A walk in downtown Kuala Lumpur is a perfect way to see the contradictions of this country.
Kuala Lumpur is a city where a Chinese temple, a Hindu shrine and a Muslim mosque sit side-by-side, as in few other countries. Malaysia is roughly 67 percent Malay (Muslim), 25 percent Chinese (all religions) and 7 percent Indian, with numerous tribal peoples. A tour of religions is one way to gain a little insight into this diverse nation.
I start in the red and gold See Yeoh temple on the outskirts of Chinatown. There I find a confusing mix of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, which many Chinese profess. No wonder the Chinese have a reputation for gambling when they seem to like betting on so many horses at once. Well, who knows what beautiful things Allah, God or feng shui might have in store for you? Unfortunately the Chinese are not allowed in the mosque to pray, unless they convert to Islam.
A woman lays out an offering of oranges while a priest nearby tries out the ringtones of his new mobile phone. Clouds of incense fill the air to placate the ancestors, a request to the next world for help in this. In the Hindu temple opposite, things are less hectic. Two women are walking around their favorite idol and throwing flowers, while men in towels visit the bathhouse, eyed by Lord Shiva who has a permanent presence in a sculpture on the wall.
Both in the mosque – which I'm allowed to visit until prayer time – and on the street, I feel welcomed. Nobody is bothering me, but everyone is helpful if I ask for anything. Live and let live.
One thing has changed in the ten years since I was last here. Then, a minority of women wore a headscarf. Now, the vast majority of Malaysian women are veiled. The atmosphere has clearly shifted, with the feeling of being in a Muslim country starting on arrival at the airport.
In Chinatown, though, everything is still as I remember it to be: lively and noisy, especially at night. Against a backdrop of beautiful old merchant houses, there are the sights, sounds and smells of cooking. Families, tourists and merchants eat stir-fried and steamed delicacies, from noodle soup to satay.
“Rolex, my lady? Genuine copy!” shouts one man. You can go dizzy from the copies here: DVDs of films not yet released in Europe, Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, T-shirts from DKNY. Strangely, there are no veils to be seen. The population is mixed but not by much: Malays buy their fake Levi’s from other Malays in another market further away.
In Little India, colored robes and jingling anklets are the norm and even the policeman on patrol is an Indian. Silk scarves and shawls are on display alongside lavish jewelry and fragrant pastries. I wander through, to Chow Kit, a neighborhood once infamous for pickpockets and lowlifes but now - thanks to the ever-active police – much changed.
At dusk, I stumble on some prostitutes. They look Chinese or Filipina, hanging around what looks at first like a karaoke bar but turns out to be a disguised brothel. As the sun sets, a few shady types have crawled out of their holes. In the city of the future, not everyone is in step.
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