TIN TOWN GROWS UP

Kuala Lumpur started out as a town of tin huts and opium dens. One century on, it's an archetypal Asian success story.
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The Independent Culture
Kuala Lumpur used to be a place you visited on your way somewhere else. A former tin-mining settlement squatting at the confluence of two muddy rivers in the middle of the Malaysian jungle, it provided a convenient stopover for flights to Australia and beyond. That's all changed now. The Kuala Lumpur of today is a shimmering smog-choked city of the future, the archetypal tiger-economy capital fuelled by incalculable oil wealth and expanding breathlessly with a seemingly total and utter abandonment of control or taste. And I rather like it.

The Kuala Lumpur Tower is the symbol of modern Malaysia, and as the thunderstorm rattling around the city had roused me from my jet-lagged slumber I decided to go and have a look at this giant magic mushroom and get my bearings. When I was last in KL, four years ago, the Tower was the chief talking point of taxi drivers and restaurant staff. Now it's completed, and serves no purpose that I can see other than being the tallest building in the world, so imagine how pissed off the Malaysians were when someone built a taller one. So pissed off in fact, that they are just finishing another monumental building project, the even taller Petronas Twin Towers which will house the eponymous government- owned petroleum company. (Frustratingly for the Malaysians, that too will be outdone in a couple of years by the Chongqing Tower, in Chongqing, China, which will be 7 metres taller still.) You can see the 450- metre Petronas Towers from the KL Tower, and they are a breathtaking creation: soaring, metallic cones, connected by a vertiginous walkway.

Even at this altitude you cannot see the outskirts of the city. What you can see in between the international hotels, office blocks and lush greenery is building work: bamboo scaffolding, scarred red soil and fresh concrete that goes on for miles. They're building Rome in a day, every day, in Kuala Lumpur - and at night, too. And among all this, I spotted a cluster of rusty tin-roofed shacks, a mini shanty town right behind one of the city's top hotels, the Renaissance.

Stomach rumbles were drowning out the thunder by now, so I left the Tower for one of my favourite eating places, a food court at the top of one of KL's many dozens of shopping malls, the S&M (no sniggering). The S&M mall is at the centre of the oldest part of the city, where you'll also find Chinatown and its frenetic street market. The mall's seventh-floor food court serves Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and ersatz western food. You can eat the world here for a couple of quid, and wash it down with freshly made fruit juice: star fruit, honey melon, sugar cane and more, simply blended and whisked with ice and a little sugar.

Outside, the thunderstorm had done nothing to cool the thick, syrupy air, though pleasantly fat rain drops plopped refreshingly on my face. The PA from the nearby National Mosque called the city to prayer with an eerie wail, but the street market was still in full swing; KL's Chinese community is mainly made up of Cantonese-speaking Buddhists. Chinatown begins at Jalan Sultan (Jalan means street) and its round-the-clock market, one of the best in South-East Asia, spreads over every pavement and road surface through adjacent streets selling all the usual counterfeit Ray- Bans and Calvin Kleins, watches and electronic goods. It's capitalism at its most anarchic: restaurant tables spill out from turn-of-the-century shop fronts, most of which are crumbling perilously; food hawkers stir-fry noodles and offal in vast, blackened woks from which flames blow wildly across the pavement. Beside them hang various, often grisly, ingredients: whole pigs' heads, eyeless and flattened as though someone has hit them hard in the face with a frying pan. Charcoal smoke fills the air, fighting for its place above the other pollutants, like the occasional, shocking blast of raw sewage from an open drain and the rip of Kawasaki exhausts.

The next morning, I met up with Fatima, a tour guide. On our way to the city's Merdeka Square, Fatima told me a little about herself. A Muslim, like the majority of Malaysians, she came to work in Kuala Lumpur from Malacca. When I asked her why she didn't wear a headscarf like most Malay Muslim women, she laughed. "I'm a modern Muslim," she said. It turns out that Fatima is divorced with a nine-year-old son who lives with his grandmother in Malacca. Fatima can't wait to retire and return home, where she has 80 durian trees which she hopes will bear their first evil-smelling fruit in about three years' time (it takes eight years for a durian tree to mature).

Most of the buildings of architectural interest in Kuala Lumpur are centred around Merdeka Square. More confectionery than architecture, the Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad, the extraordinary palace which runs alongside the Square, was the symbol of Kuala Lumpur until the Tower arrived. The palace was built in 1898 by two British architects, Norman and Hubbock (who must have been taking some wild drugs at the time), in a bizarre north-Indian/Moorish style. The two had spent some time in India and felt that, as Muslims, Malaysians might appreciate the faux-Arabic/ Disney feel of its bronzed domes, minarets and whitewashed arches (though they also stuck a 130-foot clock tower in the middle for good measure). Initially, it housed the colonial secretariat. Now the supreme court sits there, but it is not open to the public and a monstrously busy four-lane road along the side spoils any old colonial reverie you might try to conjure up.

The recently restored railway station (also by Norman) is a short walk away. The station is the most significant monument to the founding of the city, as the coming of the railway to KL marked the end of its dependence on the muddy river and the British ending a period of rule by Chinese Malays. The railway line from Klang to KL was built during the 1880s by Indians, who also came to work on the British rubber and coffee plantations. A sizeable Indian community remains in the city.

In a bar later that day, I chatted for a long while to a Chinese Malay called (appropriately enough, as it turned out) Yap. Yap talked for a solid two hours about the British, the Malaysian government, and life in KL for the Chinese who constitute 35 per cent of the population. He remembers British rule quite vividly, and fondly. "It cannot be worse for us now, am I right?" he told me. "It is downhill since independence. If you know minister's son, you will become rich. Am I right?" I don't know where Yap had picked it up, but as he grew more emotional, his flowery rhetoric grew more insistent. "British time, I was driving a taxi. No, I can't get a permit but Malay people get. Am I right?" The Chinese had a stranglehold on business in the city until comparatively recently, now legislation insists that Chinese businessmen take Malaysian partners - government contracts are withheld unless companies can prove at least 51 per cent Malay ownership - and the entire bureaucratic machine is weighted in favour of the Malays. Housing can be 10 or 20 per cent more expensive for the Chinese; they are discriminated against in the job market; and even taxi-permit allocation is rigged in favour of the Malays, as Yap told me: "I went for this test to get a permit and he asked me, 'What is name of Sultan's wife?' How can I pass test like this? Ask me about transport, I'm okay, but you ask me what is her name! I am not coming for learn Royal Family name. Am I right?"

I told Yap he was right as he was a little drunk now and beginning to fantasise about what he would do with an "M16". "I hate them. I hope the British come back. If I had gun ... I wish that, in 1969 when there were race fights, why not the British come back then?" I shrugged and tried to leave but Yap wanted to tell me about his son who was arrested by the police on suspicion of drugs possession; he was, Yap told me, "walloped and caned", and held for two weeks without charge.

Brutality was on display at the National Museum, too. On the whole, the museum is a disappointment and obviously underfunded. Highlights include moth-eaten taxidermy (Malaysia seems to specialise in creatures who shouldn't be able to fly but do: flying lemurs, flying squirrels, giant flying squirrels, common flying foxes), and an entire cabinet devoted to the Sultan's hats. But I did linger a while by the circumcision display. Up until the early part of this century circumcision ceremonies were more important than weddings to Malay Muslims. Sharpened bamboo was used to do the deed; now it's knives and scissors. All this was illustrated by cartoons showing implausibly chirpy children: "In two minutes it was over. It was not very painful, just like an ant bite," voice-bubbles one boy. Who are they kidding?

Much has been made recently of KL's high-tech multi-media future. Its next great construction project is an ambitious "multi-media corridor", incorporating Gigaworld, the world's longest building, which will engulf the river for several kilometres in the centre of the city. Usually, when I hear people beginning to spout about the Internet and suchlike, I am simply unable to hold concentration for more than one minute, but this sounds extraordinary even to me. At the moment, the "corridor" is a piece of land stretching 50km from the new airport, which is being built at Sepang in the south, to the Petronas Twin Towers. In the middle is a new town, Putrajaya, which they say will be the first "intelligent" city in the world. You know the sort of thing - paperless communication and administration; smart cards; virtual doctors' surgeries. Gigaworld and the corridor may seem like absurd flights of fancy, but if anyone can build them, Malaysia will.

I witnessed a different side of Kuala Lumpur the next day. I went for a walk through a food market in the infamous red-light district of Chow Kit. Hundreds of stalls, crammed together without breathing space under a roof of multi-coloured umbrellas were selling fruits apparently flown in from Mars, fish that still flapped desperately on the counters and severed cows' heads. The airless stench of rotting meat and veg had me breathing through clenched teeth.

I carried on walking and found myself further along the Klang river, near the Muslim cemetery, a leafy, green oasis of death on Jalan Ampang. Beside it was Kampung Chenada, the shanty town I had spotted from the KL Tower, now submerged under four feet of water. The flooding had obviously happened during the previous day's storms and most of the 164 Malay families that lived there had been evacuated to a nearby primary school. But some remained, walking slowly up to their waists in brown water, trying to salvage the odd mattress or bundle of clothes. Some sat on the bank above, a visual definition of the word disconsolate. The children were enjoying it, though, building rafts out of beds and swimming where the previous day they had probably played football.

On my way to the airport the next morning , I quizzed the Indian driver, Mohan, about the squatter camp. He said that the companies building the hotels, which had caused the silting of the river and the flood, had offered to rehouse the families some time before. But the new homes were hours away from the centre of town and the potential to earn a living. The families had decided to risk the possibility of flooding.

But Mohan wasn't interested in talking about the disaster, especially once he found out I was English. "I love Manchester United!" he beamed. He had supported the club since reading about George Best in Shoot magazine in the late Sixties, before he'd even seen them play on television. He possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the English game, especially, for some reason, the career of Ray Wilkins, which he delighted in sharing with me in detail. Any hope I had of interrogating Mohan about the position of KL's Indian population in the ethnic hierarchy (Indians are the third largest ethnic group, after the Malays and the Chinese) vanished.

Next year, the Commonwealth Games come to Kuala Lumpur, and in 1999 a new Formula-1 motor racing circuit will be completed beside the new airport at Sepang. The "multi-media corridor" will be near completion; the city's new monorail will be finished; and several new towns on the outskirts of the city will be swelling the population, which currently stands at 1.5 million.

But the future wasn't always this bright for Kuala Lumpur. In 1898, Sir Charles Mitchell, the governor of the Straits Settlements, predicted a short life for what was then a shabby town of tin prospectors, prostitutes and opium dens. "The tin won't last forever, you know," he said. He was right, it didn't, but the future does, and Kuala Lumpur, perhaps more than any other city in the world, will be part of it. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

Malaysia Airlines (0171 341 2000) flies to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah airport (formerly Subang International airport). Price from pounds 900 high-season return. British Airways (0345 222747) flies to the same airport daily, with July prices from pounds 750 (minimum stay seven nights). Trailfinders (0171 938 3939) offers tailor-made packages, with flight-only deals costing from pounds 462 low season or pounds 549 high season, plus pounds 10 departure tax.

STAYING THERE

A single or double room at the Renaissance International Hotel (006 03 262 2233) costs around pounds 115 per night, pounds 250 for a weekend and pounds 575 for a week (not including tax). Rooms at the Regent Hotel (006 03 241 8000) start at pounds 118 a night (single) and pounds 127 (double). Trailfinders offers flight and accommodation deals at the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur Hotel or the Pan Pacific.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For information about the National Museum call 006 03 282 6255.Holders of British passports do not require a visa to travel to Kuala Lumpur, but passports should be valid for at least six months. Call the Malaysia Tourist Office on 0171 930 7932.

Candy town: the Sultan Abdul Samad building, built in 1898, is a reminder of KL's colonial past

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