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Rasta vibes in Malaysia

Peter Bennet's
Rasta vibes in Asia
Boots, rock, reggae—with a Malaysian touch

PENANG, Malaysia — "Buffalo soldier fightin' for America..." The soulful voice of Bob Marley boomed out from a darkened shopfront as I walked along Chulia Street in downtown Georgetown—the capital of the Malaysian island state of Penang. The yellow-red-green Rastafarian colors striped across the entrance was in stark contrast to the drab row of shop houses, fabric wholesalers, hardware stores and trading companies making up this typical Southeast Asian street.
Right above the open doorway, a rough-painted "One Love" announces the entrance to probably the only Rasta cafe in Asia. Ease on in to the cool interior and the steady throb of the reggae beat tells you that you are in Marley Country. Take a seat on the wooden benches in any of the four or five cramped cubicles—and you'd swear you were in Kingston, Jamaica.

All around are posters, quotes and the sounds of the King of Reggae Music, the Master Himself—Mr. Bob Marley. Classic pictures of him on stage with The Wailers, laughing family photos, shots of Bob at his favorite sport on the soccer field. There is even a glass cabinet containing Rasta tee-shirts, big beanies for your dreadlocks and all manner of Marley memorabilia.

The walls are hung to the high ceiling with Jamaican flags, Rastafarian emblems, old guitars and other musical instruments, ancient bakelite radio sets, gongs, tablas and cymbals. It looks like a 1960 hippie hangout—but in a rub-a-dub style.

Outside, on the sidewalk, probably the biggest guy in the whole of Penang—a 250-pound giant dressed in a Rasta apron and short shortsis slinging hash (of the potato variety) or any other short order you want (American or Asian style).

The music changes to Black Uhuru, then Jimmy Cliff, next Shabba Ranks as the customers drift in and out. This has to be the all-time reggae joint outside of the Caribbean. All that is missing is Red Stripe beer, dreads—and the whiff of a spliff.

Then take another look. Set low down on the floor next to the back door is a little Chinese shrine, dedicated to the Kitchen God, with a couple of joss sticks burning. Prominently displayed is a notice—"NO DRUGS"—a necessary warning n Malaysia where possession of any kind of narcotic is punishable by death. On the souvenir counter, where leather belts with Bob Marley buckles can be yours for a few dollars, signs advise buyers kulit halal, signifying that the leather has been prepared according to Islamic rites—a reminder that you are in largely Muslim Malaysia.

Paulson Lee, the owner, was born in Kuala Lumpur and has never been to Jamaica. This has not stopped him from becoming a self-confessed reggae freak. Lee is Chinese Malaysian and just loves the music and the message of Bob Marley: "Let's get together and feel all right."

His clientele is made up of travelers and locals. Mainly young in age and long of hair, they sit in tight cubicles, drinking beer , playing cards and swapping tales. On occasion, itinerant musicians jam on the tiny wooden stage, playing for fun and beer. Paulson Lee is as laid back as can be. He purchases the latest reggae CDs from dealers in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and occasionally manages to pick up a music video from Malaysian merchant seamen back from the Caribbean.

Casual even by Penang standards, there is a welcome for everyone. Don't expect luxury service. There's no space for shankin', but plenty of time to relax under the ceiling fans and take in the sounds of Jamaica, mon.

Reggae Club is at 483 Chulia Street, Penang, Malaysia (tel. (604) 261-5081). There is a retail outlet for reggae souvenirs on the beach at the island's resort area of Batu Ferringhi.

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