Letter from KL
Immo Hüneke, 13 July 1997
“Where or what is KL?”, you may well be asking, as I did when John Coleman said he needed someone to go there to provide technical support to a GSM value-added services proposal. Better informed readers will be aware that Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, is doing all it can to join the front rank of cosmopolitan destinations, for which an abbreviated name (like LA or NY) is clearly de rigueur. Also, in Malay, the name apparently means “muddy estuary”, which doesn’t sound so great. (It is accurate though: there is a plentiful supply of red mud, which has to be washed off the streets and the wheels of construction lorries).
I arrived on a Monday morning before daylight, totally unprepared for what I found. As capitals go, this one is fairly recent: founded only about 130 years ago. The first thing you notice is the traffic jams. The only way to get anywhere is by road (though the first phase of a new Rapid Transit system opened late in 1996), so the roads are choked most of the time by a colourful mixture of red and white taxis, private cars, lorries, smoking buses and the ubiquitous (usually overloaded) mopeds. Considering that most Malaysians drive with a delightfully total disregard for life or limb (not to mention the highway code), it’s surprising that anyone ever arrives anywhere – but you come to accept this daily miracle after a while.
The next thing you notice is that there is no such thing as a typical Malaysian. There are all racial types here (though Africans and Inuit are fairly rare, it must be said). Consequently you can hear dozens of different languages being spoken around you, and not just by tourists. The official languages are Malay and English, so unless you look like a Malay you tend to get addressed in English. In other ways too, it’s a bit like a home from home: people drive on the left (mostly – a few times I saw enterprising motorcyclists threading between two lanes of traffic on the wrong side of a dual carriageway!), telephones ring “brrp-brrp”, and there are British-style 13-amp 240V switched sockets in the walls. Most signs are bi-lingual. The mix of traditions was perfectly illustrated by a construction worker I saw, who had attached the brim of a rice grower’s straw hat to his yellow helmet.
Like the people, the buildings are a colourful mix of styles. There are a few colonial-style buildings left over, now mostly used as embassies. Lots of skyscrapers dominate the skyline, and these might best be described as “new international” in style. There have however been conscious efforts during this century to bring in Moorish influences to reflect the official state religion, which is Islam (but Malaysia tolerates many religions, so there’s no prohibition of alcohol). There are also buildings that remind you of China, Japan, Korea and the like. A rare sight indeed is the native Malay house with its tall pitched roof and crossed gables (known as Minangkabau, or “bull’s horns”). The National Museum is a fine example.
I’m neither mad, a dog, nor an Englishman, yet I found that the best way to get to know KL was on foot – preferably in the evening. The temperature rarely drops below 32 °C, even at night, and in peak traffic the exhaust smoke from all those two-stroke engines can literally make your eyes water, but the heat is not humid and with a light evening breeze it can actually be quite pleasant. Within the city centre you can get anywhere within 20-30 minutes.
Unlike some American cities, KL doesn’t seem to have a crime problem, but it has a bit of a maintenance problem. If you don’t watch where you’re going, you are quite likely to fall three or four feet through one of the many missing manhole covers into a storm drain (or worse). These drains run under most pavements and have vents at intervals. Peculiar and pungent smells waft up from time to time. In fact, the smells are another noticeable thing about the city – pleasant cooking smells for the most part, exotic plants and exhaust fumes.
I started by getting an overview of the place from the highest vantage point available, the KL Tower (at 421m, the fourth tallest TV mast in the world – Malaysians’ enthusiasm for statistics of the superlative is infectious). Fortunately this graceful building, a cross between a Greek and an Egyptian column, is only a few minutes’ walk from the New World hotel, where I am staying. From up there you can get a feel for the layout of the place, and appreciate the enormous amount of construction work that is going on. Next year sees the Commonwealth Games descend on KL, so hotels and offices are being put up at a furious pace. The construction work goes on seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Naturally, the infrastructure has trouble keeping up. There are several road and rail projects on the go at the same time, not to mention sewerage and other services. From some angles, the entire city is one vast building site.
From the KL tower, too, you can see the enormous contrast between futuristic skyscrapers and the poor people’s homes right next door. There isn’t any zoning as far as I can tell; trade and industry lives cheek by jowl with schools and residential areas. Richer people live out of town in grand villas, while dotted throughout the city there are pockets of jungle containing dilapidated single-storey huts with tin roofs. I wandered into one of these one evening to look around, and beneath some trees I saw fireflies flitting about, looking for all the world like those winking green LEDs that cyclists use these days as an apology for a headlamp. I also got barked at by several mangy-looking dogs. Apart from the fireflies, KL doesn’t seem to harbour many flying insects (though it is prudent to avoid being stung by any mosquitos, as they can carry malaria or dengue fever). There are however many exotic birds that twitter gaily, bats that flit about at twilight between the trees and buildings, and little brown monkeys that strut about as if they owned the place.
The most obvious landmark visible from the KL Tower (indeed from anywhere within about ten miles) are the twin Petronas towers. Designed in gothic style by Cesar Pelli, this was until recently the tallest office building in the world – the Canary Wharf Tower would be dwarfed by it. Most exteriors here need continual maintenance if they are not to be corroded and discoloured by the heat and frequent rain, so the builders of the Petronas towers decided to clad the entire structure in stainless steel and glass. It stands like a monstrous pewter souvenir of Cologne Cathedral, quite close to my hotel. Rumour has it that, though it is not even quite complete yet, one of the towers has started to lean to one side. I decided one night to go for a closer look, but found that the base of the building was rendered totally inaccessible by the building site of the new “KL City Centre” complex. How the office workers get inside is one of many Malaysian mysteries, along with the purpose of the little shower attachment next to the toilet, why you can never find any soap by the hand basin (except in international hotels, obviously) and how anyone can afford a car in this low-wage economy (bus drivers are said to earn only about £70 a month, for example).
Having failed to reach the gleaming space-age building, I retired across the street and encountered one of those typically bizarre contrasts. In a shabby car park with inadequate lighting, an enterprising Chinaman with a few assistants of various races had set up a dozen or so tables and a temporary shack from which hot meals and cold drinks were being served. There were a large number of customers, so I assumed that it must be safe to eat there. I asked the waiters one by one until I found one that knew a smattering of English. He explained that there was roti on offer (a sort of bread, whose dough starts out being stretched and folded like apple strudel and which is cooked on a griddle and served warm – absolutely delicious) with either a lentil soup or curry. The cost of this princely meal was 60 sen (under 15p). Other, more filling, dishes on offer included fried rice or noodles with various meats, such as chicken.
I sat down and ate a roti. It was tremendous. I asked for another and (perhaps feeling I was paying a ridiculously low amount) I asked for a chicken fried rice. By this time, however, I was being served by another waiter who knew even less English than the first. He seemed to twig what I wanted and went off. My roti arrived pretty quickly, but the rice seemed to be causing a problem. Various customers arrived, got their food, paid and left again, but I was still waiting. From time to time, I managed to get the attention of the waiter and asked after the fried rice. Each time, he repeated the words “chicken fried-rice”, nodded his head eagerly, I said yes, and he went off. Eventually a heated discussion ensued behind the counter between the waiter, the chef and someone else. Occasionally they glanced towards me. It appeared as if I had requested something totally outlandish, like an elephant sandwich. Finally I got served. It was worth the wait – the chicken fried rice was delicious. At least I assume it was chicken!
While I was waiting,
Pavement cafe (fried rice incident)
Eating Out, but drinking is expensive
Marley’s, Wall Street
Railways & cars
Taxi drivers that don’t know the way
Created Thu Oct 23 16:58:26 2003