This morning I was trying hard to decide between fresh frog porridge and crispy innards porridge for breakfast, when I noticed the secret recipe rice noodles. The noodles were yummy, though not so much that I would go to any length to try and discover the ‘secret’ recipe.
With Rita I went to the Thaipusam celebrations at the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur. Many Tamils were doing penance for some reason or other, maybe they had served undercooked chicken. I don’t know. Most devotees carried pots of milk on their heads to be offered to the effigies of the gods inside the cave, but some participated in acts of mortification which included the piercing of various parts of their body with metal rods. Small bands played riotous music and women were dancing around in trance with bulging eyes and swollen tongues. The heat was maddening.
Back in KL I tried to do some writing but after muddling for a while I had to admit failure in compiling a short history of Kuala Lumpur. I had been intrigued by Yap Ah Loy, the third Kaptan Cina, who was born in Kwantung Province, somewhere in China, and who had played an important role in the early history of Kuala Lumpur. The Chinese, the enigmatic pioneers, didn’t come back to life. Yap Al Loy stared at me from his Wikipedia page, young and angry. He only lived 47 years.
Kuala Lumpur’s history started when miners first began to hack a way though the jungle to clear space for a village that had to accommodate the Chinese workers that were working in the tin mines further upstream. It was at a muddy confluence of two rivers close to where ships could not sail any further. Chinese labour was used in the mines as the indigenous Malays were too busy in the banana industry, or at least so they said, and so, accordingly, Chinese businessmen set up shop in the town to cater to the miners. Beriberi and malaria were rampant, most people didn’t even know what beriberi was. Living conditions were severe because of the heat and the stifling humidity and the lack of air conditioning. Sudden downpours drove the people mad because most of the mining was done in open mines and umbrellas were not provided. Warring Chinese secret societies killed so many that one wonders where people found the time to die of beriberi.
With rusty rifles they tried to shoot metal grit at members from the opposing secret society to stop them from breathing and loving the ones near to them. The shadows, those enemies, that were so alive, much more so in the face of lurking death or the imminent threat of mutilation, laying in the mud under green dripping leaves, so alive trying not to die. What was wrong with these people?
Even without this civil war, working conditions for the Chinese workers were abysmal. In some mines 50 % of the workers died anually…
I got out for coffee and sat down among the frantic pace of hawkers at work in ramshackle tea stalls in alleys at the back of my hotel in Chinatown. Old men that looked like myopic turtles, were slurping noodle soup. The air was full of monosyllabic shouts. Scurrying rats added a sense of squalor. A man at the flea market opened a tin and smelled the contents, peered suspicious inside and closed it again. I paid for my coffee. My back was wet with perspiration and I hadn’t even done any mining…
The hairdresser had long sleek hair and a thick face with protruding lips. He put me in a chair and walked aound me.
You’re handsome, he said, your eyes, what colour are they….? Grey….? Blue….?
I don’t know, I replied evasively.
Good, he said, as if he had reached a decision, I am going to cut your hair. You are going to be so handsome when I am finished with you...
He draped a cape around my shoulders and he cut my hair and when he was done, he said: You look like George Clooney.
This was an obvious lie and the girls hanging around on the chairs in the salon were giggling with alarmingly low voices.
It was time to leave KL, the durian season was nearly over, and in the early morning I left for the airport and flew to Bali.