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
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.
The most obvious sign of Kuala Lumpur’s international aspirations can be seen in the city skyline; in the iconic, 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. Yet the nation’s big global shift really began with what happened to New York’s twin towers on 9/11. Ostracized from the West by new suspicions and security procedures, free-spending Middle Eastern tourists looked towards welcoming Muslim realms for holidaying, setting off a summertime invasion that came to be known in Malaysia as “the Arab season.” By now, it’s turned into a year-round encampment. Never mind that KL’s “Ain Arabia,” a bazaar of Middle Eastern wares championed by Ali Salih, the hard-charging Iraqi owner of the popular Sahara Tent Restaurant, consists solely of a ceremonial gate to a nondescript side street. The ambience of downtown’s Bukit Bintang—KL’s combination of tacky Times Square aspiring to palm-fringed Champs-Élysées—has gone from one big Chinese foot massage parlor into a far-flung adjunct to Abu Dhabi. And just as the city has become the “in” spot for visiting Arabs to loosen their burnooses and experience an Islamic society with far fewer personal constraints, so its sidewalk cafés offer a chance for foreigners to engage in casual conversations that cross café tables and cultural boundaries. I had a debate with a Saudi man over gay rights as I watched his wife struggle to eat gelato through her veil.
It’s cuisine, as much as any interpretations of the Koran, that has tilted the city toward a decidedly more halal identity. Six years back, it was remarkable to see the first Lebanese restaurant, Tarbush, and the Iranian Naab—now both successful chains. Nowadays, such places aren’t just for group tours from the Persian Gulf. Malays, Indians and Chinese have united around basic purveyors of kebabs, and dips have become de rigeur in every district. The Iraqi-influenced Tent, still satisfying with its hearty lamb stews, has opened a Shah Alam suburban outlet that offers private parties staged within an indoor, fully carpeted tent. Al-Awan has won awards for its higher quality menu served on white tablecloths. Today, culinary reference points to the Middle Eastern world include Bosphorus, the Turkish restaurant on the top floor of the high-end Pavillion Mall, which attempts to recreate Topkapi Palace favorites like imam bayeldi, (“the Sultan fainted”), a meze of roasted eggplant filled with onion, garlic and tomato. Several eateries emblazoned as Hadrawmat, while hardly authentic, represent the flavors of that area of Yemen which first sent Islam to this region via its roaming traders.
The latest retail outpost to bring distant Muslim worlds to the Malaysian capital is Hammam, which somehow replicates the heated stone lairs of Morocco, along with various women’s beauty treatments, all inside a mall in Bangsar, the enclave west of downtown that has long housed KL’s latest galleries, dance clubs and trends. And with Malaysia as the main Southeast Asian country to maintain good relations with the renegade republic of Iran, a decidedly Persian presence continues to grow. Non-aligned as ever, the country has become a good place to obtain both Cuban cigars and Persian carpets. Nearly a quarter-million Iranians, from students to retirees, have now found refuge here. Both their active agitation against the regime of mullahs back home, and drug smuggling exposed in highly publicized busts, continue to cause tension. Yet during Persian New Year in March, visitors can catch all-star concerts of Iran’s top musical divas. Aside from visiting Iran itself, Kuala Lumpur may be the best place to sample Iran’s famed almonds, yogurt, dates or caviar. Here, the most traditional Iranian dishes like mirza ghasemi, a lusciously charred eggplant dip topped by a poached egg, and sekanjabin, a sort of cucumber and mint smoothie, have become veritable Malaysian staples. Despite dozens of imitators, the best place to try these may still be Naab, with its comfortable interior in mud colors evoking the desert, and begun out of nostalgia by a wealthy
In comparison Koreans are a much smaller community, though their number is expanding rapidly and they may be the most visible, with their own school. If you can’t follow Korean executive wives to Malaysia’s many inexpensive golf links, there’s always the four-square–block Koreatown across from the Ampang Point Mall. It’s hardly a scenic area, but it is crammed with grocers, beauty parlors and cafés, even authentic bulgogi barbecues and enough varieties of kimchee in one stroll to make for an easy, virtual trip to Seoul. The Japanese community, centered largely in high-income Mont Kiara, has produced no similar meeting point. A fabricated “Little Tokyo” on the sixth-floor of the shining Pavilion Mall attempts to give some flavor of Malaysia’s former occupiers with arcades of tea and ramen shops.
For a more pleasant evocation of Asian neighbors, Alex brakes for the one Thai temple, Wat Chetawan, set on a green compound in distant Petaling Jaya and offering the usual glimpses of glittering gold-leaf images of the Buddha accompanied by traditional Thai massage.
The Burmese, Nepalese and Bangladeshis who now do much of the nation’s dirty work are slowly helping add their culture—and blaring music—to the blocks around Chinatown and the Puduraya Bus Station. For a steadfastly bland town where much of the old architecture has been blasted away, the enclave around Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin seems more wildly alive, prime territory for gawking, than the shrunken remains of nearby Little India. In the heat and crowds around cheap goods and remittance agencies, moneychangers and sari salesmen, it’s not always easy to decipher the many scripts of signboards hovering above. Up a narrow walk-up, the top gathering point for Nepalese is The Khukri, a basic, yellow-painted concrete chamber that also hosts music performances. The menu is unapologetic, though somewhat of an acquired taste.
But to earn global laurels, a city can’t just be a refuge from world horrors; it must be a touchstone of world advancement. To that end, KL boasts a whole new brace of consciously cutting-edge outposts. Only in this city could one cruise through the distant bedroom community of T.T.D.I. (Tam Tun Dr. Ismail) and find a just-opened temple of caffeine to rival any in Italy. Forget about kopi o, the over-sweetened, thick and deadly Arabica sludge that has been the only option for local java for decades. Amidst brick and concrete at Artisan Roast, where Aussie Michael Wilson—a two-meter-tall presence in black sarong and necklace of ivory beads—and his Malaysian wife have selected some of the finest single-origin organic beans on earth: on hand this day are Musasa from Rwanda that Wilson describes as “a journey through an exotic orchard” and Guatemala’s Finca Santa Clara, with notes of “plum and ripe guava.” With loving care, they are not just roasted in Kuala Lumpur but brewed in cylindrical Aeropress beakers, with test-tube accuracy to the whir of timers and thermometers, producing non-acidic cups best savored straight and black. This is not only the most astounding temple of caffeine in the city, but perhaps in all Asia.
Similarly new and international in ambience, TAPS aspires to be KL’s first true brew pub, and has carefully selected an amazing range of mostly Australian craft ales and Pilseners for leisurely sampling in special draught five-packs. One long row of taps take center stage—strange brews like Old Engine Oil, IPA Punk and Kooinda Valhalla—in this no-frills drinking spot that also offers sports on large screens, sans the usual rowdiness. Then there’s Publika, a most internationalized sort of mall, a steel-encased arcade that bills itself as an arts and culture enter and urges its patrons to “RIOT NOT RETAIL!” A circular stage in its piazza has become a center for new theater, music and subtle forms of rebellion, right across from Malaysia’s new court for enforcing Islamic family law. Don’t miss—well, you can’t if you look for chairs on the ceiling—the indoor-outdoor restaurant Journal by Plan B, where New York deli intersects with Melbourne coffee house.
A mainstay of international culture, the cozy and acoustically perfect No Black Tie, run with aplomb by Sarawak-bred classical pianist Evelyn Hii, is the place to hear experimental musical talent. “I tried to make a club where any musician, of any style, instantly feels at home,” she says. More international still, if more corporate, the Westin Hotel’s QBA presents the city’s only live Cuban dance bands, mostly Colombian these days, thumping out distant beats from a surprising setting of baroque Spanish colonial balconies.
Around the corner, amidst the night spots of Changkat Bukit Bintang, The Magnificent Fish and Chips Bar seems more like the latest in the exotic than a holdout of Malaysia’s former British masters, with its battered barramundi and Guinness pies run by a potty chef who first came to Asia to feed rescued chimpanzees. Perhaps this is the last reminder of Malaysia’s loyalty to a foreign land. Now the whole world is
here. Welcome to Southeast Asia’s global showcase.