Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:36 PM CST – China

Outside In

Captivating KL


Kuala Lumpur is a kaleidoscope of mixing cultures, a constantly changing meeting place of language, food and religion

Photos of members of the wealthy Chen clan, responsible for the temple’s construction Photo by Tom Baxter

Friezes on the facade of the Chan See Shu Yuen Temple Photo by Tom Baxter

A steamy September afternoon and Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is abuzz with life. Noisy chatter in the distinctive tones of southern Chinese dialects fades in and out of the thunder and rain, which drums incessantly on the iron and plastic awnings that haphazardly cover the narrow alleys. The rain drips and oozes across the traditional character adverts which clutter the pastel-washed surfaces, reminders of the trading culture which made and continues to make Kuala Lumpur and the Malay peninsula the eclectic mix of cultures that it is.

Geographically situated on the main route between East and South Asia, and rich in goods itself, the Malay peninsula has always been a vital trading hub. And these trading routes from all directions have brought people and cultures to its shores. Ancient Indian culture arrived as early as the fourth century, while Islam came ashore around the 10th century.

While Chinese trade with the Malay peninsula began as early as the first century AD, settlement came much later. Chinese settled the Malay peninsula in waves, beginning in the 15th century when the flourishing Ming dynasty began trade with the rich Malacca Sultanate. The famous Admiral Zheng He even paid a visit in an attempt to expand that trade. From then until the 19th century, communities came in small trickles from across southern China, sometimes to find wealth, sometimes fleeing famine and war at home.

The biggest wave of Chinese settlement came in the mid-19th century, when British need for rubber plantation and tin mine workers created an enormous job market. Chinese and Indian workers crossed the seas in large numbers to fill this demand, although they were marked by a key difference –  most Indian workers came as indentured laborers from British colonial territories, while Chinese workers came as wealth-seeking individuals, a 19th-century “Chinese Dream.” By the time of the first census in 1891, towns in some coastal areas were recording majority Chinese populations.

Today’s Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur can at first sight seem like a tacky tourist mecca. Petaling Street, where any taxi driver will invariably take you when you ask to go to Chinatown, is a crowded market street selling everything from fake and real, legal and illegal antiques to tie-dye T-shirts and soccer jerseys. For the most part, this central spine of Chinatown is a crowded mass of tourists hunting for bargain souvenirs. But running perpendicular to it is a network of narrow alleys in which hide a real taste of Chinese food markets, restaurants and mahjong gambling dens.

Just outside this cluster of alleys is the Chan See Shu Yuen Temple, nicknamed the Green Temple because of its striking jade-colored tiles. The intricately carved Buddhist temple-cum-ancestral shrine was built from 1897 to 1906 by the wealthy Chen family, who hired craftsmen from China to come to Kuala Lumpur especially to design it. Bedecked with phoenixes and crowned with dancing dragons, it is rich in auspicious symbolism and is one of the finest examples of southern Chinese architecture in Southeast Asia.

It is notable just how Chinese Chinatown is –  a segregated ghetto for a single race. The city’s Little India has a similar feel. Despite centuries of these cultures living and working side by side, Malaysia is not quite the melting pot one might expect it to be. In fact, it can be striking just how isolated the different communities are.

One way the cultures have notably intermingled however is in the lively, bubbly English which is spoken in Malaysia. Stresses and syllables fall in unfamiliar places, the language’s lilt playing to an altogether different tune than the Anglo-American English most of us are used to. It is also peppered with words from Malay and Chinese dialects. Makan, for example, which is Malay for “eat” (and, as in its better known counterpart Singlish, can be readily adapted to English grammar –  “makan-ing” for “eating”). Another common word in Malay English is yumcha, from the Cantonese phrase meaning, literally, “to drink tea,” and more broadly meaning “to meet up, to socialize.” The free and fun use of words from other languages is a sign of the rich diversity of cultures gathered in the Malay peninsula.

Back in Chinatown, long vowel sounds and choppy consonants fill the air, which is laden with the sweet smells of roasting pork and the ripe stench of durian. Familiar traces of Hong Kong are no mistake. This is a Cantonese town.

The Chinese communities who came to Malaysia over the last 500 years came from different areas and spoke diverse and mutually incomprehensible dialects –  variations of today’s Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien dialects. The major port area Penang, on the west coast of the peninsula, is dominated by Hokkien, while over the straits in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, it is Hakka and some Hokkien that prevail.

Since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, however, there has been a strong attempt to standardize the Chinese spoken across the country. This has come in the form of putonghua, or Mandarin Chinese. On the streets of Chinatown, a language gap between generations is evident. Schoolkids and students walk around conversing in standard Mandarin, while older generations chatter in their Cantonese mother tongue. All the Chinese schools in the area teach in Mandarin, and the Chinese language newspapers have begun to use simplified characters, instead of the traditional script still used in Hong Kong.

A woman I began talking to at a street-side stall serving fried niuhe, the wide rice noodles which are popular across southern China, told me more about the language change. When she was young, she said, her family would all talk in Cantonese. But when she started school and later entered the professional world, Mandarin slowly took over. She is forgetting her Cantonese, her mother tongue, she said.

As we waited for the afternoon storm to dissipate, she told me that Malaysia is currently seeing a new influx of workers from neighboring countries –  Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, and even Myanmar. Not unlike the Chinese and Indians who poured into the rubber and tin industries over a century ago, this new wave of migrant workers are attracted by the comparative wealth of job opportunities in Malaysia. Though not always warmly welcomed, these new communities are establishing roots and making their own mark on contemporary Malaysian society.

As I walk away from Chinatown towards the Indian area of Kuala Lumpur, the red and gold angular characters of shop front advertisements give way to the cursive flow of Hindi script. This procession is occasionally interrupted by a Bengali or Thai sign, newcomers to the jostle for street space in this trading hub of Asia, newcomers to the multicultural mix that is Kuala Lumpur.


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