I wondered what was in the red bucket. Was it sauce? Was it water? Was it mystery ingredient? Before I could ask, the ear of grilled corn dove straight in for a long bath in that red bucket. Last time that I ate something before asking what it was, I ended up with betel nut and lime paste, so I have no clue why I proceeded carelessly ahead once again.
The vendor with the red bucket stood just over five feet tall, standard issue Malay—a sparse and wiry moustache, graphic black tee, meticulously gelled short hair, and enough acne to share. He was sweating heavily as he had spent the past six hours standing in humid nighttime air, hunched over a bed of hot coals fanning little piles of sweet corn that were perfectly crisped and crackled over the fire. I was curious as to how Malay elote would be any different, if different at all, from that sold in Guatemala. This is where the red bucket made the difference. It was not at all what I had expected; it was a vat of melted butter mixed with salt and coconut juice. And it was fantastic.
After just forty-eight hours I have stopped questioning the origin of things in Malaysia. Some things—but not the things you would expect—seem to be inbred, exclusively Malay, segregated and proudly so, but so much of the cities, the language, and the culture are the unintentionally arranged flotsam of the Indians, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. Words in Bahasa Malay make me laugh, as the language is incorruptibly phonetic (in the way Malays say it) even when borrowing words exactly from Iberian languages, Arabic, and English. Snek means snack. Sos means sauce. Ekspres means express. Kopi means coffee. Akhbar means news (as it does in Arabic.) A family now living here for three years told me: “we have trouble showing people what is truly Malay. Everything is a mix,” language included. Any traveler has a desire to glimpse, even if briefly, the soul of their current destination, to see the seedling that has since produced whatever hybrid fruits. That seedling in Malaysia is tricky to find.
Take the port of Melaka as an illustration. Located at the swampy mouth of a river at the narrowest point between Malaysia and Indonesia, the town of Melaka has been inhabited for centuries, first established as a legitimate fort by exiled Hindu king Perameswara who was wandering the region on his way from Singapore. When Portuguese traders first landed at the nearby Indonesian Spice Islands in the 16th century, Perameswara’s fort had already been known by Arab, Chinese, and Indian traders who scurried daily through the Malacca Straits in quite large numbers, though their traffic was hardly even a taste of the commercial feast that the area was to host in later centuries. In 1511 the Portuguese seized control of Melaka, followed a century later by the Dutch, then by the British, then briefly by the Japanese in the decade prior to the state’s accession to the Malaysian Federation in 1948. Both bullied and cherished by a veritable parade of empires, Melaka had a value which transcended any of its de jure owners. Nutmeg and cloves came from Indonesia. Ships laden with silk and silver and ceramics sailed south from China, and copper, weapons, and textiles from Kerala and Gujarat made their way East, all of this in addition to the long-haul import and export from Europe and the Middle East and the local Melakan production of rubber. At times, the port hosted upwards of 2,000 ships per day.
Five hundred years later Melaka has earned a UNESCO designation for its bizarre, inspiring ability to juggle all of its colorful ancestors. The ecumenically-minded will be interested by the fact that Melaka is the only place in the world to have a mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist temple on the same city block. Restaurants serve items that testify to the city’s motley parentage. Diablo Curry—a dish first designed by the Eurasian Portuguese population that still maintain a strong presence in the city and murmur on in a language called Kristang—is called diablo is for the heat, for the red chilies that float omnipresent in the thin red sauce that is also flavored with lemongrass and lime leaf. Taken at its most basic elements, the sauce of the Diablo Curry is similar to many Portuguese stews and soups that I’ve tried in the U.S. or Europe, just with the heat turned up significantly.
With a distinctive architecture, rickshaws blasting Portuguese hip-hop followed by Chinese New Year songs, and three sub-cultures found only on its own stretch of coast, Melaka is a perfect place to surrender to this country’s kaleidoscope society, to stop asking certain questions and to sit and accept Malaysia’s at-times inaccessibly complicated family tree.
That said, Kuala Lumpur is by no means subtler than Melaka in its identity crisis. It is simply larger, more difficult to understand and to sample appropriately. Capital of a country in which three major ethnic groups cohabit but live culturally segregated lives (Indian, Chinese, and Malay, in addition to all of the smaller groups, some of which I just mentioned), “KL”—as it is called—is both an exemplary city for Southeast Asian lovers of physical infrastructure and a beacon of Islamic culture and architecture (or perhaps I mean cultural architecture, hmmm). The Petronas Towers, made famous by their five-year title as the tallest buildings in the world (though I think their fame is more likely the result of the movie Entrapment and the scenes of Catherine Zeta-Jones scaling the walls in a black leather jumpsuit), were commissioned by the former Malaysian Prime Minister as monuments of Islamic architectural innovation and of Malaysia’s impressive oil and gas giant for which the towers are named. Still the highest twin towers in the world, the Peteronas were designed in an oh-so-Islamic eight-point star pattern, glowing silver after seven in the evening and informing all living things within a hundred miles just how much Malaysia can and is trying to lead the region.
Around the same time of construction as the Petronas Towers, the Malaysian government established Putrajaya, the country’s new administrative sort-of-ish capital. Not unlike the bulbous alien cities of Central Asia that were essentially sandboxes for loony Communist architects (have you see a picture of Astana, Kazakhstan?), Putrajaya is both a little bit creepy and very intergalactic, excessively modern in that way that makes you wonder if it is meant for robots or humans. I suppose the best way to imagine Putrajaya is to think of what would happen if you mixed Cloud City from Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back with the Sultan’s palace in Aladdin, and then removed all trace of life. Aside from the fountain and park outside the mosque—which is actually beautiful, an elegant knock-off of a Gulfi mosque—the city is empty. Ambassadors and even government ministers refuse to live in the new capital. Shiny apartment blocks throughout the city remain more or less unoccupied, and the clean, efficient city buses usher little but empty chairs to and fro down the meticulous and immense main street that runs from the circular convention center to the Prime Minister’s house.
Don’t misunderstand, I think the city is a point of pride for Malaysia, but it needs a stronger pulse before it can fully come alive. While still surprisingly modern, KL is a dirty party animal compared to its shiny and benign new growth of Putrajaya. Especially after living five months in Switzerland, nighttime in downtown KL is like chugging four Redbulls in a cold shower—it wakes you up.
KL, and entire country for that matter, has an obsession with Angry Birds. This was an immediate selling point for me, as I was one of the millions of sedentary developed world folk who downloaded the game on my new iPad this past Christmas day. Pillows, air fresheners, flip flops, t-shirts, pajamas, onesies, purses, wallets, and balloons in angry birds form (particularly the red ones) are found all over markets in Malaysia, and they are hot sellers. Even as I walked with Ashish down the steps of the Batu Caves—a holy site for Hindu worshippers—a skinny vendor saw my gaze fixing on yet more Angry Birds paraphernalia hanging among glittery Shiva posters and shouted “oh hello mister you want Angry Birds yes? Angry Birds sir, Angry Birds” I did not want Angry Birds, to the vendor’s chagrin.
Perhaps attributable to my ignorance of Asian cities, I was incredibly amused and fascinated by the street in downtown KL that is almost exclusively made up of foot reflexology shops, catering to reveling tourists and Malaysians wanting a nice rub-down after a night out. Bustling with people of every shape, height, color, and level of sobriety, this street was more heavily trafficked because of Chinese New Year, and many of the shops were running specials on less conventional treatments such as “fish spa” and “cupping.” Not yet brave enough to have my feet nibbled by fish or massaged by strangers (though I did so eventually at about 3am), I first explored other aspects of Malaysian nightlife, including a street dedicated to durian vendors and portable restaurants made up of nothing more than grandma’s 1960s plastic table and stained folding chairs—all signs of a good time, to me. I won’t digress into durians; I will write a separate post about this “King of Fruits.” Of all the stalls and streetside restaurants, my personal favorite was the cart of skewered foods—anything from mushrooms to bacon to pig stomach to octopus to dim sum—which are made to order set into boiling water and spicy sauce.
My exploration of the city’s nightlife has been aided by the timing of my trip, right in the middle of the elaborate and amazingly festive Chinese New Year (Happy Year of the Dragon, btw) The alleyways and highways alike have been glowing red for my days in KL, with red lanterns strung up between every streetlight and off of the sides of all buildings. Restaurants, massage parlors, and hotels have on display little mandarin orange trees, ornamented with red envelopes in celebration of Chinese New Year. For those, like myself, who have little previous exposure to the holiday—the red envelopes on CNY are often filled with cash or some small gift and handed out to unmarried relatives and family friends. Divorced or widowed are disqualified.
As I write this on a smooth bus ride to Singapore, I know that the festivities of CNY will continue for days, if not weeks, throughout East and Southeast Asia. Streets in most big cities will keep a canopy of lanterns that nearly block out the sky, and oranges will be gifted back and forth between local residents, as a wish for prosperity and peace in the New Year of the Dragon.
Rarely do you find niqabi Iranian and loosey-goosey Australian tourists on the same street, in the same shops, or at the same foot massage parlor at midnight. So is Malaysia—many different things to many different people. I hate to stray into the cliché here, though what I’ve seen is difficult to describe any other way. Its history, its complexity, and its sullied mosaic society continue to force Malaysia to juggle so many competing interests, diverse opportunities, and cultural niches. While I have not here even opened the time-bomb issue of the country’s politics and social tensions, suffice it to say that I’m sure you and I alike will be hearing more about this place in the future, and it has, even after such a short time, stolen quite of bit of my interest.