Tag Archives: kuala lumpur


type 1

“Take another one,” I said, handing Julien my phone – “with more of Luther.” I stepped closer to the statue, brushing aside a plant. “Smile,” said Julien, but I held my face in a stern arrangement, locking eyes with the lens, chanelling ingrained Protestantism. Later I would upload the double portrait to Instagram, tagged #lutheran4lyfe. Beside me Martin is dark blue, looking down at the Bible, as if embarrassed. “Do I look like him?” I ask. “Somewhat,” Julien politely replies. It’s clear that I need something to show for my unseen heritage, so unkonwn in my hometown. A German brow, a Lutheran chin. Here in KL I find my founding father, and newly resolve to read him one day.

type 2

We are leaving the capital for the province, tracing in reverse our migration journey. It’s also the highway on which I travelled to Taiping and Kuala Kangsar 15 years ago, in wide-eyes recovery from Bangladesh. We board a bus that features wide seats and gold curtains. Similarly unique vehicles pull out nearby: executive coach, club class, first class massage coach. If you will be delayed, you might as well do it comfortably.

What brings me back to this highway? I’m repeating something with a view to improving it, dooming myself in the attempt. As Gospodinov puts it in The Physics of Sorrow, I’m “longing for something lost or that had never taken place.” Having cancelled Calcutta I’m back in KL, seeking to repeat and refine the past. As we pull out of the bus station I see a future of further imperfect bus rides in which only the vehicles change: same quest, different curtains.

type 3

Before the trip we’d eaten at one of the Indian retaurants so prevalent in Kuala Lumpur. The menu hadn’t changed since my last visit fifteen years before. Teh tarik with roti canai, again, with a second roti for the same old road. “What menu item are you,” I asked Julien, “and why?” When my turn came I said I was the scoop-by-scoop buffet – ultimately generous, but somewhat hard to approach.

These restaurants always make me happy. Something about how successful ordering seems so easy to achieve. It’s the opposite of a Melburnian ordering coffee, knowing in advance that it won’t be the best she’s tasted. Teh tarik with roti canai. Why visit India?

Near the entrance to the restaurant an old man orders not one but two cups of tea – one milky, one black, with ice to stir through the black one. I am mesmerised, until I see the young man behind him who has also ordered two different teas. What have I been drinking for the last fifteen years? Clearly a sequence of two teas is what’s needed, moving from dark to light, cold to hot. A minute later friends of both men have arrived and taken their single teas. So it’s one or the other not both. But I can’t unsee my first impression.

type 4

We had stumbled on Martin Luther, but in Penang I was looking for a statue. This city was founded by Francis Light, father of Colonel William Light whose statue looks over Adelaide a block from where I lived during my first year of studies. Luther Seminary, attending St. Stephen’s Lutheran church at which I appeared as Jesus in the Easter play. This site of peak Lutheranism nourished my soul, associated in some way with wider pride in the colony of South Australia and the city of Adelaide, which Colonial Light (Francis’ illegitimate son) had planned.

They used this Adelaide statue as a likeness for his father’s, given equal prominence in Georgetown. Did they etch out any trace of his South-East Asian mother, or did some of this weirdly survive in the rendering of the old man, moving up a generation as it sailed back from Adelaide? I’ll have to check another time, or else live with the mystery, as Captain Francis was walled up in his fort when we passed, guarded by cannons.

We walked back to our hotel through the arcades of shophouses converted into hotels and cafes. “It’s like a toy city,” I said. Julien said: “It’s like Europe.”



commons 1

The day started with an interview about my grant. In hindsight it seems prescient, now that the government is pulling funding from the arts. Might I have done something that we might all need to do? I kept my answers personal, not political, wishing to protect the whimsy with which I invented the grant, and the naivety with which I awarded it. Like always Julien offered me language, saying that I was giving for the common good. And so we spent the day considering the commons.

Public spaces are sites of transition between private ones. We move through them as if we were alone. Unless we have poor boundaries, or are excessively extroverted, or both, in which case the experience of shared environments is riveting. I feel hardest in a crowded carriage, sucked and blown by the energy of those at hand. At the station Julien noticed this dramatic engagement with seemingly impersonal sites. I had said, about taxis: “They’re everywhere except where you are.” But how else do you explain a cab reversing as you approach it? Later, in a taxi, I felt we’d been kidnapped. We were on the wrong side of the freeway, climbing up and away. Julien took a more rational approach, and a more trusting one, outsourcing local driving to local people who drive. I’d actually considered walking the five kilometres between forest and station. Something would have happened – like a kidnapping. That’s my definition of adventure: foolishly trying to do things by yourself.

commons 2

“We not provide,” said the woman at FRIM’s “one stop centre.” Maps were not available; nor was food. The site’s main attraction – an elevated walk through the treetops – was closed for Ramadan, along with all the cafes. “So nothing to eat,” I confirmed. She pointed at the fridge, which contained cans of drink and some heart-shaped chocolate cakes. As she said “cake” her eyes glistened.

Had I seen her before? This look of satisfaction at my displeasure called to mind the woman from years before but just down the road who had blocked me from a concert because I was wearing shorts. I’d fled KL, after that, and met my first lover in a rotunda at Kuala Kangsar. We’d both been sheltering from the rain.

Anyway this guardian wanted us out of the forest. “You cannot go here,” she cautioned, covering most of her non-detachable map. “Unless you have a guide, for one hundred-seventy ringgit?” We went anyway, carrying water and our chocolate cake, climbing a steep path towards a closed attraction. Overhead, monkeys reached between branches, liberated from the turf wars of the more evolved.

We were not the only defiant walkers. Chinese locals joined us on the mountain, carrying folded umbrellas. We ate our cake at a waterfall decorated by people gently exercising. I recalled a sign from yesterday about which I’d been delighted: “No exercise.” Now, from what I could see, this sounded like segregation. Enter as a Muslim, or not at all. (The cake was delicious. “Made from the heart,” it said.)

commons 3

I’m writing this behind the Petronas Towers, at an artificial lake with half-hourly fountain displays. Jets pulse and sway imitating human dancers, only perfectly, forming a ring around a vertical line of water which holds itself until the music stops. The sound and light show forms a temporary audience, looking away from itself, turning its back on the towers that draw so many glances from across the city.

It’s a hot night. I imagine floating out to the heart of the spectacle, looking back through a cage of water at the shore. Would the jet carry me? How far would I fall?




You could walk for a day in this city without touching the ground. Take an escalator, a monorail, an elevated tunnel. If you see someone driving you’ve dropped too low. One covered bridge comes with a disclaimer, as if tracing an arch were a risk. These interlocking stars are decorative (and pious) – but will they hold you up?

This could be about climate, resisting the heat and rain with roofs and air-con. Or is it a fantasy of modernity in which our bodies have ascended, leaving the smooth earth for our wheels? There’s that moment as you step out of an airplane and feel the heat, momentarily, between long bouts of airconditioning. “It’s hot,” you think, already forgetting what it feels like. In many ways Kuala Lumpur resembles a jungle, only without people in it.



The cave walls are painted. “Vandalism,” the guide complains. But these marks predate my birth. How long between graffiti and sacred site? We’re asked to dim our torches. “There’s an alien species in here,” says the guide, before lighting up a bench. Imagine sitting here! Sharing a picnic with the roaches!

A pleasure of environmental tourism is harshly judging those who came differently before us, those who commemorated their journey with theft and paint. We’re not like them, although I suppose they didn’t have this path to stick to, this guide to chastise them. “We need your help,” he explains: “People don’t know.”

“People” in this case means Hindus, in whose neighbouring cave no bats sing. Religion as environmental destruction, outmoded by a new piety – cool worship of a godless world. (I’m with the cave-painters.)



The day started with teh tarik smoothly drained from a glass. Others hacked open coconuts, emptied durian of its flesh. Hollowing is a culinary verb.

Around the corner, a store sold 24-litre tubs, heavy duty, called “lava juice dispenser.” We pushed past and found tiny porcelain cups on sale, made a small tower of ten of them. Nearby there were plates with raised edges, shaped like a crescent moon. An amplified prayer drifted across the market, making the air full.

Only people weren’t actually eating. “People” in this case means Muslims, who were fasting until sundown. In the afternoon a queue of men formed outside the mosque, not for prayer but for food. Each one received a bag full of cooked rice, which they proudly held to show they weren’t eating.



“Airport?” asked a woman wearing a necklace of marigolds before stepping briskly onto the carriage. Not really, but there were enough tourists on board to reassure her.

Across from us, white people compared travel stories. “The best question I ever got was: ‘Do Western women shave down there, or are they born that way?'” Behind them a sign warned against “indecent behaviour,” illustrated by two people kissing, their hairstyles distinctly non-Muslim. “Sorry!” shouted a Chinese mother, in English. Her baby had dropped its bottle on a stranger, spilling milk.

The young man continued his stories about cultural exchange. “My Japanese girlfriend said, in Chinese: ‘I want to eat you. I want to devour your body.’ I dumped her after that. A year later I learned what she was trying to say. What’s the most awkward thing that’s happened to you on your travels?”