Sunday, April 25, 2010

The pulsating heart of Klang

For many KL-ites, Klang is worth making the short 30km journey for only one thing, bah kut teh. If they travel a further distance of 5km to Port Klang or hop on a short ferry ride from there to Pulau Ketam, it’s the fresh seafood. Being borned and raised in Klang, I used to agree with this until a recent trip down memory lane.

Most of my childhood years were spent between home, school, tuition, ballet lessons and Jalan Taiping, what we Klang-ites considered as the only decent shopping area at that time. There was no Jaya Jusco, Klang Parade, Tesco nor Bukit Tinggi at that time. The tallest building was the Plaza Chi Liung (now called Plaza Metro), dwarfed in comparison to the high-rise apartment buildings dotting the landscapes of Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur.

But yes, we still have the best bah kut teh in the whole country.

After moving to Kuala Lumpur five years ago, I can understand why KL-ites would view us as loud-mouthed country bumpkins who pepper our words with hokkien obscenities.

Whenever I tell someone that I am from Klang, I swear I could sense the sneer coming out from their pores. Their polite nods might as well be, “Oh yes, you’re from that ulu (primitive) place.” If only they know that Ulu Kelang is not the same as Klang.

I still visit my family in Klang regularly and it wasn’t until recently that I realised how much this old sleepy town, once a chasm from the rest of its neighbouring towns under the State of Selangor’s jurisdiction has changed.

We have big commercial centres now and also a mall which doesn’t suffer from the sniggers of those who live in Subang Jaya but still very much scorned upon by KL-ites. But hey, even Dubai can’t compete with the likes of Suria KLCC, Mid Valley City, Pavillion, Time Square and God knows what else.

And yes, we still have the best bah kut teh in the whole world.

What I saw during these visits brought two profound fear in me; how much my parents have aged and how inversely youthful my hometown has become. It feels as if the town is being rejuvenated to make ways for the younger generations; higher buildings, better roads and bigger housing developments.

It frightens me to think that Klang might turn into another Kuala Lumpur with nothing to brag about apart from its concrete rainforest where buildings compete with each other to reach for the sun and an insatiable appetite for new shopping malls.

Will the glory of our bah kut teh days decay with time, as boys and girls like me grow up to believe that there’s a better life waiting for us in the big city?

While growing up, we moved three times from one house to another, each time further away from Port Klang but still within the vicinity of Klang. I wanted to see how much the areas around our former residences have changed.

As I drove along Persiaran Raja Muda Musa around Port Klang area, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw what was once our all time favourite char kuey teow hawker stall right across the road. I felt as if I had gone into hibernation for thirty years and yet when I had finally woken up, everything had frozen with time.

There it was, the old shabby shack stuck right in the middle of two rows of multi-coloured shop lots.

We had frequented the busy stall at least once a week, usually for take-outs. Since, the kuey teow was in huge demand, we often had to wait in line but I didn’t mind as I was rather taken by Uncle Kuey Teow’s swift and efficient method of frying thick strands of rice noodles in a firing wok. The staccato sound of stainless steel ladle scraping against the wok was music to my ears.

Uncle Kuey Teow would only pause from his frying motion briefly in order to scream out in Hokkien, “Ai see ham mai? (With cockles?)” or “Ai hon cheo mai? (With chili?)”

He would tirelessly fry one plate after another while his equally competent wife, wrapped the piping hot noodles, first with one layer of plastic and then another with old newspaper. All this was done in a quick two-step motion before being held securely together by a swift snap of a rubber band. Since I was rather weak in Maths, I was highly impressed by Aunty Kuey Teow’s super-quick mental calculation when the time came for payment.

Many years later, Aunty Kuey Teow was replaced by a young Indonesian woman, who became an object of Uncle Kuey Teow’s constant reproach.

“Aiyah, lu boleh cepat sikitkah? Apalah, lambat-lambat bikin apa? (Can you please be quick? Why are you so slow?)”

“Huh?! Tiga bungkus, empat-s’tenggah. Kasi sepuluh, bagi balik berapa? Berapa?! (Three packets, four-fifty. How much do you return if ten?)” The louder Uncle Kuey Teow screamed, the more catatonically she became.

“Aiyah! Takde gunalah lu! (You’re useless!)” Uncle Kuey Teow finally gave up.

Sometimes, when it was late and the crowd had started to thin, the often sullen-looking Uncle Kuey Teow would turn loquacious. The conversation between my parents and him mostly revolved around his thriving kuey teow business.

In true Chinese fake modesty fashion, he would reply, “Business is oklah. We get by.”

Rumours had it that Uncle Kuey Teow drove a Mercedes Benz and as a child, I would find it strangely romantic that a simple man in tattered white T-shirt, baggy black pants and sockless shoes should be driving such a luxury car. He must had been the world’s most humble man!

I made a quick U-turn to get to the other side of the road in order to get a better view of the stall. What met my eyes was a sorry state of affair. I gasped as I saw Uncle Kuey Teow, now much older, thinner and frail-looking; frying what must had been his millionth plate of kuey teow.

Instead of standing upright, he stooped over the charcoal black wok. I wasn’t sure whether he has shrunk or I have doubled in size. His hand movements weren’t as swift as before and he was alone without any helper. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway since there were only two customers sitting on one of the only two plastic folding tables, waiting patiently for Uncle Kuey Teow to finish frying, packing and returning their change.

Apart from his physical metamorphism, nothing else has changed. His expression remained sullen and he was still clothed in white T-shirt and black pants. As for the stall, time has neither assaulted nor healed it. Supported only by two wooden brims and a slanting tin roof fitted snugly between the walls of two shop buildings, it has defiantly withstood the wind of change, just like Uncle Kuey Teow.

Choosing to ignore my sentiments, I moved away slowly and proceeded to drive to the town centre, situated across the Jambatan Kota Raya Klang from the direction of Port Klang. I looked at the Klang River and checked that the water is still murky brown like my favourite cup of teh tarik.

However, something was missing. There was no longer plastic bottles, squashed up Yeo’s packet drinks nor other bits and pieces of trash floating lazily on the water. This river had being the butt of our constant joke while growing up. We often assimilated the dirtiness of Klang River with our Town Council’s lack of commitment in cleaning up the town.

Someone would complain, “Ee-yea! Klang is so dirty!” Another would reply, “Eh, go look at the Klang River-lah! Complain so much for what?”

Since a year ago, two new mosques have sprouted in town. One giving the illusion that it floats majestically by the Jambatan Kota Raya from a certain angle when in fact, it is built by the river bank; and the other situated at the end of another parallel bridge simply named Jambatan Klang. The towering minarets grace the otherwise, sterile and unremarkable town.

Stuck in a bumper to bumper traffic jam, I moved at the pace of a snail but without first cursing the construction site for a new flyover, smack right at the busy intersection of what used to be a roundabout that connects the town to Kapar, Meru and Shah Alam.

Decided against my initial plan to revisit Jalan Taiping, I turned around to head towards what I regarded as the older and more charming part of the town. There are several historical landmarks worth stopping by; the 150 year-old tin museum known as Gedung Raja Abdullah, the Sultan Abdul Aziz Royal Gallery exhibiting the exquisite personal collections of the late Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah and of course Little India.

As I drove towards Jalan Tengku Kelana, fondly known as Indian Street by the locals, I discovered that the old Masjid India, situated near the entrance of what has being officially declared as Little India by the local authorities in an attempt to preserve and promote what’s left of Klang’s heritage, has being given a new face and body lift.

What used to be a petite mosque, modestly but tastefully dressed in white painted walls and baby blue domes, has being sadly transformed into a gaudy-looking structure. It was said that the old mosque could no longer accommodate the growing number of faithful worshippers and had to be demolished to make way for a bigger and taller structure. Although the expansion work was carried out with good intention and for a valid cause, the decision to change the whole fa├žade of the mosque to me, was done in bad taste.

Surprisingly, improvements made on the narrow strip of Little India were much better than I thought. Little India, once known as one the most “happening” quarters in town is now definitely the only pulsating heart of Klang. Ginormous banners with images of beautiful Indian women in intricately designed sarees adorned the old shop lots repainted in the colours that envisaged yam, red bean and durian flavoured ais krim potong.

The delightful whiff of freshly deep fried vadais and pakoras accompanied by uplifting Tamil music tempos beckoned me. I decided to embrace Little India for the first time. As a child, I was rather turned off by the strong smell of jasmine flowers and coconut oil and hence, avoided the area. Now, unrivalled by anywhere else, Little India is the only spot in Klang that embraces tradition and culture to the maximum.

Every single nook and cranny along the street is being utilized to display anything conceivably Indian; garlands of tightly weaved yellow, red and white flowers, stalks of banana leaves, stainless steel pots, gold jewelleries, sparkling bangles in assorted colours, carpets, sarees, framed pictures of Hindu deities, etc. Some of the bigger corner lots had replaced their French windows with glass in order to display their life-sized mannequins modelling traditional sarees and salwar khameez.

Failing to secure a parking spot at the already overcrowded and double-parked streets, I made another round and parked my car near the Sultan Abdul Aziz Royal Gallery, a stone’s throw away from Little India. The building which looks a bit like a miniature White House, stood dignified and pristinely clean compared to the often chaotic and dirty junction.

I was about to walk into the gallery but the nagging scent of vadais called and pulled me away. My stomach had begun to growl and I quickly walked towards the colourful spectacle of sound and smell waiting to pounce on me. I swear that even if I was blindfolded, I would have easily navigated my way to Little India with only my nose as a compass.

My first stop was at a small food stall near the entrance. A middle-age lady was stirring balls of pakoras sizzling in a large firing wok with a long wooden ladle attached to a broad wire mesh. It was amazing to see mountains of vadais fried to perfection on a small plastic folding table.

I asked for three pieces of paruppu vadai, the grainier and browner version of the normal ones which are usually shaped like small doughnuts and three pieces of pakoras. I insisted to wait for the new batch of pakoras.

While waiting for the lady to fish the pakoras out, I took one vadai and stuffed it into my mouth. It felt crunchy and as soon as I chewed on it, a burst of lentil flavour enveloped my tongue. I felt the roof of my mouth stinging from the hotness and instinctively did a Lamaze breathing technique to cool down.

The lady giggled shyly and warned me, “Hot-hot!” I swallowed the remaining vadai sheepishly and asked for the piping hot pakoras. I paid RM3 for the snacks and proceeded to munch happily away.

As I was about to pop in another piece of vadai, I realized that the momentary interaction I had with the vadai lady was being observed by a girl, not more than 12 years old. She was weaving a garland of jasmine flowers a few metres away. The older woman sitting by her side, whom I assumed was her mother, had abandoned her task and was chatting animatedly with another woman selling silverwares. Even as the girl was staring at me, her skilful hands continued to thread together the small petals of white flowers.

I walked towards her, extended a friendly hello and knelt down to collect a few stranded petals that had unintentionally escaped her small but rough-looking hands. I inhaled the strong fragrance and concluded that my foolishness as a child extends further than just loathing broccoli and garlic; two properties in which I now can’t get enough of. I took a couple more whiffs and dropped them into my handbag.

The girl, surprised with my strange behaviour, tucked urgently at the scarf that was wrapped around her mother’s thick neck. The oblivious woman continued to chat away while I scooted off before she had a chance to demand an explanation from the girl.

It must be said that the sweetest temptation is often found in Indian sweets or mithai. With so many varieties of sugar-loaded and colour-infused candies and cookies flown all the way from Chennai, it’s hard not to travel down the path towards diabetes-land. I don’t even know what most of the sweets are called but suffice to say that my eyes were assaulted by a vast combination of brightly coloured feast fit for ten thousand ant colonies. Some were replicas of miniature water melons, apples, flowers and wholemeal cheese sandwiches cut diagonally. These sweets are normally made from ghee, sugee, milk, almonds, pistachios, cashews and dates. A French patisserie would have felt inferior standing next to a bona fide Indian candy stall.

If you have a sweet tooth and weakness for nuts, you certainly would have been spoiled for choice. Thankfully, I am not. However, I do have a weakness for cendol and it’s well-known that the best cendol is often found in Indian establishments.

Feeling slightly parched from the heat and the aftertaste of vadais and pakoras, I ordered a bowl of cendol. The shaved ice mixed with coconut milk and palm sugar provided an immediate chilling effect that invigorated my appetite for further exploration.

Since I had always wanted to buy a pair of sarees, I thought this would be the best place to start. Before I could step into what looked like a mega textile shop, I was stopped by a curious looking old man, dressed in faded yellow and orange dhoti kurta, sitting on the pavement lined with a plastic table cloth. He had long wavy grey hair that reached past his shoulder blades. His forehead looked like a wrinkled Japanese flag, generously smeared with white powder and a large red mark in the middle. He could easily be passed on as one of those religious monks, meditating and contemplating the purpose of life in a secluded cave but for his clean and clipped finger nails. Before I could dismiss him off as an Indian sami, I heard a gentle chirp coming from a small wooden cage decorated with pictures of Hindu Gods in the size of stamps, pieces of curious-looking amulets and beaded necklaces, by his side.

I knelt down to sneak a peek at the culprit and to my delight, saw a green parakeet staring back curiously at me. The man, whom by then was revealed to me as a palmist by virtue of the burgundy-coloured tarot cards and a picture of a wide-spread palm, opened his mouth to spit out the remnants of a well-chewed mixture of areca nuts and betel leaves.

He cleared his throat and proceeded to smile broadly at me. If not for his kind and gentle looking face, I would have been repulsed by the sight of his bloody gums. I managed to look at the man more closely and realized how lucid and youthful his eyes were. They were slightly watery which caused them to sparkle invitingly at me.

“Hi, will you read my palm, please?”

The man nodded his head calmly. Then without any warning, he started to speak in what I assumed was Tamil. He wiggled his head and leaned over to pull out a plastic stool for me. I sat down and waited for further instructions albeit not fully comprehending what was supposed to take place.

He reached over to open the door to the birdcage. I panicked and started protesting, “Oh! No! No!” I was expecting the small bird to rush out and made a run for it.

The man laughed, wiggled his head and with one hand gently touching my hand reassuringly and the other forming a waiting sign, gestured for me to sit back and wait. In a strange way, I understood that he was telling me to trust him.

He tried again and sure enough, the bird hopped out gently and leaped onto the top of the cage. By now, it was perching confidently on the raised wooden door. I smiled and clapped gleefully like a child.

The man said something and it took a few seconds before I realized that he was waiting for me to respond to him. I stared at him, confused.

“Sorry, I don’t understand you. Do you speak Bahasa?” I said, desperately hoping that he did.

As it turned out, he didn’t but I was not about to give up. I looked around and saw a younger man standing near the entrance of the textile shop. I went to him and asked him whether he would help with the translation and he agreed obligingly.

I was instructed to tell the palmist what I would like to know about my future. I pondered for awhile and asked, “Will I ever find wisdom?” and later on regretted that I had chosen to ask something which was rather difficult to explain.

“Different question, Madam?” The younger man pleaded with me.

“OK, will I ever find a husband?” I asked cheekily since I am already married. The younger man looked pleased and nodded approvingly at my new question. He turned to the palmist and translated what I said.

The palmist took my hand and turned it over to have a good look at my palm. With his index finger, he traced the lines on my palm, nodded his head and spoke to me directly. I looked at the younger man expectantly but he was too engrossed with what the palmist said. I watched for any tell-tale sign of bad omens through the expression of his face. It was hard to tell since he looked confused.

As soon as the palmist finished talking, the younger man told me briefly, “Everything good, Madam. You will have good husband, many many children and good health.”

I was amazed by the efficiency of the English language and was tempted to throw in one of my usual sarcastic remarks but decided against it in order not to ruin the good spirit I had felt so far. However, I couldn’t resist saying, “Thank you but I’m not sure whether my husband will be happy to know that we’ll be having many many children.”

As soon as I thought the man wouldn’t catch my humour, he burst out laughing and with his finger pointing at me reproachfully, he said, “Ahhh…you Madam, very very naughty.”

“Shhh…don’t tell the old man,” I replied good-naturedly.

By then I had lost interest in knowing my fortune but was eager to find out what the role of the bird was. The palmist whispered something to the bird and as if on cue, it hopped down from the cage towards the spread-out tarot cards. It pointed out a card by using its tiny pinkish beak and did a high five with one of its little greyish feet.

I squealed with delight and asked the palmist for a repeated performance. Disappointingly, the bird was quickly returned to the cage and the palmist had by then begun to analyse the card that would supposedly foretell my destiny. As it turned out, I should seriously start scoping around for a pair of shades rather than sarees since my future would apparently be too bright for me.

Although I was never a believer in the arts of fortune telling, I was certainly impressed with the trained parakeet. Above all, the whole camaraderie between the two gentlemen and myself had been something I’ve missed for a long time.

After paying RM12, I thanked the palmist profusely and he waved me off happily.

The younger man helped me up from the stool and urged me to go to his shop.

“Come, come, Madam. You like sarees? Shalwar Khameez? Punjabi suits? We have many-many. All from India, Madam,” he said to me earnestly.

I walked into the shop and was astounded by the collections of materials, all pressed carefully. Most of them were folded and stacked neatly in piles after piles on rolling tables with welded steel frames, while the rest hung tightly together from the ceiling.

It took insurmountable effort and great restraint not to look at every single item on display. Some of the colours were so bright and fresh like mangoes or green apples ripe enough to bite into. I was surprisingly pleased that most of the salwar khameez were priced reasonably at RM25 onwards. Due to extremely high competition amongst shops that sell similar products, it’s not surprising that most shops offer great bargains that are hard to resist.

In the end, I opted for a simple blue and white printed sleeveless punjabi suit. I couldn’t make up my mind on what materials to pick for a saree. I was too overwhelmed by the endless choice and decided to bring a friend to help me out the next time.

Since I had spent too much time at the textile shop, I had to rush along the street in order to beat the peak hours. If I had known better, I would have arrived early in the morning to allow myself sufficient time for further shopping.

As I walked briskly past more shops and stalls with their items spilling onto the sidewalks and back lanes of the street, I wondered what it would be like during Deepavali. I bet it would have been an electrifying experience especially at night. I could just visualize the noisy crowd silenced by ear-blasting Bollywood music courtesy of the DJs at bigger departmental stores and glittering lights illuminating the whole area supplied by fairy lights that zig-zag from one electric pole to the other.

I rushed back to pick up my car and just about when traffic was getting heavy, I careened past the Convent School and Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, two buildings that were erected since 1928, a present from our former British masters.

I arrived at my parents’ house looking like the cat that had swallowed a green parakeet. It’s difficult to imagine how I had taken Klang for granted. It may be a small unassuming town, I could still feel its heart pulsating strongly. It took me more than thirty years to arrive to this unexpected realisation, that Klang is not just about the bah kut teh. It has something to offer everyone and it’s only just the beginning.

Written on 30 December 2009