Hong Kong Bar

The bar was empty, except for Jenny and her brother Tan. Breathless, silent, their eyes were glued to a small television mounted from the ceiling, watching what looked like a Taiwanese soap opera. She muted the television during the commercial break, and before this middle-aged woman brought us our beers she brought us the bar’s guestbook and asked us to sign it.

Though the two bars on Chulia Street closest to Hong Kong Bar were heaving with backpackers settling in for a long night of drinking in Penang, this bar was dead. We were the only people there, me and my then-girlfriend and Jenny and Tan. It was quiet and empty and I was surprised she brought the guestbook over before she brought the beers. We signed it, though, and she did bring the bottles of Anchor beer over during the commercial break; she also brought Chinese sweet cakes and mandarin oranges, as well as some kind of game/puzzle she asked us, with a friendly, knowing grin, to try and solve. (We couldn’t.)

The soap opera resumed and the television was unmuted, the only sound in this otherwise empty bar. The Hong Kong Bar: We came in because it was empty, and because the other bars were packed, and because from the street we could see origami birds hanging from the ceiling, and photos and various knick-knacks hung on the walls. We came in because we sensed character. We had no idea we’d stumbled into an old Penang institution enjoying its second life.

Jenny took over Hong Kong Bar from her parents, who’d owned and operated it since 1953. For over 50 years this dimly lit hole-in-the-wall was a popular haunt for British, Australian, Malaysian and other countries’ military men on leave and blowing off steam in Penang. They left behind countless plaques, photos, medals, badges, and postcards, invaluable keepsakes that Jenny’s parents proudly collected and decorated the bar’s walls and ceilings with over the years. The soldiers also filled up tall stacks of guestbooks, with many of them returning in later years, new families in tow, to flip back through those guestbooks, have a few beers, and remember.

It was all lost when an electrical fire engulfed Hong Kong Bar in 2004. Well, not everything was lost — many of the photos and metal platoon plates were salvaged, amongst other things — but a lot of it was, including all of those treasured, priceless guestbooks. Plundered of 50 years worth of riches, the bar reopened six months after the fire.

Jenny told us all of this during the muted commercial breaks of the Taiwanese soap opera. She flipped the television off after the show was over, and the bar was still empty when we left, having now understood why she gave us the Hong Kong Bar guestbook before she gave us the Anchor beers.

I wonder if either of them have children.

The photo of Hong Kong Bar was taken from this website, where you’ll find comments and stories about the bar from some of the military men and their families who are part of its 50+ year history.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.