In Kuala Lumpur, a Melee of East and West

Bonus Cliff’s Notes version of this post: the food in KL is really good. Most of the post is just a long, drawn-out lead-up to this point. Also, skip to the pictures to see Owen practicing his walking in a mosque, assisted by Mom, who was wearing a borrowed hijab.

Kuala Lumpur, a gleaming high-rise city seemingly located in the middle of the Malayan jungle, was built from scratch by Chinese laborers and British administrators a little over a hundred years ago. After the Brits wrested control of the peninsula from the Dutch and co-opted the local sultans, they brought in the Chinese as cheap labor for the new tin and rubber industries. Many of the coolies, starting out as basically slaves, made it big, and the Chinese continue to control an outsized portion of this muslim country’s economy. Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital, is the outgrowth of a Chinese tin mining camp.

A Muslim country with a role as the maritime mid-way station between India and the Middle East (and Europe) and China, there’s always been a mix of cultures here, with Indian Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam arriving with the traders from the West. More recently, the Europeans–first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then, most significantly, the Brits–left their own mark, as well as sizable worker populations of Indian and Chinese.

Things have improved for the Chinese here since many were implicated in the Communist insurgency in the 1940s and anti-Chinese riots in the 1950s took hundreds or thousands of lives. According to one of our Chinese-descent cab drivers (I haven’t fact-checked this), they were never prohibited from speaking their own language or receiving a Chinese education, like they were in Indonesia. Still, while just about every billboard or restaurant menu had both Malaya and Chinese scripts, indicating at least a desire for their business, we were told “the government still doesn’t support us.”

We stayed at a hotel in China Town, above the noisy market, with a staff that watched satellite Mandarin television on mute with subtitles. We got the sense that, despite their adopted country’s ambivalence toward them, most Chinese here identify themselves firmly as Malaysians.

We certainly appreciated the diversity. Owen had a “We Are the World” cast of smiling faces wherever he went, with an imam at a mosque giving him an enthusiastic pat on the back (for being a boy), and a giggling Indian flower vendor selecting his brightest yellow daisy to hand him from his stall. For us, it was all about the awesome pan-Asian food. It may be because we’ve been in Mainland China too long, but in Kuala Lumpur we feel like we ate the best seven meals of our lives, and almost all of them right off the street. As partially confirmed by all the many old/fat and young/underdressed caucasians wandering around, it was a surprisingly great city to be a tourist in, and one we’d really like to come back to someday.

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Filed under Foreign-er Travel, The Greater Southeast

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