Ten (almost eleven..) years back, I remember how disappointed I had been at seeing Singapore Chinatown: it looked too fake, too aseptic, too disneylike as compared to the Kuala Lumpur one that I had been wandering for the past three months almost every night after work. Two weeks ago, Singapore looked refreshing tidy and clean to my eyes that now see Kuala Lumpur old Chinatown a rundown, scruffy and almost seedy neighborhood. Whereas Georgetown old town has been revived without losing its authentic and spontaneous feel, Kuala Lumpur one seems abandoned to crumble down piece by piece, becoming blacker and dirtier every year. Yet in the post Hari Raya vacation feel, Chinatown looks calm and some of its most crowded corners become pleasant again. Unfortunately getting a cab on Saturdays is one of the most frustrating experiences and I can arrive here only too late. The temples are about to close. As opposed to Georgetown , Kuala Lumpur Chinatown does not have masterpieces temples yet they return this feel of almost precariousness, of the baredness they initally must have had, when maybe they were only tin shacks for the tin workers flooding to Kuala Lumpur. They bring the images of those migrant workers that are a little the same all over the world and all over the ages, poor people obliged to move and looking for crumbles of warmth under the rain, or sweetness sips like that of the well over sugared coffees over here.
I can only peep into the Guan Ti temples before locks are put on the door gate .
Then I notice that outside the table for street food are already laid to receive the tourists: travellers interests shift from day to night.
But i have time and the chance to browse through this “crockery” shop, like its name says. All sorts of traditionally foreigners imagined chinese imagery are there.
The staff , and owners , malaysian chinese are very kind and show me the difference between a chinese ceramics 50 years old and one contemporary ones: the new ones are definitely flatter in color texture and plainers in details. The staff shakes head and says “No quality control in China nowadays …” How could i contradict them , I wonder, although my diagnosis would have been lack of care, lack of love for what they are doing and how they live their moments . This teaches me another nuance of cultural shock : I am mediterranean and everything to me comes down to visceral wills and passion and nurture there is no taboo talking about that, whereas they are asian and they need to call for the apparently surgical rational. Well i still find that rational is good at observing but not at explaining. Anyway these are nonsense reflections i conclude to myself, we are just different characters and that is all. This internal diatribe lasts less than the two seconds with which my credit card goes through. Good to know, the dialling speed of banks still allows us to philosophy inside. For one sure thing, we, mediterraneans would die without that.
The tea shop is on the third floor , you can only reach with the lift (stairs are locked off) and inside the windows are opaque so that i can imagine that the silhouettes outside are the twin towers and the telecom tower. Actually those silhouettes must be the two cranes . That is not the point at all. The point is to enjoy this insulated place rigourously divided in non con and air con: the non con is a black and white thing that is decorated with paintinggs reminiscents of water towns, the aircon one is a square wooden floor with batik cushions and bamboo tables. If one wants really to stay in a philosopher mood, this is a good visual cut between asia and southeast asia. But one should not linger too much in this division, because it is very well known that when asian went south , the southeast redesigned their patterns and reshaped their taste buds and a wonderful new culture of peranakan was born . The peranakan did not fit the census made by the english , which sectioned the country people in malays , chinese and muslim, (yes it seems the english invented the division when they tried to make a census, this is an everlasting heritage one has to say, see the lecture by Dr Farish A Noor “The Lost Tribes of Malaysia” inside “What your teacher didn’t tell you Vol 1, the annexe lectures”). Yet, again the colonisers were not that squeamish about categorizing, they did not hesitate to put the manila men inside the malays category for one or the afghans as indians or again the burmese as indians, so the peranakan , let them be indian or chinese , were a much easier bunch to fit in one of those three divided worlds they were about to create and that would haunt the today malaysia, notwithstanding the history and day to day divisions are much more blurred and notwithstanding all the new culture and creation that has been born on that tiny blurred frontier.