Convinced I was destined to become an oil painter, I attended art school, and during my art fag days, I honed in on art museums, wherever I went. As a writer, however, I quickly realized I needed to scrutinize the streets, for even without people, a community reveals much about itself through its houses, shops, and how these are laid out.
A few hours roaming the alleys of Naples, for example, will teach you more about Neapolitans than the same amount of time at its archeological museum, though of course, you should also check out the astonishing Farnese Bull, with its matchless ensemble of humans and animals, carved from a singled block of marble, with everything perfect, even the bull’s well-articulated asshole. Now, that’s artistic piety!
The Japanese hate trash on the streets so much, they don’t even have garbage cans on sidewalks, for you’re not supposed to do anything in public to generate trash in the first place, no eating while walking, no smoking even. In Germany, public toilet stalls often have scrubbers, so that you can clean up after yourself if necessary. In Thailand, car horns are rarely heard, but in Vietnam, the beep beeping from motorbikes has become part of the white noise.
I just got back from a week in Malaysia, where I spent each waking minute on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Kajang, Ipoh, Bidor or Tai Ping. (Johor Bahru I had glimpsed on another visit.) I spent much of my time with John Tang, a 73-year-old structural engineer with an architect wife. Together, we read buildings.
Born in Malaysia, John got a degree from John Hopkins in Baltimore, and was supposed to make his career in the United States. His first stop was Washington D.C., where he stayed for a few months with an American sponsor. “When I first arrived, he said to me, ‘This is the greatest civilization ever, kid, and you’re going to be a part of it!’” John met the Malaysian ambassador, had a visit from a Kuala Lumpur girlfriend, got a job at Sears.
“I didn’t like it, so I came back here. I missed the food!” We were sitting at Fun Kee Bamboo Noodle, a Cantonese joint John had eaten at for over four decades.
“And it’s not just the food, but the ambience,” I added. “Just look at this place!” Old school, it had worn marble tables, white tiled walls and a small plastic sign advising customers not to spit.
As is common in sultry Southeast Asia, the entire front was open. Eleven ceiling fans whirled. At a round table out back, an old guy sat in his thin tank top, looking, well, just like me back in Saigon. Extreme heat makes people more casual, even sloppy, but Malaysia is nowhere nearly as messy or chaotic as Vietnam. Though not Singaporean spotless, it’s clean enough.
“That waitress is married to the owner’s son,” John pointed. “She’s Indonesian. I know her mom, too. She worked here for 25 years.”
“Is she still here?”
“No, she went back to Indonesia.”
Behind the cash register, there was a small, glass paned bookcase with volumes by Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Roald Dahl, O Henry, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Narayan, Art Buchwald, Sting and Woody Allen, etc. There were also several books on Lee Kuan Yew. A small blackboard featured a quote of the day, such as, “BOOKS AND NOODLES KEEP ME ALIVE!”
Though busy, the owner dropped by to say hello, and was delighted to have a visitor from Vietnam. I told him I liked his books, and John said I was a writer. On our second visit a few days later, the bespectacled man refused to charge us for our meals!
The neighborhood had many small Chinese factories, an urban industrial area. It’s sliced in half by a four-lane street, Sungai Besi. “They put that in to destroy the community,” John commented.
Whether by malice or just sheer incompetence, Malaysia is comprehensively marred by bad planning decisions, but you wouldn’t know this from afar, for the Kuala Lumpur skyline, with its Petronas Towers and other iconic buildings, simply looks marvelous in photographs.
Consider the Jamek Mosque. Designed by an English architect, Arthur Benison Hubback (1871-1948), it’s one of the most beautiful in a country dotted with ugly, soulless mosques, many of which resemble tacky casinos or even strip malls. Built at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers, it’s best viewed from a bridge on Leboh Pasar Besar, but even this vista is blighted by “KUALA LUMPUR” in big, bright yellow lettering, spelled out for the tourists, I suppose, just in case they forget where they are.
Besides the Jamek Mosque, Hubback is also responsible for the resplendent Sultan Abdul Samad Building and old Railway Station, designed in the Indo-Saracenic style, itself inspired by Mughal Architecture, another hybrid. Fusion is often delightful. Foodwise, there are quite a few Malaysian dishes that mix Chinese, Indian and/or Malay influences, so I had fried tofu with a fiery peanut sauce at an Indian buffet, and curry mee at a Chinese eatery.
Approaching the mosque’s entrance, I ran into an electrical building which I mistook for a public restroom, then I was dwarfed by huge, steel-poled parasols. Clearly modeled after those in Medina, Saudi Arabia, they looked elegant enough, but their placement added to the confusion of the layout and obscured the mosque itself.
Since it was near iftar, there were throngs of people, all eager for their communal fast breaking meal. Suddenly splashing on water, I thought it might have come from an overflowing restroom, but then I traced its source to a badly designed pool, with one corner lowered to accommodate a ramp, so that water was forever spilling from it.
Staring at John, I asked incredulously, “How do they let that stand?!”
Intercepted by all the tacked-on pavilions, parasols, fountains, pools and landscaping pods, I never made it to the Jamek Mosque.
Jamek Mosque is on Tun Perak Street, named after a 15th century Malay statesman. Over this major thoroughfare is plunked a huge and hideously ugly elevated railway. Adding gloom to downtown, it also obscures several beautiful, mostly Colonial-era buildings.
Much of Malay history is reconstructed from sketchy documents and scant artifacts, with its golden age that of the sultanate of Malacca, an entity that was defeated in 1511 by an invading Portuguese armada of 16 ships carrying 1,009 men. Interestingly, the Chinese and Indian residents of Malacca sided with the Portuguese, so were not violated during the ensuing sack.
Where I stayed in Kuala Lumpur was also an architectural horror. For four nights, I paid just \$27 per, and for this, I got a modern bedroom, living room with a flat screen TV, fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and balcony. Conveniently located, I could reach downtown after a brief train ride, or a stimulating hike through several lively neighborhoods, starting with the slightly seedy yet bustling Chow Kit, so what’s the catch? First of, it had no clear entrance, so even after two days, I couldn’t quite believe that one had to walk on a car ramp to enter the underground garage, from where one could take the correct elevator to one’s floor. Thirty-three story high, the Regalia Residence Suites is clearly a failed condominium, with its rooms now rented out to hapless tourists from unlikely countries. Each time I walked into an elevator, I saw an array of confused or embarrassed faces, of all colors.
Its three massive towers look inward, so from my 29th floor balcony, I could only see hundreds of identical balconies, and thousands of identical windows. It was like being swallowed by a towering well, a sensation that induced both claustrophobia and vertigo. Inside, I must keep all windows veiled or shut at all times, to prevent thousands of eyes from intruding. As a hotel, this was merely awkward, but as a day-to-day habitat, it’s insufferable. No sane person can live like this. Imagine raising children in such a panopticon, with each exit or entry a dispiriting experience.
The most impressive public buildings in Malaysia were built by the British, and the most beautiful houses are Chinese, with Penang managing to preserve a vast and exquisite collection. Elegantly proportioned and tastefully colored, Malaysian Chinese shophouses freely incorporate Western features, such as fluted, engaged columns, half-moon widows, festoons, garlands, plaques, cornices and modern decorative tiles, etc. Nevertheless, they are unmistakably Chinese with their assorted ornaments, red lanterns and a gold and charcoal colored name board over the double doors, with the oldest having protruding wooden hinges. Over their two first floor windows, elongated butterfly-shaped air vents, with fancy grills, are also decidedly oriental. On Penang’s Kimberly Street, I stopped to stare at the phoenix, quilin and flowers on a narrow frieze partitioning the two floors. I also gaped at the tiled eaves.
The founder of Singapore, Stamford Raffles, decreed that a covered walkway fronts all houses, so now, these “five foot ways” are seen all over the Malaysian Peninsular. They shade the shops and provide shelter to stranded pedestrians during a sudden downpour. Several times in Penang, I found myself waiting inside one, ducking the monsoon.
As for the charmingly stilted and high roofed Malay houses, there aren’t many left, with almost none to be found in urban areas, so a visitor’s only exposure to Malay architecture are edifices are that are nearly always crassly grandiose, desperately Islamic and culturally unconvincing. In downtown Kuala Lumpur, there’s the Bank Muamalat Malaysia Berhad, which is a Malay house bombastically blown up, fit for Godzilla-sized humans. Though meant to be admired, it’s shoehorned into too tight a lot, and towered over by a mélange of hideous high rises. Since one must climb too many steps to reach its second floor entrance, business is discouraged, so no wonder this Islamic bank is bankrupt.
Malaysia’s mania for megalomaniac buildings can be traced to the Malays’ slight architectural heritage, I believe. The Petronas Towers were the world’s tallest from 1998 to 2004, but now it’s not even number one in Kuala Lumpur, having been topped by The Exchange 106. Under construction, there’s the 118-story PNB118, designed by Australians and built by Koreans, then there’s the 145-story Tower M, to be possibly completed in 2035. With hardly any land, Singapore has a much direr demand for skyscrapers, but its tallest only has 64 floors. It doesn’t need to prove its superiority with huge erections.
Across the Gombak from the Jamek Mosque, there’s an underground parking garage and shopping complex called Dataran. Greeted in eight languages, a visitor enters through an underlit and low entrance that makes him duck, should he be taller than 5’8”, then a musty smell swarms over him when he opens the glass door. Inside, he’s likely to find himself alone as he strolls past one empty store after another.
None of these developments make sense until you realize they’re state-subsidized, for in Malaysia, there’s affirmative action for the bumiputera [sons of the soil], which are Malays and other “indigenous” groups, with even the Kristang, who are of mixed Portuguese and Malaccan blood, qualifying. Causing much resentment, this apartheid excludes and punishes the many native-born Malaysians of Chinese and Indian extractions. As is true everywhere, affirmative action abets incompetence and corruption, not to mention complacency, smugness and anger, for even a beneficiary’s genuine accomplishment becomes suspect.
Typically, the government will award a building contract to a Malay builder, who will subcontract it out to Chinese, so the Malay gets his cut without doing anything.
The state will fund just about any project that benefits the bumiputera, a nursing school, a chain of hamburger stands, etc., so the productive Chinese and Indians are financing the bums, I mean bumiputera, but what usually happens is the affirmative action business will likely fail, simply because it doesn’t have to succeed for Malays to cash in.
From a Malay perspective, however, this is all justified, for the Chinese and Indians will always be outsiders, i.e. invaders, though Malays themselves have overwhelmed dozens of ethnic groups on this very land, starting from a thousand years ago. Strictly speaking, no territory inherently belongs to anybody, but is always contested, violently or covertly. There is no truce in the cultural war.
In 1969, this tension exploded in an anti-Chinese riot, and on Petaling Street, a butcher told John and I that Chinese butchers had to use meat cleavers to chase away the rampaging mob, only to see Malay cops showed up soon after, to shoot at Chinese! The official death toll from this racial disturbance lists 143 Chinese, 25 Malays, 13 Indians and 15 others, but the likely figure, at least for the Chinese, is many times that. As in every country, the sanctioned history omits much, when not distorting events completely.
Though not quite a third of the population, Chinese seem to run at least two thirds of the businesses in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca, etc., with Indians taking much of the rest, so that one rarely stumbles onto a Malay store or restaurant.
At Kuala Lumpur’s exclusive Royal Selangor Club, nearly all the drinkers at the long bar were Chinese or Indians, with Sikh lawyers particularly conspicuous, and at the even more prestigious Penang Club, all of the millionaire boozers were Chinese, and it’s not because Malays, as Muslims, aren’t supposed to drink. They do drink. They just aren’t as rich.
In the club’s karaoke room, middle-aged men and women, mostly Chinese, belted out saccharine American songs, tunes almost no Americans have ever heard of. Wearing a blond or red wig, a few broads danced. Showing plenty of shoulders, arms and legs, they revealed still trim figures. Old Chinese girls just want to have fun.
Speaking perfect American-accented English, a suave Chinese lawyer told me, “We have a board member who wanted to ban pork dishes here [at the Penang Club], because it’s not Islamic, but I said to him, ‘You drink here, don’t you, and that’s not Islamic either,’ so he backed off.”
Another Chinese I met had done business in Vietnam for 23 years, so spoke Vietnamese comfortably, as well as English. He had two children in the United States, and one in England. The watch he wore undoubtedly cost more than your car, and probably more than your house.
Malaysian laws forbid Malays from converting from Islam, so if a Chinese or Indian, say, wants to marry a Malay, he or she must become a Muslim. This religious divide prevents the three major Malaysian races from blending to any degree.
As if being smarter and richer aren’t enough to cause resentment, Chinese have also featured prominently in the now vanquished Communist movement, and at the 1930 founding of the Malayan Communist Party, even Chinese speaking Ho Chi Minh was present. Another Vietnamese, Lai Tek, managed to become its Secretary-General from 1939 to 1947, though it’s now suspected that this half-Chinese was a triple agent, for the French, British then Japanese.
During the Communist insurgency of 1948-1960, 400,000 Chinese were rounded up and confined in “new villages,” and I visited one in Kajang to find a thriving community, with many splendid and comfortable houses, a grand temple, old men relaxing in a park and teenagers playing basketball on a covered court. Of course, they can’t forget how their ghetto was founded.
There are 1.3 billion Han Chinese, about the same number of Indians, but only 23.5 million Malays worldwide, and they’re barely a majority (54.66%) even in Malaysia, and that’s why they must use their political leverage to get what they can, now. Though many Chinese Malaysians are leaving, a brain drain, other Chinese are moving in, as well as plenty of Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Pakistani, Indians, Filipinos, Burmese, Indonesians and even Vietnamese, many of whom are trafficked in as prostitutes, so this nation, though presently tranquil and prosperous, is not as solidly constituted as it may seem. Demographic upheavals are generally not a great idea, lah! Plus, the strategic Strait of Malacca will be at the heart of the next world war.
Malay has many words borrowed from English, such as aktiviti, kelas, sains, seks and sistem, and going the other way, we have bamboo, compound and amok, with the last defined as a perfectly placid individual suddenly grabbing a weapon to go berserk on innocents, an increasingly common phenomenon worldwide.
With almost no natural resources besides its Chinese majority, Singapore has still outperformed Malaysia economically, but that doesn’t mean it’s a more pleasant place to be. Though John Tang worked in Singapore for many years, he looked forward to each weekend, when he could return to Malaysia, “Crossing that border, I felt like I was leaving a prison,” for it was too orderly, sterile, cheesy and nerdy, with its population treated like children. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, just check out any of its National Day Celebrations on YouTube. They’re downright creepy!
For all of its problems, including institutionalized racism, Malaysia is still a very charming place, with enough fabled history to anchor and season its abundant beauty. With just 37 people per square mile, it’s one of the least populated nations in Asia. By comparison, Singapore has 3,150, Bangladesh 435, South Korea 197, India 159, Japan 130, Philippines 120, Vietnam 112, China 56, Indonesia 54 and Thailand 52.
“This is a kind of paradise, really,” John Tang said as we drove through miles of lush palm trees, with hardly a house in sight. Sunset tinted clouds lurk over indigo hills. The jarring, jutting condominiums won’t appear for a while yet. If life is mostly longueur, then one can’t do much better than spending it here. I know why John came back.