To learn why people hated this city so much, I got in touch with Sara, the Malay girl I got acquainted with in Melaka. We met at the food court of the Pavilion Mall in Bukit Bintang, a mall that looked so big and expensive, it could have been a city in itself. I ordered a laksa and she got herself a teh tarik and we talked about Kuala Lumpur.
“You may not like to hear me say this but I’m liking your city a lot”, I said.
“That’s okay”, she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “All tourists like the city. It’s an easy place to like for 2-3 days.”
“I met this dude yesterday who hated it.”
“Was he a white person? White people don’t like this city.”
“Yeah, an American. He lives in Thailand with his wife.”
“Those are the worst. He must have come here for a visa run. These people think all of Asean is one big country and they have a right to roam around wherever they want without respecting rules.”
“I thought you would agree with him! He hates it because of the crowds and the pollution and all that.”
“Which city doesn’t have crowds and pollution? I’ve been to New York and Paris and KL is a lot cleaner and easier to live in than both of them.”
“But I thought you didn’t like this city.”
“I don’t like it for very different reasons. It’s the city I grew up in and I don’t like how we’ve destroyed the old culture to build these ugly new malls and high rises.”
“Yet, here we are, meeting in a mall.”
“That’s because I work here. If you’d come on a holiday, we would have met in Kampong Baru, where you find the best food in Kuala Lumpur.”
“But don’t you think the fact that you’re earning a living through the existence of this ugly capitalist building means it has done some good to your city?”
“I’m working here because I have to. I don’t have a choice if I want to live independently. But if this place didn’t exist, there might have been a street food market where I would have found a job. Maybe I would have been happier.”
“What’s stopping you from finding work in one of the street food markets in the city?”
“Because I have bills to pay and there’s no money in street food. This job is much easier to do. I just sit around all day and go home and get paid for it. It’s just not as satisfying as making food for people. I don’t like this city because it doesn’t have a soul anymore. It’s just become this ugly mass of buildings everywhere. When I grew up, the city used to be much greener but now you won’t be able to spot a single tree in central KL.”
“But all cities change, don’t they? I grew up in Mumbai and the city that I saw growing up is completely different from the city that exists today.”
“Do you like Mumbai?”
“I don’t mind it. That’s where my home is. So I don’t have a choice I guess.”
“You don’t like your city. If you did, you would be living there. Not traveling without a job all the time.”
“That’s true. And I probably don’t like it for the same reasons you don’t. It’s become more crowded, more mechanical and a lot busier over the years. Most of my friends live in Mumbai but it’s impossible to see them because they’re always so busy with work. But, on the other hand, lots of people travel. That doesn’t mean they hate the cities they come from.”
“Well, if I had the money to travel for many years, I’ll be very happy never to see KL again. The people who like the places they come from go on vacations. They don’t travel for years to find another place to be happy in. If you meet that American guy again, ask him what he likes better, Thailand or the city he lived in before. I’m willing to bet he’ll say Thailand.”
“Well, he found a wife and a job in Thailand. He has a reason to be happier there.”
“You can also find a wife in Thailand if you try like he did.”
“The last thing I need in my life is a wife.”
“Yeah because she’ll tell you to get a job and live your life properly instead of roaming around.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that. Any tips on things to do in KL?”
“Yes. Don’t go to Genting Highlands. Don’t go to Batu Caves. Unless you want to mingle with busloads of tourists from your country.”
“That’s good advice.”
“If you hang around till Saturday, I could take you to the street food market at Kampong Baru.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
The Kampung Baru street market was right behind KL’s most recognizable icon, the gigantic Petronas Towers and was the oldest part of the city where a glimpse or two of the traditional timbered architecture could still be seen. Sara was highly sceptical that anything here would last.
“You’re lucky to come here now when these old buildings are still around”, she said, “In a few years, they’ll all be gone.”
We walked around, got ourselves some rojak, some nasi lemak, a few glasses of Teh Tarik, endless sticks of satay. “The satay here is good”, I said, “but the satay I had in Melaka in the restaurant we met was a lot more flavourful and delicious. What do you think?”
“Kuala Lumpur is the worst place in Malaysia for local food,” she said, “If you want to taste great Malay cuisine, you have to leave this city and go to Ipoh and Penang. But by KL standards, this is the best and the most authentic food you get.”
Then she took me to Pisco Bar, a hip new bar she loved to visit on weekends. It was a cool place, a mix of the classy and the chic, walls decorated with black and white photographs. A raunchy band lit up the stage at one end belting out 80s pop hits. Some of Sara’s friends joined in and we all had much fun, laughter and conversation.
At around midnight, Sara wanted to go back home and since her house was on the way to my hostel, I said I would drop her. We were both somewhat inebriated and Sara went on about how easy it was to connect with people if we tried. After all, we had barely known each other until I met her at the mall.
The taxi drove into a lane populated with high-rises and she pointed to one of them and said, “That’s my house. Do you want to come up? I make good coffee. We could sit down and watch Friends.”
“Friends?”, I said, “I don’t like Friends.”
“You don’t like Friends?”, she said, arching her eyebrows disapprovingly.
“No I don’t. I’m more of a Seinfeld guy”, I said.
“Seinfeld was a sitcom from the 90s that aired around the same time as Friends. You see, that’s why I like the 90s so much. The pop culture was neatly and helpfully segregated. You had Seinfeld for all the people who liked smart comedy and Friends for those who liked dumb comedy. You should try watching Seinfeld. It’s fantastic”, I blurted on idiotically.
“I love Friends. It’s very funny. You think it’s a dumb show?”
She sighed. “Okay, maybe you don’t want to come up then. I like dumb shows.”
“Haha it’s okay, I could come up for coffee.”
“You think I’m calling you up so I could serve you coffee?”, she said, with a grin.
“Yeah, I could come up for anything…”, I stuttered clumsily.
“You’ve killed the mood, lah”, she said, giving me a hug, “Maybe you should watch dumb shows instead of smart ones.”
We said goodbyes and after she had gone inside the building, I got rid of the cab and walked 3 kms back to my hostel on the desolate streets of midnight KL feeling desperately hollow and stupid.