, in our different ways, English. I mean, my dad’s father was a Polish cavalry officer; my mother’s mother was some sort of French-gypsy-Anglo hybrid; my son is half-Australian. But we all have British passports, we were all born there, we are all by blood more or less predominantly English, we all speak with English accents and, more to the point, when it comes to buffets we are utter, British pigs.
Your typical English “buffet” or “eat-all-you-like” deal, so far as I can recall, actually means nothing of the sort. You get one plate for starters. One plate for mains. And some hideous figure like a matron from Oliver Twist stands by the buffet fending you off with a cattle-prod should you dare to attempt a refill.
(There is a saying among American waitstaff, by the way: “That tip was British!” Had they visited the restaurants of many of our childhoods, they might, perhaps, understand.)
Anywise. My ma and I, having loaded up with prawns, smoked salmon and shellfish, return to the buffet for second starters, while the chaps head for the mains.
Only, of course, the bloody thing has moved! Having walked precisely the same three steps from our table, we are now at the mashed potato and spaghetti section. We backtrack. Find the starters. Load up. Forward track. Relocate our table. Find the nine year old, who has settled down happily at a table positioned near the starters where our table used to be. Persuade him of the error of his ways…
It’s, actually, quite exhausting. Even without the chanteuse singing never-ending rounds of Happy Birthday to the family gatherings around us.
But the views are dazzling: over illuminated derricks to cruise ships in the harbour, through neon-clad skyscrapers, soaring over the tiny shophouses of old Georgetown, to the Eastern & Oriental hotel and the Town Hall all lit up like colonial Christmas cakes below us…
I posted before that Penang, thanks partly to its history as a British island outpost, part of the Straits Settlements, designed to control the flow of trade out east, and partly, I think, to a certain conservative tendency in Malaysia in general, feels rather like the sun never set on the Empire.
“Did you see the cricket match results downstairs?” I ask.
The Bayview has been hosting the pan-Asian Under-16 cricket tournament, with a cast of contenders that reads like Dick Cheney’s wet dream. Afghanistan. Iran. Myanmar…
“Yes!” my ma says. “Myanmar lost all three matches.”
“Good,” I say, childishly.
The nine year old and I had been hoping to visit Myanmar. But, despite his best efforts at the embassy the buggers refused us a visa.
Just as the aircon system on the roof outside hoves into view for a second time, proving for a second time that there is a reason the restaurant revolves so fast, we dive into the puddings.
Now, the pudding selection is truly imperial. It’s sort of great British cod-French favourites from the 1930s and 1970s, and if I had to blame one person for it, it would be Auguste Escoffier, the original chef at Le Ritz Paris. Or, perhaps more fairly, the formidable TV chef Fanny Craddock.
There are cream puffs. Bavarois (a type of dessert long-since disappeared from the French vocabulary). Rather gorgeous chocolate tarts and carrot cake.
“My god,” I say. “Is this a blancmange?”
My parents look dubiously at the opaque, sturdy, slightly wobbly mass on my plate. My mother takes a spoonful of a size which astonishes me and regrets it instantly. “Yes,” she says, gulping. “I think it is.”
Blancmange is an unpalatable, and very British, midpoint between a historic delicacy based on almonds and the synthetic hell known as Angel Delight.
It’s a sort of milk pudding thickened with something unpalatable which could, we collectively decide, be tapioca.
Meanwhile, the nine year old does some serious damage to the chocolate fountain. Grandfather lives out some sort of childhood fantasy by helping himself to ice-cream from the real life freezer, ably assisted by his grandson.
The band retreat downstairs, where the Suzuki artiste will be joined by a drummer, the jiggler by a second jiggler, and the singer with the bum will continue to do all the bloody work.
And, eventually, we head out, stuffed to the gunnels, past slow-dancing couples, women eyeing jewellery and the singer with the butt outclassing all around her into the steamy, tropical night.
It’s been a delightful evening. Perhaps not as elegant as high tea at the Eastern & Oriental hotel, nor quite as serendipitous as our stumbling upon the Chocolate Boutique (“FREE CHOCOLATE TASTING!”), but… A REVOLVING RESTAURANT! How cool is that?