A Window into Kuala Lumpur

Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were celebrating Malaysia’s national holiday at a street party in Bangsar, an upscale neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. We had just walked there along broken sidewalks, the sun beating down on us — Kuala Lumpur is not the most pedestrian-friendly place — and we were in desperate need of a drink, so we popped into a bar and ordered a couple of beers. We found ourselves in the midst of a panel discussion about what it means to be Malaysian. “Are we a nation or a collection of peoples?” asked the moderator, an earnest young journalist of Indian descent.

One of the speakers, a young half-Chinese, half-Indian man dressed in a traditional Malay outfit (with the addition of red heart-shaped sunglasses) gave a witty and entertaining presentation about the ambiguities of national identity. His delivery was upbeat, but his message was serious and thoughtful: Malaysia could hardly be described as a true nation, he said — otherwise the government would not have to invest so much in convincing everyone that there is such a thing as “1Malaysia” — but it is also more than the sum of its Malay, Chinese and Indian parts. Like Canada, which is also prone to existential crises and frequent periods of self-doubt, Malaysia is a country that exists in a perpetual state of in-betweenness.

This lingered in my mind for the six days we spent wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a city that few travellers spend much time in and even many Malaysians seem to dislike. For all its importance as an economic and administrative hub, KL doesn’t present itself on a platter like Penang, the darling of Malaysia’s tourism industry. It’s a sprawling, disjointed place that makes casual exploration difficult, but I enjoyed its unpretentiousness and the way it opened a window into Malaysia’s cultural complexities.

One humid evening, we walked past a Chinatown parking lot wedged between old shophouses and a tree-covered slope. Looking towards the slope, I noticed a number of Chinese shrines, which made me think of similar shrines that can be found throughout Hong Kong. But when I wandered closer, I realized that the shrines contained neither Buddhas nor Chinese gods, but Hindu deities.

Although Chinese make up a plurality of KL’s population, Chinatown itself has become less and less Chinese over the years. As Chinese businesses move on, they are replaced by shops catering to Malays, Indians and immigrants from Africa and other parts of Asia. After looking at the shrines, I noticed the parking lot’s staff were Indian. I suppose the parking lot had originally been Chinese-owned; when its new Indian owners took over, they kept the shrines, but replaced the gods to which they paid homage. It’s a bit of cultural syncretism that seems distinctly Malaysian.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday October 03 2010at 09:10 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Demographics, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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