Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Malaysia diary 10: KL, Petronas Towers

The party's nearly over, but I still haven't found what I'm looking for, a copy of "The Malayan Trilogy" by Anthony Burgess. Actually, I did, in Penang, but I can get that Vintage edition in Brisbane for around the same price, believe it or not. No, I'm hanging out for something more authentic, but I've only two days left.

(In part 9, we arrived in this, our final destination, Kuala Lumpur, and once we'd settled in our Airbnb condo unit we made for the hawker stalls of Jalan Alor, "Eat Street", where you hear great examples of Manglish - Malaysian English.)

Petronas Towers, KL
Petronas Towers, view from the skybridge

¡Al tajo! To the task: a last-ditch forage for the Trilogy. Apparently there's a place on Jalan Tun H S Lee near the Central Market called The Junk Book Store. Our well-read and helpful taxi driver knew about it, and for a mere 15RM we traversed the city from east to west, from Bukit Bintang, through Bukit Ceylon, a Bukit list if ever there was one, to the central area, what we'd call the CBD in Australia. This is where the Sungai Gombak and Sungai Klang rivers come together, the eponymous muddy estuary, which is what Kuala Lumpur means in English. KL's rivers are hard to appreciate, though. You'd hardly notice them. It's not a town through which you'd say a river runs majestically; no Seine, Thames, or Singapore here.

Now how hard can it be to find a book called "The Malayan Trilogy" in the capital of Malaysia, by an established British author, in a bookshop where they stack 'em high? I'm not exactly searching for "Spoondigging in Etruscan Paintballs, 1926 edition". Crossing the threshold into this claustrophobic kedai buku, I was instantly whisked back like an egg through time to the book stalls of Chowrasta Bazaar in Penang. There was order here, yes, but there was also the unmistakeable signature of entropy: this particular shop, the Junk, like the Earth's crust, is on the cusp of chaos. It's metastable, as the fluid dynamics honchos say. In fairness though, Auntie running it knew her bisnis. When I asked her for anything at all at this stage by Anthony Burgess, she rummaged with great purpose behind a stack of cellophane-wrapped potboilers, and pressed several second-hand, shrinkwrapped Burgesses into my hungry hands.

It's funny how in this country they shrink-wrap books so much, even in second-hand shops: it's not just the big chains like Popular or Kinokuniya that do it. In fact, you'll often find a bundle of second-hand books shrink-wrapped, with a bow tied around it in coloured twine for good measure. Which is just plain annoying. All this bibliosanitary safe sex is something you want to see practiced somewhere like Kinokuniya, where you might feel like splashing out on a pristine copy of a handsome coffee table astronomy tome, for example, but not in The Junk Book Store. Anyway, sensing my disappointment at not finding the Trilogy, Auntie decided to escalate the matter upstairs. She sent me to the Keeper of Wisdom.

The Junk Bookstore
The Junk Bookstore.

On the first floor - or what Americans correctly call the second floor, regaining the kudos they lose on account of their confusing date notation - I interrupted this old boy deep in hibernation. The septuagenarian (and that's giving him the benefit of the doubt) gamely roused himself and shuffled around behind me, like my future shadow, a premonition of me in thirty or so years but with Asian features, unaccountably, and he let me know with taps and points that he could open any of the locked glass presses if the need arose. He himself is probably immortal, but I thought that in the case of one of those cases being opened I might well be overwhelmed by the must of centuries escaping like a well-read ghost. (All this wonderful book lust reminded me of The Name of the Rose, which I tried reading again recently only to be swept away in my chair by the tsunami of religious nonsense it's obliged to describe. It was nearly the same with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the invocation of old Dublin town kept my head above water, and I managed to get to the other side.)

If Auntie's English was halting, 爷爷's had stopped a while ago. Impressively hitting him with some Liffey-scented Mandarin to no effect whatsoever, I was left - not for the first time this holiday - marvelling at the chasm in comprehension between my patient Chinese teachers in Brisbane, and the mulish, stubborn, 中国人 I met here. What's wrong with these people?

Despite the efforts of all concerned, I would achieve no satisfaction in the Junk today. This goal I have harboured since I arrived in Malaysia two weeks ago, a humble, attainable goal I had fondly thought, to buy an old copy of "The Malayan Trilogy" in a second-hand bookshop, preferably at the end of a robust but nonetheless mutually satisfying haggle with a shop owner whose eyes would signal more than a hint of begrudging respect for my command of the moment, an opponent worthy of the game, that and all imagined variations collapsed like a quantum wave function into one discrete, concrete event the next morning when I gave in and bought it in the last place I had wanted to, the sterile Japanese book hypermarket Kinokuniya from an impassive teenager locked in mortal combat with the zit. Ah well, tida' apa.

Petronas Tower with Menara KL
Petronas Tower with Menara KL. It was a bit hazy alright, but some of the 'haze' here is caused by the thick glass.

I considered it my solemn duty to round off our Malaysian stint at the very pinnacle of Malaysian/Islamic techno-achievement, the Petronas Twin Towers. 13 years ago, when Tina and I stopped here en route to Australia, where we used to spend our Winter, or Summer, depending on your perspective, before going back to Ireland, we missed our chance with the towers. Closed: the King's birthday or something. In any case, the highest you could go then was to the sky bridge on the 41st floor, a trifling 170m above the ground. Nowadays, you continue on up to the observation deck on the 86th floor, 360 metres above the ground, after 15 minutes on the skybridge.

With the echoes of Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer', played by a live jazz band in the concourse of the Suria KLCC, the shopping centre that the Twin Towers grow up and out of, in my popping ears, we ascended the north tower. In the elevator, our group of 30 or so fellow travellers included a couple I found quite interesting. She wore a niqab, the black full-body veil which leaves only the eyes visible; he just looked like an average guy. We had seen plenty of women (one presumes) wearing those - this is after all a Muslim country - but what made it strange was that she was attracting attention to herself, the more so since the lift was pretty full, by taking photos of herself. Reaching up above her with her phone, angling it down at her and her man, hopefully getting a nice view of Lake Symphony and the KLCC Public Park out the window of the lift in the background. Selfies, in a word. In a niqab. We all smiled pleasantly, we're all on holidays, taking photos of yourself, that's nice.

I cast my mind back to Langkawi Bird Park where I first remembered seeing niqab-sporting women doing the same thing. I remember facetiously wondering how the face-recognition software works in cases like that. Is there an extra mode on cameras sold in some parts of the world to take account of the fact that faces are routinely covered up? I suppose it didn't sink in then because they weren't in a crowded lift with me at the time. What totally bizarre behaviour! I mean, Can you credit it?, as my grandmother used to say.

But the more I thought about it - you really only need 3 minutes of observation on the skybridge, not 15 minutes, so I got some work done - I considered that all the people we'd seen on this trip adopting fixed, selfie faces - and there were loads - were doing something that was just as concealing in its ghastly way as a niqab. If you're determined not to reveal yourself, it doesn't really matter what you're wearing. I remember two young Asian women posing at the Boh plantation in the Cameron Highlands, a world unto themselves amongst so many other people, unselfconsciously doing duckface selfies on the balcony area overlooking the beautiful scenery they presumably had paid to come and see. As soon as they were finished, others stepped up to the lookout area to take their place. More fixed grins.

Why do so many people need to have themselves in the photographs of all this wonderful scenery, doing their utmost to look the same in every one, while they Have a Great Time? The selfie stick was a narcissistic leitmotifs of this holiday, one you saw everywhere: you know them, the sticks that attach to your phone and help you obscure some world heritage site in a photograph with your head. Ok, we had a few photos taken of us posing, it's true, but the majority of the pictures I took were ones where I tried to get people behaving normally. It's hard with kids though, because kids behaving normally is not always something you want to immortalise with a photograph. But jeezus, so many people's first reaction is to turn their backs on something, take a photo of themselves in front of it, and walk on, barely registering the thing itself.

As if in recognition of my puzzlement, and to show how normal the whole thing was, which it undoubtedly is, the guy with the niqab girlfriend/wife approached me while we were all still on the skybridge and asked if I'd take their picture. I complied with a smile and handed the camera back, but still I found the whole thing strange and sad. It's as if the women don't actually realise that they're hiding.

Bullfrog porridge
Bullfrog porridge.

It's Saturday night, our last night, and I gaze down from a couple of hundred feet up into the side streets between us and Jalan Bukit Bintang; at Restoran Bidara Bistro, at the Chinese lanterns on the corner of Jalan Alor where the foot massage boys and girls importune the passersby 24 jam, and faraway, on the southern edge of the bukit, at the blue neon of the Times Square Mall. Looking straight down at the foot of this condominium, 18 floors below, I notice that a side street has been blocked off with a black 4WD angled across the opening and on a stretch of material laid out on the road about 150 people are praying. It can't smell too good down there, behind a couple of restaurants. The rooftop bar right across the street that I could hear till late last night has started up again. But the devoted have started, let the disco beat pulse at 180bp and the rubbish stink to high heaven, they have work to do.

Fighting off a chest infection that's leaving me slightly feverish, I watch them for a while, synchronised in their activity, bowing down, sitting up, all more or less in unison, the only coordinated human activity in the whole vista. Tomorrow is the 30th of June, the start of Ramadan.

Coda

Of course you know what happened. I finally found the edition of “The Malayan Trilogy” that I wanted all along, the Penguin one from the ‘80’s, the one on the Wikipedia page, the one called “The Long Day Wanes” (a title which comes from a poem by Tennyson, by the way) about a week after I got home to Brisbane. I had dropped the kids off at Ninjutsu on a Saturday morning and was browsing a second-hand bookshop near where I live, the Mount Gravatt Bookshop, when I found it. As the Chinese say, “计划赶不上变化”: jihua ganbushang bianhua/plans can’t keep up with changes. It was great to have a holiday goal, something to get me out and about and scouring the bazaars and stalls, a conversation starter, an expedition from the hotel room starter. I gave my brand new Kinokuniya-bought version to my book buddy Pat, and switched to this older one to finish the job of reading it.