Kuala Lumpur was the center of British Malayan administration in colonial times, and you can still see buildings from then, including the Central Market. The Japanese invaded Malaya, as it was then known, 90 minutes before attacking Pearl Harbor and held it for the duration of the war.
After the war the British cooperated in preparing Malaya for independence, which came in 1957. It is a racially diverse country, with Malaysians, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. Malaysians believe they are the the only rightful occupants of the Malaysian peninsula, and they control the levers of government for the most part but are seen as lacking initiative, as even Mahmud admitted to me. The Chinese own most of the wealth. The Indians, Tamils and Bengalis and Sikhs, make up much of the civil service. Burgess writes about this in The Long Day Wanes.
My driver last night, Manpret, gave me a capsule summary that confirmed most of Burgess’s observations. Manpret disputes what he calls “the Muslims’” claim to original occupancy, stating his belief that most of them immigrated from Indonesia, just as his grandfather came from the Bengal. I asked, by “Muslims” did he mean Malaysians? “I am Malaysian too,” he said. “I am talking about the Muslims.” He also noted that the Chinese own most of the wealth and believes the Indians do most of the productive work.
He agreed with my observation that Kuala Lumpur seems to have a broad middle class, unlike Indonesia or the Philippines. He couldn’t say why this was so, but we agreed that it must have to do with the tremendous oil wealth. He drives a new Toyota that he owns and he is rightly proud of it, leaving the plastic on the seats for the present.
Manpret took me to a friend’s shop who sold stuff I wanted for gifts, and got me a good discount on high quality goods. I bought him dinner in the street while we waited for one item to be delivered and he introduced me to some of his friends who are from Myanmar and are in Malaysia under United Nations auspices as refugees, and who work for the Chinese street restaurateurs. Like Manpret, they are Chelsea fans. He warned me, unnecessarily, to stay out of the foot massage places that he says are fronts for prostitution and which I notice are always full of Australian tourists having their hairy feet kneaded.
He was at first incredulous and then appalled when I told him I spent my first night in KL at the Mexico Hotel.
I thought that the hats that I see older men wearing around KL would make an excellent and unusual gift. An older bellman who wore a felt one told me this type hat is called a “songkok” and suggested I could find them in Chinatown. Manpret, age 29, did not agree with my idea when I told him what I had in mind. Although he took me to a shop that sold them, he said “If I were your son I would not want that as a gift.” He himself wore a complicated piece of headgear that he said he got in Thailand, and that tied in the back. I don’t know if his objection to the songbok was a matter of style or arose instead from the fact that only Muslims wear them. Anyway I learned from the man who ran the shop that the hats can’t be collapsed into luggage without ruining them and so backed off.
New earbuds, laundry, new t-shirts, a watch (I decided against the 425 RM ($140) “Patek Philippe” watch offered just inside a foot massage place) and another visit to the towers ate up the rest of the day. I sweated through my first shirt by 10 am. My flight to Istanbul is at midnight so I’m resting up a bit. I had planned to got to Chennai in India but after making flight and hotel arrangements, and booking a train from Chennai to Delhi for later in the week, learned that I would need a visa for India. This is way too much hassle so I reversed all the arrangements. India will be there for the next trip.
PS, this is the worst bathmat in SE Asia, found on the eleventh floor of the Federal Hotel in KL, an otherwise fine hotel. It reminded me of Don Delillo’s description of Jackie Gleason throwing up on Frank Sinatra’s shoes in the Pafko at the Wall section of Underworld:
Jackie utters an aquatic bark, it is loud and crude, the hoarse call of some mammal in distress. Then the surge of flannel matter. He seems to be vomiting someone’s taupe pajamas. …
[Frank] looks down at the back of Jackie’s glossy head and he looks at his own trouser cuffs flaked an intimate beige and the spatter across his shoe tops in a strafing pattern and the gumbo puddle nearby that contains a few laggard gobs of pinkoid stuff from deep in Gleason’s gastric sac.