Friday, September 30, 2005
We were lunching in an exclusive club, and not for the first time I was feeling out of place. The waiters waited and the atmosphere cooled, and the drinks chilled, and outside more trees were left untouched than in the rest of this very hot town, this unshaded place. Jean Cocteau, for whatever reason, once called it Kouala L'Impure; David Niven, in a B-grade film, played English tutor to the Japanese ambassador in this here place. Except that in the celluloid fantasy it was called Kulagong, and Kulagong seemed to be nearly overrun by a band of bandits led by someone armed to his dentures.
Before leaving Londra I saw Cocteau peering out from a poster, leaning in some cloisters in avant garde Paris. He had his trousers pressed, his shadows arranged by a chiaroscuro artist, and his trouser band was a few milimetres above the waist. It must have been the roaring sixties. If Kouala was L'Impure it must have been the city as it was then that he saw, when the confluence of the Klang and the Gombak ran milky-tea coloured ripples around the waterside steps of the Masjid Jamek. But this is now a different place; and the man who played the firebrand in that Kulagong of celluloid is now in quiet retirement in a corner of Subang past the Parade.
I am not brutal in my blogs, I protested, just that the world is a brutal place. He sifted through his Nasi Ayam and threw back a critical smile. I did not know if I was in or out of place.
The Masjid Jamek is now hidden behind not one but two urban railway stations, so for a view of Masjid Jamek that I used to know I have to move along the big drain that used to be the river, walk along the embankment that was once was full of night-hawkers, and turn back and look askance at this sorry state. What city hides its most scenic sight behind two brutalist hymns to railway tracks? The Malay Street of barbers along the sidewalk is now a topsy turvy world unresolved: a babbling, boisterous street market, an unfinished cacophony to urban reconstruction, a row of men peddling bottled potions to keep the male member ever erect.
Kuala Lumpur is a capital city of many parts. Part of it is now in Putrajaya, which actually is another place, and there are parts even in parts of what's left - three railway systems that will not merge in another hundred years, a communication network that takes you somewhere to the middle of naff, and shopping malls like never before for those who want to escape from the hideousness out of this urban sprawl.
Not that it is bad. But unlike most cities in the world, Kuala Lumpur once had the chance to be good, even if it did take the New Brutalist mood too close to heart at one stage. Its mistake was it never stopped - trees were chopped down, hills razed. If they were not razed, the rich took to them like bees, building on any slope or terrace they could get their foothold on. And the result is a mess: this is probably the only place in the world where the buildings stick out of mountainsides instead of blend gracefully into its sides. But why they had to build on hills at all is anybody's guess (but I shall try to answer that in my next blog).
Kouala L'Impure Mon Amour
Friday, September 02, 2005
God willing, life will be back to normal again come October.
Meantime, my best wishes to you all.