The Heart, Grit, & Grind Of KL


On this week’s episode, what makes KL tick?

Klang Valley has, what, 7 million people, but KL is actually much smaller, 1.5 million. KL is the inner core, the old heart. Office blocks in the Golden Triangle and rundown Chow Kit. Is there anything to do there, is there anybody living there, what makes it tick? Our correspondent Ezra Zaid takes a personal journey into the heart of KL. Along the way he meets the third generation owner of an 80 year old restaurant, he meets a busker and the man who runs a truly remarkable scheme for the kids of Chow Kit.

Produced by Handy Jobs (Hear & Now in Malaysia) in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Programme and brought to you by BFM.

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Kam Raslan : BFM 89.9 I’m Kam Raslan and you’re listening to Hear & Now in Malaysia. On this week’s episode, what makes KL tick? Klang Valley has 7 million people, KL is actually much smaller, 1.5 million. KL is the inner core, the old heart, office blocks in the Golden Triangle and rundown Chow Kit, is there anything to do there, is anybody living there, what makes it tick? Our correspondent, Ezra Zaid, takes a personal journey to the heart of KL. Along the way he meets the third generation owner of an 80 year old restaurant, he meets a busker and a man who runs a truly remarkable scheme for the kids of Chow Kit.

Ezra Zaid: Uncle, how long have you been working here?

Person 1: over 30 years

Ezra Zaid : In KL, where is your favorite place?

Person 1: KLCC, Chow Kit

Person 2: KL Tower, Petronas, today we toured around Chinatown and Lake Gardens to see the birds and stuff

Ezra Zaid: When you’re not working, where do you like to go in KL?

Person 3 : Twin Tower, Reggae Bar

Person 4: KLCC, Masjid Jamek, Masjid India
Person 5: Its not a place where you really holiday and anytime we have friends that come across here, I ask where should I go for holiday? I’m hearing, and I heard, Thailand.

Ezra Zaid: KL isn’t that bland, is it? It cant be. Kuala Lumpur is a city of 1.6 million people, granted I’m not here. I’m a PJ-ian, but I keep coming back to KL for different things. It draws you in for all sort of reason. For work, for play, or maybe just to keep up with that.

Person 6: Its like a really cool playground. You can shop, you can socialize, you can learn heritage at the same time. The best part is that its rich with culture. Like, I like CheeCheongKai, which is Petaling Street.

Person 7: I’m from a small town. KL for me is like a place to find money. And when I’m not busy finding money, I’m shopping, shopping and shopping.

Person 8: I would show them  my grandmother’s dusun. Durian, rambutan, maggis, yes, in sentul.

Person 9: There is a lack of awareness, but I tell you, once you break through that and you find out what is going on, there is a lot of things going on here. There is a lot of bands that do play here, there is a lot of things going on. Unfortunately, I have to find that place where those things are going on, if not, I could be clueless and think, nothing is going on here.

Person 10: KL is constantly changing. Few cities change faster in comparison. But it has evolved into something else entirely. Some says tame, pre-packaged, even predictable.

Person 11: I used to live in JB for a year and we used to go over to Singapore in the initial time, and we loved it. And after awhile, we got over it. We love the grittiness of JB, we love the grittiness of KL, its one of those things where you need to embrace being caught in the middle of Thailand and Singapore, and what are the things that we can embrace in being in tourism and what are the things that we can embrace in being the place that people want to live in.

Person 12: We took it for granted. If you have lived there for all your life, since when do you take time to discover what is new about your community? So I think this is part of the process.

Person 13: And I think, in the expat community, they tend to find it first or push on finding it. So we were quite lucky, as my wife, being from Malaysia, and me being an expat, we kind of balance it out.

Person 14: Without the people being in KL, KL is just another piece of land. That’s it. We don’t have the people to make it what it is, the neatness of it. People are just there.

Ezra Zaid: What makes KL distinct from the people that inhabit the city, the ones who make it tick? So this week, I walk in the city, in search of what makes KL, well, KL. And along the way, I found a few friends who may well represent the belly, the ears, the heart of KL. First, the belly, because KL and food are inseparable equation. I head to a Chinese kopitiam which sits on Jalan Dang Wangi. If you haven’t heard of it, your parents may have. If they didn’t, their parents may have. I asked Mervyn Lee, shop owner of Kedai Makanan Yat Kee, about how this place has been operating since 1928 and why it generates such a buzz to people who is still queuing up for lunch.

Mervyn Lee: Families come here for the food and because we give them a personal time. One of customer told me that  “My grandfather brought me here.” My grandfather is no longer around. This is one of the two places that still bond me to him. Again, human element. So, that’s what makes us Malaysian. Its all about food. We can never stop talking about food, we can never stop going out for food, we can never stop eating food, you’re still going to talk about what you want to eat after that, so interestingly, given the many food outlets in KL, competition may be high, but so is the level of appreciation for good food, whatever they are, wherever they are.

Ezra Zaid: Yat Kee almost works like a time machine where you can jump into and remind yourself on how things were like, how we got here. But its not just about food. It serves the purpose of connecting people and bringing people together. Places like these remind us of what we once were

Mervyn Lee: I think people come here and see the way we are, the tables, chairs, its reminiscent of how KL used to be long time ago. We call it a museum piece or sometimes it brings in the fun. At the end of the day, we are no frills. We don’t get aircond here, we don’t have wet  napkins branded with our logos which we charge, nothing that people wont appreciate. Branches of whatever kopitiams out there, you don’t get the original owners coming up to say hi with you, or to serve you a kopi or to serve a joke, or to learn and exchange life stories with you. And I think this is where we are unique.

Ezra Zaid: In this age, where change and development is happening at such a rapid pace, you wonder how kopitiams like Yat Kee has survived all these years. But reality dictates that Yat Kee will be forced out from their present location and leaves us with a gap in our city landscapes, another bit of KL, gone. But as they move forward, hoping to serve and connect future generation, will they be able to retain that character that so defines them.

Mervyn Lee: Definitely yes. We don’t do this for marketing but more of nostalgia and sentimental days. Customers who had been here in the past, I don’t want them to lose the connection they had. I have taken upon myself to make sure that they have a resemblance of what they used to have, their former loves one to move on to a different place alike. I think this is a challenge for me and I look forward to it

EzraZaid: When we speak of not losing the smell and the sight of the past, we go back to the city and you notice the small things that make up the city. Shop keepers, immigrants, new tourists getting off buses, that kinda things, but also, buskers. With all the hustle and bustle, you don’t seem to have a soundtrack to accompany you to the next destination. Acoustic guitars strumming in the underway tunnels, violins on the LRT, street buskers hold a unique perspective to the city. They have an up close view on what is happening on the ground. All the shift and changes we don’t normally pay attention to. I asked Sharida, a busker, singer, songwriter about the life of performing on the street of KL.

Sharida: I was not sure what I was doing so I was just here and I was walking along Jalan Hang Kasturi and I saw this guy, Sidek. We call him Sidek the rockstar, Sidek Raga, and he was playing on the streets and he had to climb outside a tree on Jalan Hang Kasturi and he had to sing and play guitar. And I thought he was amazing, I thought he was an amazing talent and I was thinking, “Why, are you doing this.” And he gave me a simple answer. he said, “In Malaysia, if you were to just play, nobody would stop and listen. So you have to do something crazy so people will stop, and look, and listen then you would play your music.

Ezra Zaid: If you could describe the busking community then and now, why do you think that sort of area cultivate that sort of environment, even then and now?

Sharida: I think its close to Petaling Street and Central Market, so a lot of tourists come by. It is usually the tourists that like us. The local wouldn’t come near us.

Ezra Zaid: Did the authority give you a sort of free space, did they not hassle you or give you any of that in that time?

Sharida: There was. But when Dato Elias Omar came, he said everyone should leave the buskers alone because they’re not raping anyone, they’re not stealing from anyone, they’re not doing anything wrong. Let them be so that was the best time to play. Then he went down and a new guy came up, so it started all over again. But it was alright, he wasn’t so good but he wasn’t bad. Then this place became busy. Everyone who came to KL would want to go there. So did the drugs, so did the violence, so did the cops, so its not fun anymore after that. You’d be playing and you see people getting beaten. You see the blood, and you see handcuffs.

Ezra Zaid: We’re at a busstop outside Sogo having an interview. Do you think we are getting pushed out?

Sharida: I thought I was always pushed out. Its nothing new.

Ezra Zaid: 10, 15 years ago. The melting pot of KL with all sort of people, now you have various people not just working here but living here.

Sharida: Maybe its good. You get to mix around, meet other culture. I was never treated like special. Like “Because you’re Malaysian, because you’re malay, you get this this this this this”, I get nothing. I play on the streets. So if you have to compete, compete. So, why should I hope that you guys get something because you’re Malaysian and bla bla bla. I had to sleep on the streets for many many years, I’m Malaysian, I’m malay, so I think its good to compete because I had to compete.

Ezra Zaid: Being on the streets can be tough. And a lot of the areas in KL aren’t as neat and pristine as Dataran Merdeka. That grittiness that everyone keeps talking about is no more exemplified than Chow Kit.

Fahmi Reza: Chow Kit is one of the places that I used to go to.This is where I used to do my shopping, the bundles, that’s how I got all my clothes, all my vintage 70s 60s shirts, I get them for RM3 or RM5. The best food is also in Chow Kit. You have the best Nasi Kandar, the best Chilli Pan Mee, and also the best Indonesian food as well. So, its true that I always come here previously. The first time I was involved in community work in Chow Kit was when I found out the existence of this centre, KL KrashPad. It was set up last year, but even before that, a couple of years ago, me and Mark Teh and a bunch of other friends have started this thing called Project CK- Project Chow Kit, which is a few months of workshop for teenagers and kids living here. There is one thing that people don’t know. There are a lot of kids that actually live in and out Chow Kit.

Ezra Zaid: Known for its dark side and for all the wrong things, I found a spark of light in the area where I meet Fahmi Reza in the KL Krashpad, a little known community centre for teenagers in the area. Fahmi spends a lot of his time here after he started ChowKit Kita, a community mapping by teens and for teens in Chow Kit.

Fahmi Reza: Chow Kit Kita is actually a community mapping project where teenagers in Chow Kit map out their own community. So, at the end of the project, we produce maps, Chow Kit maps. We map out Chow Kit in different phases. The first phase, last year, August to December, the kids map out the religious and ethnic diversity in Chow Kit, where they map out the places of worship, all eleven places of worship. For the second phase, from March to June this year, they map out  all the eating places in Chow Kit. All the hundred and two hundred plus outlets, they mapped it out and they shared all their favorite food. The act of mapping out is an act of their own. “This is my area, this is my city.” If you look at Chow Kit, almost all the road names are someone’s name. Raja Laut, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Sultan Ismail, there are a lot of names, all the kings. So what the kids did, they found out who are these people. So they researched and found out, and find photos of the guy, the person, the guy and they did an exhibition. They did a model of the roadsign, and they put their picture on the roadsign and caption who these people are. So now you know who these people are, its different. You pass by Chow Kit, you’ll know who Chow kit is, and you can tell, these are the kind of things they are doing with their friends. Its this kind of things that make the community more interesting. And we don’t need the authorities to highlight these things, we don’t need the tourist department to highlight these things. Why cant we highlight these things. The community themselves, the kids themselves, the teenagers themselves. So in that sense, I think it is also empowering for the kids, to know that they can do such things. They can contribute back to the community in this way.

Ezra Zaid: The future of Kuala Lumpur lies with the children of the city. They’re the one that will eventually succeed us. But it is also dependent on how active we are to our surroundings, to our environment, to actually give a hoot to KL or any other place.

Fahmi Reza: I think we are creating citizens who are more rooted to their community, these teenagers and I think this is what is part of the project is about. And one the map that we do plan to create one day is to map their vision, to map out what they want their community to be, what kind of spaces do they want. Playgrounds, where? This will be their voice, more unused tall buildings? The development of KL, one thing that I don’t like to say, we just let it happen. Or we complain, on facebook, or at the coffeeshop, instead of finding out how we can be part of the decision. Instead of building another highrise, office building, why cant we build a community center there? So I think it is time for us to reclaim KL. Its for the kids. Previously, the kids feel ashamed to be associated with Chow Kit.This is partly because they do not know the other side of Chow Kit. They do know sometimes but they don’t know how to articulate it. But after going through these projects they also discover some interesting things about Chow Kit which they can be proud of. They are no longer ashamed to be part of Chow Kit.  They even created a t-shirt called “I love Chow Kit Kita” its for people who are interested to join Chow Kit Kita. If you have no time, come as a volunteer. If you want commitment, come, we can make you a facilitator. If you are even more passionate, come we can share our experience, and you can create your own center. Bangsar Kita, Project Cheras Kita, Project Pudu Kita, anywhere. This is how we built back our lost community spirit. We leave facebook and return to our community.

Ezra Zaid: Around countless corners, I encounter the edgy, grimy part of Kuala Lumpur, a far cry from the tame, pre-packaged description that we are familiar with. The people I met shared one thing in common. The commitment to all the space and the things that they do, and if anything, the people we met, they’re invested in the city. They’re here to state their claim and they’re here for the long haul. And ultimately, in however big or small way, it is up to us to discover our own sense of place and our own commitment to space.

Kam Raslan: That was Ezra Zaid, finding out what makes KL tick. You have been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia. This has been the last episode for this season, but don’t worry. The Hear and Now team will be back in January 2012 with more episodes. So in the mean time, please get in touch with us on our twitter feed at BFMRadio if you have any comments or any ideas. So until next year, I am Kam Raslan and this is BFM The Business Station 89.9

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