Kuala Lumpur Stories: If the capital's famous fog doesn't get you, then wearing a sarong in bed just might

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The Independent Online

The haze that has engulfed Malaysia's capital - known to all as "KL" - for much of the month has almost completely lifted.

A regular, if unwelcome, visitor to KL, it is produced by a combination of slash-and-burn agriculture and smouldering subterranean peat in neighbouring Sumatra. All it takes is for the wind to be blowing in the wrong direction, and the skies swiftly thicken on the other side of the Malacca Straits.

But this year was the worst it has been for a long time. Schools closed, flights were grounded, and anyone with even minor respiratory problems was advised to stay inside. Those unfortunates whose work kept them in the open - the army of private guards who man the barriers at compounds and blocks of flats, for instance - all wore masks over their mouths. Opening a window, however briefly, brought the fumes inside.

It wasn't just a fog, although it was impenetrable enough to hide the glorious Petronas Towers from most of the city. You could actually smell the smoke poisoning the air. KL is not a city for walkers at the best of times, but the chill of a sealed, air-conditioned hotel lobby or shopping mall never felt so good.

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The Actors Studio is in one such mall, the Bangsar Shopping Centre just outside the city centre. The Actorlympics, best described as a Malaysian version of Whose Line is It Anyway?, is running in the modern auditorium on the third floor. English is the medium for the topical performance, although enough Malay or "Manglish" (a mix of Malay and English) is used to terrify any non-Malay-speaking member of the audience unlucky enough to be dragged on to the stage and forced to take part.

Two of the participants, Ida Nerina and Harith Iskandar, are well-known actors who appeared in Sepet, a Malaysian film awarded the Grand Prix du Jury at the Créteil Women's International Film Festival earlier this year. Sepet is a charming film, but its portrayal of a Malay girl who falls in love with a Malaysian Chinese boy caused great controversy at home. Even a scene in which Ida and Harith, who played the girl's parents, lay in bed wearing sarongs was deemed controversial - too much flesh could be seen.

"It's about time we stopped taking ourselves so seriously," says Ida, after a performance at the Actors Studio. In a country where many are careful what they say publicly, Ida and the other performers cheerfully take pops at figures in the news. Ayah Pin, the cult leader who built a giant teapot in his garden, is one example. Another is "a certain person who had to go away on holiday" - the Trade Minister, Rafidah Aziz, who got into huge trouble over permits to import cars, then disappeared when she was expected to defend herself at a cabinet meeting.

"The audience that comes to see our show is able to take it in jest," says Ida, who does not wear the tudung (headscarf), although increasing numbers of Muslim women do. Free spirits like her are necessary to maintain the liberal attitude towards religion that characterises this city.

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Warren, the former host of a morning television show, asks where in KL Farah, my girlfriend, comes from. Her parents live in Damansara Heights, I say. Warren gets excited. "Oh, that's the Beverly Hills of KL," he says, grossly exaggerating.

When I tell him that they used to live in the old diplomatic quarter of Kenny Hills, he can barely contain himself. Not that it's actually called Kenny Hills any more. The area's main road used to be called Bukit Kenny ("bukit" means hill), but was renamed Bukit Tunku after Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who lived there.

Everyone still calls the area Kenny Hills, though, and wandering through the anglophile Tunku's old home, now a museum to his memory, you can't help thinking that he would, too.

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