It’s July, the start of the hot summer months, except it’s always summer here. Well, it’s the start of something anyway, and I can’t tell yet if it’s benevolent or not. I’ve never had any real touchstones for what a good thing is, everything seems to get mixed up.
Right now while writing this I’m back in Bangsar, the area in KL where I used to work for almost a year. It’s strange to be back and to remember past surroundings. Because this whole area used to be my life, now I can’t go back there without feeling a kind of infinite weariness, like I’m always wanting to leave it as soon as possible. Next to me two men in business wear, a Malay man and a white foreigner, presumably on their lunch break, are both smoking a fat cigar each. It’s only one in the afternoon. Across the street there’s the man who sells the colourful woven baskets, as there always is.
Something that I’d somehow forgotten about the Bangsar area is how many mixed-race children and families there are. Seeing a number today, I realized that that’s always been a defining feature of Bangsar for me. The scent of the two guys’ cigars is very strong; I’ve never smoked one myself before. They’re talking about various Arab countries they’ve been to. Being in Bangsar is like being in some self-contained alternate dimension where somehow the ratio of white people to locals is differentiated by a gap so small you wouldn’t have thought it possible if you’ve ever been anywhere else in Malaysia. Where do all these white families come from, and do they actually live here? And what do they do all the time in this same area?
I’m trying to figure out what it would be like to have a nice, white family by the way Bangsar is built and what it provides. Rows of bars. Rows of upscale Western food eateries, some of them also bars. Four Western restaurants in a row across from me have a similar aesthetic: The X, BAIT, elmesòn, and The Social. All of them seem to have dark interiors with exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling for lighting. Their signs are sleek, minimalist, in a serif font. They proclaim an abstract name that points, ultimately, I guess, to nothing. It’s not like Nirvana’s Banana Leaf or Raj’s Banana Leaf a few stores down. Nor is it like Devi’s down the road, whose full name even on the signage is “Restoran Devi’s”. There’s a trend now among new start-ups to name themselves in the abstract, rather than describe itself directly. Which is why a new cafe may be called something like “VCR” (a block over), but probably not “[Owner’s name]’s Kopitiam”. I guess I don’t feel any which way about it–people can name their businesses anything they want–but there’s always going to be something about the it-is-what-it-says-on-the-label-now-what-do-you-want-to-order-ness of Malaysian signage that I am thankful to still be living to experience before the abstract words that point to nothing eventually engulf it all.
Let’s go back to Nirvana’s. Its aesthetic (or lack thereof, which can also, among a rising monolithic Western influence, become an aesthetic; some of the clothes sold by Malaysian streetwear brand Pestle & Mortar at the end of Telawi can attest to that) is distinctly different from the rows of bars/restaurants directly opposite me. It has a faded pink sign in a curly italic font, tungsten lights and decals of Hindu gods/goddesses on the white tile walls. A small peeling sign says “no alcohol allowed”, another one says “no outside food and drinks allowed”, and someone has scratched in a superfluous “is” between “drinks” and “allowed”. Around the corner there’s Raj’s Banana Leaf, which has been closed ever since someone posted a video online of its workers washing the dishes in dirty water. Raj’s is a chain. I’m trying to imagine if Malaysia had taken over the world, and instead of a McDonald’s, every major city had chains for tandoori chicken and people ate off big leaves with their hands.
Another aspect of Bangsar that you can’t not talk about when you’re talking about Bangsar is its nightlife. Like I said, rows and rows of bars. You can have your pick between the massive Gridiron sports bar, or one of the more upscale ones I mentioned above, or any other one of a dozen more. Shelly Yu’s, on the same road as The X, bait, etc., serves Malaysian-, particularly Nyonya-inspired cocktails, mixing their liquor with various staples of a Malaysian upbringing like pandan, gula melaka and even pei pa koa… one item on their menu comes with a “whole egg”. If you’re looking to dance, you’re probably looking for SIX, a tiny nightclub in the middle of Telawi that markets itself solely on Drake imagery. It’s recognisable by its neon logo of the Drake praying hands. You already know the ones. Six’s popularity seems like a hyperbolic testament to the fact that in Kuala Lumpur youth culture, the end game is a sublimation with Westernness. Clubs, like raves, are a strange liminal area where you’re invited to lose yourself, where all the strict, conservative rules that define Malaysia during the daytime get suspended for a few hours at night. And I wouldn’t want to intrude on someone else’s fun, but I have to point out the correlation suggested by Six that to “lose one’s self” in Malaysia—or the ultimate goal of freedom from a long week of work/school—is synonymous with being in a Drake-inspired club playing trap songs where the majority of the lyrics are about cool watches or expensive cars or cheating on your girlfriend. Of course I have fun, but I don’t know what this means or where it’s going.
I guess it’s kinda sad to me that to talk about Kuala Lumpur is necessarily to talk about a heavy Western, particularly American (OK, Drake is Canadian, etc.), presence. I’d like to describe the city using words and place names that wouldn’t be understood by someone who’d like to exploit our market. However, maybe we’re not without hope. Bangsar has all the trappings of an upscale neighbourhood without necessarily being “nice”. How to ignore the litter on the streets, the massive cockroaches running across storefronts, the overspilling rubbish bins and the occasional roadkill. If you wanted “nice”, i.e. clean, you’d go to a mall, and yet Bangsar’s appeal, despite the two malls, still remains, I believe, out on Telawi Street. Graffiti over metal shutters when the stores are closed. The pasar that runs every Sunday evening is still an event. The mall is where the grocery store and two Thai Odysseys are, but the streets are where people go to see and be seen, which is funny because they’re so ugly.
Maybe there’s just not really any way to be “nice” in Malaysia. The perpetual summer weather and, I guess, the total inability to give a shit that I think every Malaysian, including myself, was born with, just shoots that dream in the foot. I don’t think I’ve ever looked “nice” in this country, because I’m always mildly sweating and the humidity makes my hair frizz. One time, while on a first date, he took me to a fancy steakhouse at the end of Telawi Street and then we just sat on the dirty steps of a bank opposite smoking. I can’t tell whether me saying all this is putting you off or not, but understand that when I talk about dirty water and roadkill and cigarette butts I’m unironically talking about it all with the most love I’ve ever felt for anything.
There’s something about the way Malaysia always seems to undermine its own attempts to be something it isn’t. Something about how we can never give ourselves fully to an identity other than what we grew up with, how rather than growing up alienated from our Malaysianness and affecting to be Western, it’s more a kind of swallowing of these other cultures into our own, and building a contradictory identity out of that. I’m interested in how people grow up in a multicultural society, how they absorb foreign identities and turn it, somehow, into a bigger collective identity. Another similar city that comes to mind is the city of London, where the music, fashion, food and language that make the London identity so distinct is a result of the various immigrant families who live there. Yet it’s not necessarily an “immigrant”, i.e. “outsider” identity per se: the outside reaches in and indelibly shapes the core, so that it creates what London is, no matter how much any white Londoner may deny it.
Perhaps I’d like to think that, in our own way, Kuala Lumpur is the same. That Bangsar is the same. That, rather than the decay of a national identity, it is a testament, rather, of the perseverance of a national identity. How we take the culture that is exported to us and in turn bastardise it, because we just can’t fucking help ourselves. Someone has the idea of setting up an upscale bar & eatery, where they serve mushroom soup for almost RM20, but they won’t be able to set it up anywhere else except on a dirty street where rats scamper after dark if they want to get any business at all. I guess I’d like to think that we are practising our own appropriation of Western culture, but that we’ll always forget to clean under our fingernails. The reverse, of Western culture eroding our own, is a bit sad to think of. I guess.
The two men next to me smoke their cigars. But it’s a Coffee Bean. This is a coffee chain. We’re in a Coffee Bean and, presumably, they’re on their lunch break. They may smoke them, on their lunch break, and talk about the various Arab countries they’ve visited, but I’ll never ever think that the sheer ridiculousness of the scene—a cigar, on your lunch break, in a coffee chain, outdoors in 30°C—is anything except Malaysian.