Recently I have spent some time going around and exploring the city and going back to those neighborhoods I had first visited twelve years ago in 2002.
It is impossible not to linger on how the places have evolved since. Kuala Lumpur has changed dramatically in twelve years: it is not only its appearance that is different, with more highrises and highways, it is the whole lifestyle and shift of social classes that took place. This can affect profoundly the inner geography of a city, the feel of the neighborhoods.
The two examples I have for this are Masjid India and ChowKit Market. I could not help myself wondering what I was looking for when I visited them recently and I started to delve back into my twelve years memories.
All along my exploration of Masjid India and ChowKit Market, something felt wrong. I am not talking about a sense of lack of security although Chow Kit Area looks seedy,there was no feel of danger. All the time I was growing an anger and a sense of injustice at how the tourist machine sends us here to these two neighborhoods. There was something wrong with the very act of it but I could not name it until I came later to an article last week.
In Masjid India externally the place was not changed with respect to twelve years ago.Yet, at the time of my first visit, there was indeed a family atmosphere, with people hanging out at the saturday night market and trying the keropong freshly fried crackers (fish paste crackers which are actually not really Indian at all). Many restaurants were small joints on the street playing aloud Bollywood (or Tollywood, given that main immigration to Malaysia was actually Tamil) music , but oh the food was really good! It was a simple place very far from the standard of European living but still with a ghost of identity.
Now the feel I had from walking the streets was more or less the one I had in the subway exit alley of the “Grand Arche La Defense” (in Paris it is where most of the city vomits out its white collar workers onto the offices high rises). No little India did not “greyfy” itself like La Defense, it simply now you have afeel of disconnection from the area, it is just another place of town where you do business, buy this or that, stop for a fish curry and move on. The lanes and streets were congested with people, scooters and cars and all around there were eateries or sari shops. In general it did not feel at all a place where people were hanging around, where there would be a pleasure in being sitting there. Maybe the shops were still visited but it felt more like a crammed suburb area.
And I was still fighting on why this place was stil a “sight” for the tourism business: it is always hard to explain to oneself why to visit a neighborhood that does not have a specific sight: usually the guidebooks send you there because there is this type of quaint houses, or particular cuisine or more tricky a particular type of locals. The latter is the most difficult for the travelers to define: what does it mean exactly?
For example, I wonder whether people go to Rome Trastevere to hear shopkeepers swear and insult you: it was typical for us when being in Trastevere to hear them swearing and chuckle at the “typical Roman style” but would I send somebody from another country specifically in that neighborhood for that? And when is it ok to prey on quirky people or habits and when does it become voyeurism?
In Masjid India today there are more cars, more noise and more people around than when I came the first time. Somehow that family atmosphere has gone, maybe because people are doing better and do not go to shop or eat there so much except for that particular thing or maybe they just do not hang out anymore. I was growing angry at the idea to be sent out here for some sort of atmosphere that had evaporated, or worse sent here to merely observe “the people”, “the locals”, why would we observe people tending their business ? because they are dressed in a different way? because they live so differently than in the west?
Still I accepted it from other places, but I found it that there it lacked an interaction a way to relate and brush each other in our respective lives.
Every traveller is curious to understand how people live in a different place (or should be) and I have spent much of my traveling eating in the streets, although I believe that not every scruffy place deserves your attention; I usually choose to go to those places where you feel the enthusiasm of local people, no matter who they are, to sit and rest and enjoy a nice moment together, you just do not pick to sit in any dodgy dirty looking place that seems to serve average stuff just for the sake of it. Just going to a place to observe is a sort of voyeurism in my opinion, there should be some interaction, something that puts both side at an equal level of receiving or giving, some sharing, some mutual understanding.
I remember in a forgotten village of West Bengal countryside sitting next to Buddha-bellied old man waiting for his samosas to come out of the sooted black frying pan while exchanging laughs and photoclicks and in Bombay standing for half an hour tasting my kulfi (from the Kulfi Centre in Chowpatty Beach) on the hot tarmac and meet an old lady that said to live in Malabar Hill ina very exclusive place and “forcing” (her words) her nephews to come have a kulfi there so she could enjoy it as well in her favorite places. Those places were rough, hidden , unexpected and truly cool.
Masjid India could still reveal treasures but none of those potential gems are in the list of the guides. In the future, I believe firmly that the place will be revived by the coming city project River of Life, where the banks of the muddy confluence are going to be restored and cleaned up to let people have back their spaces, to revive the local vegetation and let everybody breathe some good air. Indeed there are very nice buildings in the vicinity that could be admired and connected through the River of Life, for example the Oriental Building with its stark and charming Art Deco facade, or to connect to the nearby streets like Lebuh Ampang, and the bygone time where Chettiars (Indian moneylenders that had the function of banks where banks were still not here) were financing the development of tin miners and KL with it, or again the colonial hang out Coliseum Café (great chicken chop) or the quaint Indian movies playing cinema (a true heritage living building!). I am very hopeful about this project because it means giving back the town to the locals by making it pleasurable to walk in and sit in, and by reconnecting with your city, you reconnect with your past and your identity present or gone.
For that day I was still angry at locating that place in the tourist map: I could not say why exactly. In my mind there was a mixture of the voyeurism attitude of many foreigners sent out to see developing, basic areas or some of cheap emotions in seeing a place with more confusion, noise , than your hometown, the easy adrenalin of trying a spicy grilled fish. or worse , was it a firm conviction that in Asia and in KL, no matter what changes at the end “nothing ever changes”? That creepy little phrase that insinuates itself into the description of many travellers and it is the safe haven of tourist boards.
Instead of understanding and getting disoriented by changing your standards, your assumptions, a lot of the travel business today seems to be about selling cheap emotions about difference without the effort of understanding. I suppose it is a much more bankable thing to do and easier to have your friends back home to wide open their eyes at, to feel like an Indiana Jones rather than really seeing what is going on.
Chow Kit threw me . The market is still functioning and it is a good place to buy fresh stuffs. The visit is a bit pointless though. Again in 2002 you came here to walk into dark crammed allies that sold unnameable things in a time where many of SouthEast Asia Markets were like that, where strange ingredients uncovered by scholars and historians and above all the internet were filling the tables. We were most like historians in finding them one by one and taking pictures. Now there is not much of that anymore and it does not make sense to come here unless you are shopping for fresh produce. Not more than your neighborhood market. On the other hand, in the surroundings, there is a wealth of poor people with their eyes bulging from heat and fatigue or maybe simply on drugs. Again it is not that there is nothing to see in this area: Loke Mansion is nearby, there are again beautiful shophouses (and kids running in the front square) and interesting road shrines and a stunning beautiful Art Deco hospital just beyond the Monorail stop. Again nobody in the tourist industry puts these in advance, it is all about a little market that smells of staleness (metaphorically speaking).
The big question that stays unanswered is what justifies external alien elements like tourists going to aplace. I simply hate when I hear colorful now because it reminds me of a shallow observation that barely touches the surface of it. It feels unfair that we can go and dispose in our mind of other people life, vampirizing them for our pictures or story telling. So when is it feeling right? I cannot tell but I suppose that when we understand more we do not feel of just being using a place for our need of different, of exotic. And the key point of all this is the fog in which people are sometimes sent out to these area with barely a reason why: as I said there are still plenty of reasons to walk through Masjid India and Chow Kit but you need to know and not just sent there for the “atmosphere”.
Then after writing this piece in an even foggier way than today, I came across this piece by Andrea Lee for the New Yorker and I finally could put words on this unexplained uneasiness. Although Andrea Lee tackles another angle, about being different, foreigner in a country and fantasizing about the other, her reflection on the meaning of exotic are very appropriate for this . Her words go like this : “What else is “exotic”? It involves strangeness and desire, the desire forstrangeness, with a sense of risk but no real threat of danger. There is always an element of ownership and control about “exotic”—because the dreamer controls the fantasy—which is the downfall of real contact. There is always something willfully stupid about “exotic”: two-dimensional, fundamentally dull, like all fetishism. Exoticism is built on limitation.”
And I think that it feels most unfair about Chow Kit and Masjid India as attractions (as they are described in a cursory way) , they are shallow because all is based on being easily different, easily “exotic” . This type of browsing of so called local atmosphere is based on a shallow contact, a quick emotion and basically not really letting go of one position to meet another. And that cannot take place in those areas because there is no position of the other either, world is changing, people are moving and aspiring to something different. There could be on the other hand real understanding of the place, of what it meant and means and how it is integrated in this spiderweb city that is Kuala Lumpur. But that would not be exotic, that would require a step more to see and relate.