Colonial Hotel (M$16.80)
Jalan Sultan (Chinatown), Kuala Lumpur
15 November 1985 6.15pm
Outside a tropical thunderstorm deposits a vast tonnage of water. Inside I dry off from a shower which is a water jet. I’m listening to Radio Malaysia on my Walkman – a mixture of Irish ballads and Frankie in his – in order to not listen to the Chinese lady next door blaring out another radio station. This is pulsed out through the metal grid at the top of the wall which separates us.
My introspection also gets disturbed by her morning, noon and night prayers. At times she sounds like a group of West Indian domino players as she beats out the passage between her songs of praise, I suppose, which are mostly atonal, occasionally melodic. I can’t be sure Who she believes hears her, apart from me and all the other occupants of this typically Chinese hotel. The shrine in the corner of her room has a gilded (brass?) statue of Shiva, or a reasonable facsimile. The pungent smell of incense accompanies her prayer ceremonies; the fan passes the aroma onwards to the other rooms bordering the courtyard. I can’t tell if the rooms upstairs also receive this beneficence as with stairs rising at all angles, backwards and onwards, I’ve yet to get my bearings.
My wanderings outside have stretched beyond Chinatown. As a pedestrian I have followed the traffic to the railway station which looks like a mosque and to the national mosque which doesn’t.
Kuala Lumpur Railway Station
In between are highrises which would not look out of place in an Islamic Los Angeles. The concrete shrouded in glass occasionally reflects empty buildings, al least thirty years old, awaiting renewal.
I sing in praise, however, of the National Museum. Set apart from the city by the railway, the muddy rivers Kelang and Gombek, and speeding traffic, the building has a human scale. This is appropriate as it purports to celebrate the traditions and structures of Malay culture, from pre-history to the present political structures of the state of Selangor.
It was a pleasure to peruse, as much from the comfortable furnishings, the carpetting and lighting, as from the displays, well-presented in both Malay and English. My fellow visitors too seemed to take pleasure in their surroundings. There was no rushing from exhibit to exquisite display as in India.
As a monument to nationalism, the museum is a matter of pride. As a visitor and non-participant I quietly enjoyed being able to understand the purpose of the place. I think I glimpsed too the drive which is transforming Malaysia into a ‘developed’ country. Long the world’s major producer of tin and rubber, the national wealth is changing the status of the citizens.
With an authoritative government – which is not quite to say authoritarian – rooted in Islamic tradition, new housing estates, air conditioning, efficient public transport and all the so-called benefits of western globalisation are increasingly available to the masses. They too now have Ronald MacDonald and Colonel Sanders visibly offering consumer comfort foods.
That makes me pleased to stay in the traditional confines of Chinatown, and sad to see in the museum a display of not so old but ‘traditional’ toys and games.
Don’t Malaysians play any more?