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Kuala Lumpur Goes Global


With influences from Australia to Iran and most stops in between, today’s Kuala lumpur has never been more of an international crossroads. John Krich sets off to find out what makes it tick. Photographed by Austin Bush

Published on Aug 15, 2012

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It's a sight like no other on the planet. Every night along the sidewalks and shop blocks of Kuala Lumpur, groups of restless youth, mostly ethnic Chinese in body-hugging black, puff away determinedly on Arabicstyle, shisha water pipes. Is this the latest statement of cultural confusion run amok, to use the Malay word? Or is the capital of a crossroads nation taking its bubbling ethnic hot pot to a hotter, hipper boil?

In far-flung neighborhoods and mixed-use developments, tatty “pulled tea” cafeterias are giving way to leafy pan-Asian cafés. One new mall comes with a sculpture garden, punk bands and toilet stalls covered in protest art murals. At every turn, it’s easy to find Korean barbecues, Iranian kebabs, artisan beers, African espresso, even dancing girls seductively swaying to a remarkable variety of world beats. Along the concrete banks of the “muddy estuary” that gave Kuala Lumpur its name, East now meets not only West but Middle East, South Asia melds with North Africa, North Asia goes tropical—making the old tourist landmarks and tour itineraries increasingly irrelevant.

Six years back, I gladly left a posting in sleepy old KL, a town where local action meant ring-tailed monkeys climbing from primary rainforest onto my apartment balcony, and where the only traffic jams were the result of Friday prayers at the mosque, a golf tournament or a sale at Asia’s largest Ikea. In the shadow of a few incongruously huge skyscrapers, lost Europeans in flip-flops staggered amidst mobs of Malay secretaries in resplendent floral dresses that guaranteed social modesty and also provided most of the town’s color. Crisscrossed by brand-new freeways, the last vestiges of colonial England had melded in the heat with one vast Los Angeles-style suburb.

These days, Kuala Lumpur has finally taken its place as another of the region’s bona fide mega-cities—not merely more dense, more intense and overbuilt with a glut of luxury shopping malls, but a truly globalized metropolis. Breaking from its Chinese-Malay-Indian—really Hokkien-Bugis-Tamil—roots, drawing on its links to the Islamic world, energized by a host of new migrant communities and spurred on by its young people, many of whom are educated abroad, the new Kuala Lumpur is a place where worlds don’t just collide but collaborate.

On a night tour of the new KL, my steadfast guide Alex Yong, a tall and taciturn reporter turned art-space manager, has plenty of unusual options up his sleeve. He barely has to climb one level of stores from MAP, whose ample White Box and Black Box galleries are packed with year-round programs of alternative dance, comedy, paintings, local fashion design and avant-garde installations, to find the city’s newest venue for belly-dancing. On an open-air balcony where the lit minarets of the massive city mosque provide an atmospheric backdrop, our one-in-a-thousand night begins with some decidedly non-Arabic if scantily clad entertainers drawn from a nearby dance studio. Never mind. If the sources of sin in this town remain rather tame, that’s part of the charm. But Alex now whizzes his tinny Proton at urgent speeds to a club hidden discreetly within the modern new CAPS Square district.

Within the dark confines of the Mehfil Bollywood Lounge, young beauties from India, entirely unlike Malaysia’s own darker Tamil populace, sit listlessly in a row of on-stage chairs. Unhurriedly, they take turns in pairs thrusting hips and wildly swinging bangled arms to a superb house singer’s plaintive versions of the latest Indo-pop hits. Women, too, are entirely welcome at this one-of-a-kind, only-in-KL venue that seems less sinful than simply sinuous.

But Alex insists he knows another floor show that’s far more surreal. Drawn by the politics of dancing, we’re joined on the next outing by Hishamuddin Rais. He’s one of Malaysia’s leading dissidents, underground filmmakers and blog commentators, usually happy to hang out amidst the reliable multiculturalism of roti parlors and durian sellers in Brickfield’s, KL’s oldest and most hard-core Indian quarter. Years of exile have hardly dampened his curiosity—and we’re soon sharing a table in the one massive, chandeliered ballroom that comprises the Pyongyang restaurant—run by and for the nearby North Korean embassy. Befitting a nation in semi-permanent famine, the food here is nothing to write home about, slightly cruder executions of the usual Korean specialties like short ribs and seafood pancakes. Maybe the restaurant has something to do with Malaysia’s non-aligned, easygoing welcome of every and any nation and influence, though the service staff in flowing hanbok gowns, clearly hand-picked to put a pretty face on their country, have all been trained to give the pre-rehearsed reply, “Malaysia too hot. I miss my homeland.”

To prove the point, these servers change into Cinderella drag and then belt out paeans to North Korea’s Mount Paektu displayed on videoscreens, heightening the crowd’s bafflement, if not spirits. The karaoke draws Hisham’s cackles. Malaysia is a land fated to serve as merry mix-up.

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