Monday, February 15, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

If there was any question in my mind whether Malaysia is a developed country, it was dispelled on the drive from the airport. Everywhere are signs of Malaysia's economic miracle. From the glistening, well-paved roads, to the smart commercial facilities of Cyberjaya, Malaysia's high-tech "planned city" outside KL, Malaysia quickly impresses upon the visitor that it is a modern nation.
Three days in city confirm these impressions. While architectural remnants of colonial Malaysia can be seen in KL's Chinatown and Little India, the central core of the city is as modern as any city can be. To be frank, after experiencing an initial thrill of recognition – look, there's a Starbuck's! – the joy of being surrounded by so much modernity wears off, and I begin to feel like I might as well be in any other city. Notwithstanding, two things distinguish KL in my mind.
The first is the Petronas Towers. Cesar Pelli's twin monuments are a fantastic blend of Western audacity and Islamic aesthetics. It starts with the geometry. The towers' floorplan is based on two eight-pointed stars, interlaced with rounded columns. Their 88 floors are separated into five levels, representing the five pillars of Islam, and topped by minaret-like spires. Lateral ribbons of steel reflect the sunlight, giving the towers a shimmering gemlike quality. At night, they are lit up like diadems that have been extended skyward. A trip to the Sky Bridge on the 41st floor confirms the exquisiteness of the structures; from a distance or up close, they are as magnificent an architectural creation as any I have seen.
The second aspect of KL that sets it apart from other cities is its fabled multiculturalism. Throughout the city, you see a fantastic mix of Malays, Tamils, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, and Africans, all pressed together, clad in keffiyeh and chadors, dhotis and saris, headscarves, songkoks, sarongs, dashikis, and of course, jeans, t-shirts, and Western business attire. Though political tensions have recently strained Malaysia's tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance, the country's multiculturalism is something of which Malaysians may justifiably be proud. It is reflected everywhere in the country's capital city.
Hương's first taste of a modern metropolis has, as anticipated, been an eye-opening experience. She's been impressed by the buildings, the roads, the ease with which anything can be purchased, and the politeness of the traffic culture. Hanoi has nothing like KL's ethnic enclaves, so she has enjoyed experiencing the contrasts between Chinatown's aggressive mercantilism, and Little India's languid pace, to take two examples.
Reflecting on what lessons Malaysia may hold for her country, she astutely notes that the difference in population densities make rapid development more of a challenge for Vietnam. While most people agree that Vietnam's modernization is just a matter of time, Hương would rather see Hanoi maintain its historic center unchanged, "because the high buildings would destroy Hanoi's culture." This is a lesson I too hope Vietnam learns from KL, Beijing, Seoul, and other recently developed Asian cities, (see my previous thoughts on the subject).
For both of us, the food has been a fun part of the journey. We are fortunate to be staying with our friend Miriam, a Kiwi woman we met some months ago in Hanoi. Aside from being a great conversationalist and offering us insights into Malaysian expat life, she has pointed us in the direction of some fine eats, in particular Namaste, a small Mamak restaurant near her house. Mamak restaurants are typically small cafes or roadside stalls operated by Tamil Muslims. They are a cultural institution in Malaysia, and the food, which has a distinctively Indian bite, can be quite good. A breakfast of nasi lemak sotong the other morning, washed down with teh tarik, has been one of the culinary highlights of the trip.
In all, multiculturalism and modernity are, for me, the hallmarks of modern Malaysia. KL rightfully stands as a symbol of what modern Asia can be, and may be considered Dr. Mahathir's finest achievement. I hope to see how Malaysian multiculturalism and modernity are expressed in the rest of the country.


  1. Very cool. I've often wondered about kl and appreciate your thoughts, observations and photos. Thanks for posting. =Ricardo.

  2. Beauty and The Hal ...... digging the blogs Hal ........ Randy