Whenever one of my friends from overseas ask me which part of Malaysia I’m from, I always tell them I’m from Kuala Lumpur, even though technically, I live an hour away from it. That’s because it’s the most recognisable city in the region, and it’s always met with an ‘Oh, I know. The Petronas Twin Towers! I know that!’
Truth be told, KL is much, much more than that.
Kuala Lumpur, the city of my birth.
There has always been something inherently charming about KL. It is a modern metropolis, just like Singapore, Milan, Paris. In fact, if you’re strolling through one of its malls, it’s easy to make believe that you are in any other city in the world: one where you can find your Bvlgaris, your Pierre Cardins and your Ferragamos. But unlike some cities, KL has flavour. It is an odd mix of new and old: the graffiti-scrawled riverbanks run right next to the century-old Pasar Seni and the British colonial train station, recognisable from a distance with its Mughal-inspired spires. Over in Pudu, which is just a stone’s throw away from KLCC, there are stalls that have been run by decades offering all sorts of delectable street food imaginable, their recipes handed down through the generations. While you wait for a bus at the shiny new bus depot, inhaling the smell of carbon monoxide fumes, you can always grab some keropok lekor from the Malay auntie who peddles her snacks from a makeshift shack nearby. You will still find old-world cobblers, tailors and custom-made everything in the nooks and crannies of KL.
But there are also seedy joints: where people like you and me might not venture to;desolate highway underpasses where the homeless and drug-addicted youths make their haunt – an underbelly lying just beneath KL’s ‘modern’ facade – away from its capitalist malls, clean streets, and 24-hour entertainment. You will find massage parlours offering ‘special services’, small apartments quartered and crammed with foreign workers, streets where you might get snatched, mugged or robbed despite police beats dotted around the area.
For good or bad, this is all KL.
I have come to be familiar with some parts of the city. Driving down the constantly congested Jalan Tun Razak, I pass through what I dub the ‘moustache tunnel’ – because it has these patterns that look like a cartoon moustache on a stereotypical Italian chef. Emerging into the light, on my right, is the indomitable-looking US Embassy, all decked out in cinder grey and tiled orange roofs. If you head straight on, you’ll hit another part of the city; but take a left turn and you’ll eventually come to the icon(s) of KL: the Petronas Twin Towers. They rise up into the sky like two gigantic corn cobs, their windows reflecting the noon-day sun to create an almost glittering-like effect. It’s hard not to be awed, even though I see it often. And like an oasis in the middle of this concrete jungle lies a swathe of green, the KLCC park, which has become a favourite haunt for foreign workers on their days off
A couple of minutes away is the Golden Triangle, the very pulse of shopping in the city. Sometimes I like to stand in the corner between Lot 10 and Sungei Wang, overlooking traffic, and just soak it all in – the gigantic LED billboards flashing Malaysia Truly Asia ads, as the monorail runs across at intervals like some weird, mechanical caterpillar. But mostly I like to people-watch. There are loads of em’. Tall, short, long, brown-skinned, white, black, dark, honeyed, caramel-coloured, speaking in so many tongues it’s hard to keep track. There are women in black hijabs, clinging on to their bearish husbands, walking alongside Chinese girls in super short shorts and their hair dyed in a multitude of colours. There are hipster boys with slingbacks on skateboards, ogling at Converse shoes, their noses almost pressing on the clean windows, as they trot next to punk rockers and metal heads smoking cigarettes, wearing metal band tees, with their heads shaved and sporting knee-high boots with enough metal and silver to kill a horde of vampires.
When I’m tired of people-watching, I’ll trudge downstairs to Lot 10’s Hutong, located underground, where hawker stalls give you a semblance of ‘authentic’ street food amidst this shopping mecca. I always get the beef tripe noodle; it’s one of the best in town.
I’m thankful that at my (relatively young?) age, I’ve been to many cities around the world: Paris, Milan, London, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Los Angeles. And I say now that there is really nothing like Kuala Lumpur.
KL holds my heart, and I’ll miss it terribly when I leave.
It will always be home.