“Cheng! Cheng! Cheng!” – Chinese street medicine men of 1960s Penang

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Tunglang takes us on another journey to the past in old George Town, Penang, this time recalling the street performances put up by Chinese medicine men in Magazine Circus in the 1960s.

I am reminiscing about the good old 1960s when people could enjoy an evening of open-air roadside displays and performances by Chinese medicine peddlers with all their ‘wow’ magic shows and kung fu stunts.

The sudden clash of cymbals attracts and heightens my six senses to great anticipation of yet another evening of exciting roadside entertainment – the sifu medicine men have come to town. It usually starts right after dinner time at about 7.30pm (present time 8.00pm) when most George Town folks are off work and at home ready for leisurely activities. The crowd starts to gather at a slow but steady sixties pace, with me being the early ‘bird’ to hop and skip with total glee towards the bright kerosene pressure lanterns and bamboo-poled bannerets decorated with brightly coloured Chinese characters and dragon motifs. As if welcoming my minute presence, the drum starts to beat in unison with the cymbals pushing my kung fu adrenalin to extreme high exhilaration.

My front seating (squatting) affords me a first-class view and ‘3-D sense surround’ of all the stunt actions and sleight-of-hands magic – and not least, the free small samples to be given out at the end of the show. Notwithstanding the heavy air of medicine oil and animal parts, I can see on display the well worn, riveted travel boxes of equipment and medicine, martial arts weaponry, the acupuncture dummy and poster, and testimonial black-and-white photos of gory treatments for all sorts of ailments including skin, wind, broken bones and even tooth ache.

The well worn faces accustomed to travelling the towns and kampongs to sell their ‘magic’ healing formulas suddenly brighten up with Chow Yun Fat-wide grins, Kwan Tak Hing-alias-Wong Fei Hung typical Canto slangs and big-eyed facial gestures to welcome the impromptu crowd. My guess is they must have once been apprentices in a Teochew opera troupe to act, talk and walk like the classical Chinese stage actors. There is no loud speaker, so they have to speak, clap and sing at the top of their voice to grab the crowd’s attention. The vocal training of an opera apprentice comes in handy, I guess.

The stunt acts are the highlights of the evening using spears, swords, daggers and even mallets. The chopping with bare hands of seven layer of bricks, fire eating, bare body rolls over broken Guinness Stout glass, sword swallowing and even a bloodied face and body shroud cover-up magic show are truly unforgettable to witness.

My small jaw drops 45 degrees the entire show making my mouth thirsty and dry from amazement and wonder. Even the nearby heavenly street food aroma of the famed Magazine Road cannot distract my riveted attention. The ‘3-D sense surround’ is genuinely better than what you would normally get in Rex or Cathay cinemas decades later. The enthusiastic clapping and the “wows” in unison of the simple folk pepper the suspense-laden night. Squatting tor he entire free show with the occasional shifting of numb buttocks is no torment as the entertainment more than compensates, what more I get to take back a free sample which I keep dearly in my pocket for a whole week.

The show ends at around 10.00pm with many eager cash-in-deep pocket customers (mostly males) buying the ‘magic’ healing formulas for their relatives, mistresses, wives or children. The well worn faces of these medicine peddlers reveal great satisfaction after a profitable night of dangerous stunts, talking at the top of the voice and sweating it out in the warm but breezy tropical night of inner city George Town.

As I stand up with a pin-poking sensation on both my numb feet, I see the neon-lights of the Philip’s robot saluting from the roof top and silhouetting the master sifu peddler, who is wiping off dancing beads of sweat with his “Good Morning” mini China towel. The Magazine Circus, an open-air parade ‘square’ at the ‘Goh Pha Teng’ of Macalister Road/Penang Road/Magazine Road junction is now quiet except for the sound of monsoon drain crickets and the occasional trishaw bell ringing.

Hurriedly, I skip and hop back to my father’s shop before he shuts the folding iron grill door through which only the slim, sexy dancing black cat of the Eveready battery commercial can squeeze through.

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tunglang

This is one lucid dream I had after I wrote this Cheng! Cheng! Cheng! It was at Speaker’s Square, Esplanade one cool Sunday evening of TNB blackout where there were a lot of Ah Pek, Ah Chim and a mixture of Malays and Indian folks attracted to a ‘political medicine’ man stand up show in the dark!. The main sifu medicine man would ask a question which would be followed by a spontaneous reply from one of the spectators followed by a clash of cymbals. This was the lucid Q & A of Penang style political jabs that evening: Q:… Read more »

Observer

i gave a thumb up for tunglang keen observation of people on the streets for wanting barang naik syndrome to be ‘exorcised”.

Soo Huey

Hi all,

Just for fun, I’ll be conducting weekly surveys in my brand new blog “musing Penang”. First survey – Defining Penangites.

http://musingpenang.blogspot.com/2011/06/defining-people.html

I thought maybe readers here might want to come play and maybe even tell your friends. But please read *Rules for Commenting* ;-).

Thanks for allowing me to post this here, Anil.

Cheers,
Soo Huey

Gerakan K

Update, I only can see comments after my new comment being posted. Maybe the double quotes in the url are the cause.

rilakkuma

Gerakan K
instead of grumbling here and ther and gain tonnes of thumbsdown, why don’t you be creative showing us what’s the benefits of Koh’s so called blueprint for Penangites ? Otherwise you are only a burden to Koh.

At this moment, I am not convinced Koh or Teng can deliver for Penang after 18 years of “polishing”. So U better prove us otherwise.

Cheng, Cheng, Cheng………..

Gerakan K

Balik lah. Saya sokong UMNO. Ada orang kata Dap nak join BN. Betul kah ???

Gerakan K

You boleh baca Inggeris kah ??? Tengok ini Najib: Total ETP investments announced stand at RM170b (http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/najib-total-etp-investments-announced-stand-at-rm170b/)

You punya CM boleh buat RM170 billion kah ???

Champion

Cheers Tunglang!

Gerakan K

Hello anil, this post got problem. I can’t the comments. Please check it.

wandererAUS

One very significant display of MCA and Gerakan act of apple polishing to their political masters reminded me the road show of the medicine men of the sixties.The main character, the medicine man would promote his product, yelling at the top of his voice, line by line with the descriptions of his medicine. Without fail, his assistant would repeat accurately and exactly what his boss said…never once he failed! These beggar political parties of the BN coalition had faithfully pick u ths trade from our sixties medicine men…at least these blokes were authentic with their act ad have more class.

Plain Truth

Tunglang should share this type of oral history with the Penang Heritage Trust before it is all lost.

Gerakan K

Fu yoh !!! Tak boleh tahan this Tunglang !!!

Andrew I

Well, of all people, you would have first hand experience of this.

阿鴻 Fan

tunglang switching to promoting traditional medicines having being sidelined as street food ambassador ???
anyway, keep up the creativity in promoting other aspects of penang’s past.

tunglang

Thank you, 阿鴻 Fan. I am a part of the still living and thriving authentic heritage of Penang, in spirit, appetite and passion. Food will always be my street crawling adventure for the best STREET cuisine in Asia (right here in my island home town). What else can I ask for more? If one doesn’t know how to appreciate and savor the best of Penang’s Ori-Maestros, I don’t know how one can enjoy a fulfilling life in Penang without this heavenly makan-makan pleasure. Wait until one becomes a ghostly Tham Chiak Kui? It must be killing walking the streets and… Read more »

Racheljansz

I dunno about you all but my personal experience is that selling medicine like this give competent Chinese medicine men a bad name.
I dun mind to lose this street Rx dispensary!

BTW these can still be found every wed nite in the Farlim pasar malam.