Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kuala Lumpur: An Expat's Writer's Experience

On my first visit to Kuala Lumpur in 1980, the plane that I was traveling on wasn’t allowed to land at the Subang Airport because another plane was in flames on the runway.  Until the wreckage could be cleared we were forced to make a detour to Penang.  Not a good first impression, but one that fueled my creative imagination.  For over twenty-five years, I have been coming back to Kuala Lumpur.

For me, Kuala Lumpur has always been associated with writing and meeting other writers.  Not long after moving to Penang in 1985, one of my short stories won a consolation prize in the Her World short story contest.  At the award ceremony I met several KL-based writers like Cean and Ridzwan Chesterfield.  I met them again when my stories won prizes in two of The Star’s contests, including third-prize for “The Future Barrister”.  The writers would take me around and show me the less glamorous side of the city, from Chow Kit to the abandoned apart­ments behind Bukit Bintang Plaza, which had been taken over by drug addicts and prostitutes who openly plied their trade.  

In 1987 I came to KL for a two-day writing workshop conducted by K.S. Maniam, sponsored by The New Straits Times; again I met several familiar faces as well as an aspiring poet named Jeya.  After the workshop we shared a crowded bus to the Klang Bus Station, and while waiting for her bus connection to return to her husband in Klang, we had teh-o at the nearby coffee shop at the Starlight Hotel on Jalan Sultan.  I turned our lively conversation that centered on the appearance of two Western women who showed up in backpacker attire – sleeveless loose tops, short shorts and no bras – into the short story, “Teh-O in K.L.” which appeared in Her World magazine and was included in my collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers and later Lovers and Strangers Revisited.  

The story is about a mat salleh and an Indian woman reflecting upon how opposite races tend to attract, a common theme in KL, a multiracial melting pot for Malaysians and expats.  Expats, by the way, are a source of constant curiosity.  Often I would feel that I’m being watched, stared at, or even ogled.  At times, flattering, but mostly unnerving.  The color of our skin makes us stand out, but too often expats have a way of attracting needless attention, even Westerners like me who take a subdued approach while trying to fit in.  It’s impossible to be anonymous whether boarding an over­crowded minibus at Central Market, having nasi ayam at a hawker stall or wandering the five-foot ways in search of a story.

In the early 90’s I would come to KL for the annual Book Fair held at the Putra World Trade Centre.  I would snake my way along with the crowd in order to get a feel of the publishing industry while searching for a publisher for my collection of short stories.  I would then pop over to The New Straits Times, where my articles regularly appeared in their Sunday Style section.  I would also make the rounds, meeting writers or visiting with magazine editors regarding my short stories or articles.  When Lovers and Strangers came out, Her World featured me as a personality for their November 1993 issue.  KL can even make a lonely expat writer like me feel glamorous.

I was once invited to KL to give a reading at the Australian High Commis­sion along with a dozen other writers, including Rehman Rashid, whose book A Malaysian Journey came out at around the same time as Lovers and Strangers.  I read one of the stories from my collection, and I was already looking forward to coming back to KL for future readings.  But then I started teaching creative writing at USM, and after going through a divorce, a custody battle, and being a single parent with a work permit, I rarely came back to KL.  

Eight years later Silverfish began its New Writing Series, so I would come down to KL for the book launches, the readings, and the writing conferences.  Although I had lost contact with most of my KL-based writing friends, including several I used to exchange stories with, Raman Krishnan and Sharon Bakar introduced me to plenty of others.  By then the city of Kuala Lumpur had already changed forever for me, thanks to the Twin Towers and KL Tower, and the new gleaming airport built far, far away that would require a ride on the equally new KLIA Express to KL Sentral, to an LRT connection and then a short walk to wherever I happened to be staying.  

In the past I often arrived by train or by a bus and I would walk everywhere.  A lot of my old haunts from the mid- to-late 80’s were no longer there, torn down by progress.  Even Kuala Lumpur’s lovely sounding name, despite its ‘muddy estuary’ meaning, has been reduced to the lazy-sounding and non-descript “KL”.  At times, I felt like a stranger, disoriented.

What I missed were the old hotels like those on Jalan Sultan where I often stayed, places like Lee Mun Hotel, with its stained glass windows on top of dark brown paneled walls.  I also enjoyed staying at the nearby Colonial Hotel with its numerous staircases that seemed to go up and down forever, a virtual maze.  Whenever I stayed there alone I would feel compelled to grab someone off the street and say, “You got to see this place!”  I would give them the grand tour, their mouths agape – no doubt they suspected me of ulterior motives.

Those old Chinese hotels had character.  Staying there was always an adventure – you never knew who you would bump into, from backpackers, to adulterers, to transvestites, and to a lovely pair of Indonesian lesbians.  Of course, as a writer, I would write all this down in various notebooks, from my journal to my daily descriptions, where every day for years I would describe whatever caught my fancy, from the strange odors I would encounter to the patterns I’d find in floor tiles.  I would also describe the rooms themselves to use later in my short stories or novels.

In my novel I am working on, I combined my old description notes of a hotel on Jalan Sultan, including the singlet-wearing Chinese men who manned the front desk – desks that were rarely positioned in the front of the building, but often down a long dim-lit corridor at the base of the steps.  When­ever I stayed at these hotels, I never knew what I was going to find.  If it wasn’t fresh paint for the upcoming Chinese New Year then it was a funeral procession awaking me early the following morning.

As soon as I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur Station Hotel, “a colonial fantasy of spires and minarets, cupolas and arches”, where I stayed a couple of times in the mid-80’s, I knew that the setting demanded to be used in a story – a story that I originally named “Joking” when it appeared in Her World, but later changed to, “The Station Hotel.”  The characters I invented for the story would visit the Lake Gardens, the National Museum, and Central Market before eating at the Station Hotel where by then their affair was coming unglued.

When the story came out in Lovers and Strangers, no less than six people thought that I was writing about them!  A wife of one of the men was adamant that I wrote about her husband because they shared the same name, Lee, and the descriptions fit (except he was an American and my character was Chinese).  To prove that I had not written about her husband, I dug up the original Her World version published years before I had met them.  Others who “saw” themselves in the story were not so easily convinced.  I didn’t ask who they were having an affair with – I figured it was none of my business.

In 2005 while revisiting the story for Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I had to make a trip to KL for a reading at Silverfish, so I took the opportunity to stay at the now renovated and upgraded The Heritage Station Hotel Kuala Lumpur.  After an absence of twenty years, staying at the hotel proved invaluable for rewriting the story.  I felt a powerful connection to my past, to the original inspirations for the story, and to what I was trying to do with this heavily revised version that nearly doubled its length.

At Silverfish, after I had read my story, a woman arrived late and expressed her disappointment that she had missed my reading, so I mentioned I had this other story that I was in the midst of rewriting, full of rough editing notes.  She and the others present asked to hear it.  Afterwards, another woman said that she loved it but only wished that her friend, who had recently stayed several months at The Station Hotel, was present.

Now and then while in KL, I would go to the Coliseum Café & Hotel on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman for their sizzling steaks.  As I writer, I loved the colonial atmosphere, and would take out my journal and start writing until the food came and then afterwards linger with pen in hand.  At times though, I wished they would change their tablecloths, which they never seemed to do.  Once in the late 80’s, I brought a KL-writer friend and as we entered, the stench was so overwhelming that we both looked at each other in horror and abruptly turned around and ate elsewhere.

On another visit to KL in the late 80’s another writer friend took me to the Le Coq d’Or located in the turn-of-the-century Bok Mansion.  I was so glad to have dined there and felt rather sad that KL had decided rather hastily to tear down such an exquisite piece of architecture.  A shame really.  They could’ve put it to a far better use.  It would’ve made a magnificent setting for a museum, an art gallery, or a cultural center.  It had it all – character, charm, ambiance and history – right in the heart of KL.

At times, I must admit, KL has brought out the worst in me.  Blame it on the traffic, the congestion, the confusion of Pudu Raya when I used to take buses back then, or maybe it was because my marriage to my now ex-wife was not going well so all those lonely nights staying in quaint hotels or wandering the streets chasing a pretty smile or sidestepping a gaggle of transvestites eyeing me up and down had a cumulative effect.

Yet recently I brought my fourteen-years-old son Zaini to KL and we had fun playing tourists, going shopping, and having dinner at the Hard Rock Café, which left a lasting impression on both of us.

During a recent visit, I was walking near the Hard Rock Café late at night when I saw the top of the lit-up Twin Towers beside a full moon in all of its glory.  I stood there admiring it for what seemed like half a lifetime, about as long as I’ve been coming to KL.  Another man appeared with his head down, walking briskly.  When he saw me standing there, he gave me an odd, annoyed look as though I was blocking his path.  I pointed up to what I had been admiring and he glanced in the direction of my finger and then took a double take and halted in his tracks.  I was glad to see that KL – the Kuala Lumpur of the past and the KL of the present – could still hold someone’s attention, as a timeless beacon, especially for an expat writer like me.
               -from Tropical Affairs: Episodes of an Expat's life in Malaysia

                                            -Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer   

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

**Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

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