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Malaysia (& Singapore)

Michael Kluckner

A plaque on a fountain in the "Forbidden Garden" at the reconstructed palace of the Malay Sultans in Melaka, quoting Tome Pires from his book Suma Oriental, published after his voyage to the area in 1512–5.

The Malayan peninsula extends south from Thailand toward Indonesia. The Straits of Malacca are the shortest route between Arabia and the Spice Islands and made Malaya's western coast the strategic control point for navigation for the past 500 years, since the spice trade began, and doubtless even earlier for trade between China and India. The region has always intrigued me, partly for these geopolitical reasons and partly because Malaya figures in many of Somerset Maugham's short stories of dissipated rubber planters in isolated jungle camps. Christine had travelled through this part of Southeast Asia many years ago, in an earlier lifetime, but I had only ever been to Singapore, the island city-state at the bottom of the peninsula which separated from the new country of Malaysia soon after the latter obtained its independence from Britain in the 1960s. I won't repeat the history here – read Wikipedia for a quick overview. There's a lot more to Malaysia than we ever saw, namely the east coast of the peninsula and the two states of Sarawak and Sabah on the Island of Borneo. Another time, perhaps....

Left: Our route, beginning in Singapore, then to KL by overnight train, then by bus in a loop north, south, and finally back to KL for the flight out. As always, we were more interested in people and towns than resorts, and as we were travelling from mid-October well into November we were in the transition from dry season to wet (the monsoon comes in from the northeast, off the South China Sea, which helped us decide not to travel to the east coast). The weather was hot, usually about 30 Celsius and becoming very humid in the afternoon; we were lucky that the occasional thunderstorms happened late in the afternoons, leading to cool, pleasant evenings, rather than earlier in the day which would have made the place unbearably sticky and unpleasant. An expression we heard, apropos of the climate: "if you can accomplish one thing, it's a good day."

Malaysia has three main ethnic groups: the Malay people themselves, who are, depending on the State, fairly easy-going Muslims; the Straits Chinese, called the Peranakan, who migrated south from China's Hokkien province a couple of hundred years ago and have established their own distinctive culture along the west coast; and Indians, mostly Hindus, whose ancestors were brought to the Malayan peninsula by the British to work on the plantations and in the tin mines. All are the friendliest people you could hope to meet anywhere, except when they're on motorbikes or behind the wheel of a car and you're a pedestrian.

The food is fabulous and the country is very cheap to travel in because its currency, the ringgit aka RM, is quite devalued compared with North American dollars and the Euro (and the Singapore dollar) in spite of Malaysia's petro-wealth and abundant natural resources. It's quite a middle-class country; seemingly everybody travelling on the buses and walking on the streets has phones; even tiny laksa cafés have wi-fi for the patrons. We saw few signs of real desperation and poverty; one abandoned building in George Town sticks in my mind due to the small group of homeless men camped in its galleria – it was the dirty blackness of the bottom of one man's bare foot that caught my eye, then my realization that he had just one foot. I drew him from memory later.

Kuala Lumpur, usually called KL, is the capital and is a modern Asian city of flamboyant highrises, freeways, monorails and big institutions; it's like a booming, less prosperous version of Singapore. George Town on the island of Penang and Malacca (also spelled Melaka) share a World Heritage Site designation from UNESCO for their historic city centres, especially (in George Town's case) for the streets of shophouses; of the two, Malacca has a much richer history beginning with the Malay Sultanates followed by colonization by Portuguese, Dutch and British adventurers. And the Cameron Highlands, where I didn't produce as much artwork as I ought to have, is famous for its scenery and tea plantations from British, recent times.

I just did pencil drawings in a small Moleskine sketchbook and was annoyed that I dragged the watercolour sketchbook and paints along – a kilo I wouldn't have had to carry. Heat, circumstances and the intensity of colours led me to avoid the watercolours and paint in oils and pixels once I returned home.

I've divided the material below into two parts:
• stuff en route, which begins immediately below, and
• the shophouses – the distinctive Chinese architecture of Malaysian towns – which begins here. There are still a few shophouses in Singapore, especially in Little India, but most of its historic architecture has been blown away.

... and here are some snapshots with the cellphone camera of architecture and people (which opens as a pop-up on a computer and a separate page on a tablet or phone).

We stayed at the Albert Court Hotel in Singapore – the Albert pedestrian street connects with the Bugis street market, one of the last sections of Singapore not to have succumbed to new architecture and flashy malls.

The 1924 building (above) was across Selegie Road from the hotel, and Little India begins on the opposite side of Bukit Timah Road. With its open arcades, louvered windows, high ceilings and ceiling fans, it dates from an era where good design, rather than cheap energy (air-conditioning), was employed to make living in the tropics relatively comfortable. Singapore sits on the Equator, with both temperature and humidity high all year round.

The monks and fortune tellers in the street market reflect Chinese beliefs that somehow co-exist with the business-driven reality of modern Singapore. Note #1 – financial pursuit – the most commonly discussed subject!

Many of the Little India shophouses in Singapore (and Malacca) were painted in bright colours, giving their arcade fronts a kind of kaleidoscopic pop-art effect when you walked through them. There is no sidewalk – the columns on the left are on the edge of the street.

(Above and left): Johor Bahru is the southernmost Malaysian town, just across the narrow strait from the island of Singapore. Historic architecture survives only on a few streets near the waterfront in an area the guidebooks suggest is sleazy and even a bit dangerous, but seemed quaint and full of character to us compared with the malls and huge new buildings elsewhere in the city. That's the evolution: the old buildings are boarded up, or wiped out and replaced with massive, soul-destroying towers and generic shopping malls, yet in every vacant patch merchants set up stalls under canvas and create labyrinths of interesting commerce.

(Below): From Johor Bahru, it's cheap and easy to take the overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. Our sleeper unit with its two narrow bunks looked like this – well-known to anyone who has travelled in 1950's-era trains. It was clean, spartan, private, and hard to sleep due to the swaying of the carriage; we chose not to join the throng for breakfast, instead eating a couple of rotis with kopi in the food court in KL Sentral.

We rented an apartment in KL near Bukit Bintang, on the 19th floor, with a view down onto the roofs of a block of houses that had somehow missed the march of progress. The difference between old (human-scaled?) and new (corporate-scaled?) was dramatic.

Kuala Lumpur: the difference in scale, part 2. We took the LRT to Kampung Baru, where there is a Saturday evening street market. It has a reputation as being still like a village (the meaning of 'kampung'), almost a slum, and the dark streets between the LRT stop and the brightly lit main street were a little spooky. It is a Malay-only area, apparently, cut off from the towers of KL by a freeway. The snapshot shows the internationally famous Petronas Towers nearby – the camera's peep-hole lens doesn't do justice to the height and proximity of the towers, which are 88 storeys tall and absolutely dwarf the stalls and traditional houses.

(Above): We found a stall that cooked mee goreng (fried noodles) and sat at a makeshift table along the edge of the street, giving me a view of another stall cooking jagung (a corn/maize pancake) with fillings like ketam (crab), chocolate, cheese, and banana (pisang), as well as the common pisang goreng (fried banana). Every few minutes, one of the cooks would scoop another ladle of batter from the plastic tub that sat on a chair behind him and fry it expertly on the griddle. Most of the stalls had electric light from tiny gas-powered generators.

(Above) Gunung Brinchang, the highest accessible point in Malaysia at 2031 metres (a digital painting from a pencil sketch). We were staying in a backpackers hotel in Tanah Rata, the most picturesque of the Cameron Highlands towns, and decided to take a half-day tour that offered a combination of jungle walk and tea plantation, plus a stop at a butterfly farm and a few other less-memorable attractions. Our driver was a great source of history and ethnobotany and took us in a 4WD to this lookout. The rain-filled clouds had cleared away from the highest peaks but socked in all the valleys to the east, maybe all the way to the South China Sea.

(Right) I took a snapshot of some butterflies in the rama rama farm but, with a little time to kill, drew a family (herd? gang?) of snakes hanging out together on a branch in the reptilean part of that attraction, and ...

(Below) The Boh Tea Plantation, the oldest in the highlands, was a  quilt of bright green patches draped over the steep jungle hillsides. What a beautiful climate
at 1600 metres above sea level compared with the steamy coastal plain!

We journeyed from the Cameron Highlands by bus to Butterworth, took the ferry to Penang, and one day rented a car to explore the island ...

Pulau Betong is a kampung (village) at the southwest corner of the island of Penang. Blue and red fishboats docked at the mouth of a muddy tropical river...

Penang National Park occupies a peninsula at the northwest corner of Penang Island and is easy to get to on a "Penang Rapid" bus from Weld Quay or Komtar for about 5 RM ($1.50). There are pathways, quite rough in spots, along the shoreline and across the peninsula that go to small beaches. We walked 2 or 3 kilometres along one trail, struggling somewhat in the extreme humid heat, but other than the pleasure of the jungle and a few large iguanas ambling about we were most interested in the view of a floating fishing village offshore.

The colour digital doodle (above) reprises the pencil sketch that is upside down in the book (right): turquoise sea, sapphire sky, and thunderclouds beginning to form above the hills on the mainland 50 km away.

The view to the right of the same fishing village looks back along the Penang coastline as far as the incongruous clump of condo towers at Batu Feringgi (foreigners' beach).

A diner on Jalan Macalister in George Town, a noted foodie destination. (Digital over brush and ink using Photoshop Elements 9)

(Below): The Hong Kong Bar on Lebuh Chulia in George Town became our hangout for the 6 days we spent in Penang (our hotel was just up the street). It was a shophouse, with a metal roller door that opened it up to the arcaded 'sidewalk,' which was all but blocked by the tables placed on it and in front of the restaurant next door. It was also the hangout for Royal Australian Air Force crew and their Malaysian cohorts, who would take the ferry from Butterworth to George Town's bright lights on their days off. Squadron and other military regalia decorated the walls, much of which was charred due to a fire that gutted the bar a dozen years ago. My point of view in the drawing below was a bar stool – Tiger draft for me, G & T for her.


"The Chinese do not settle where there is no trade" – Somerset Maugham

The Chinese shophouses are the most pleasant, perfectly adapted architecture imaginable for the tropical towns and cities of Malaysia and Singapore. They are two storeys high, between 20 and 25 feet wide and usually very deep, perhaps 200 feet, going back from their arcaded streetfronts through a series of rooms and courtyards. The Google satellite view of George Town on the left shows how far apart the streets are due to the depth of the houses; the courtyards, which create excellent natural air circulation, are visible as holes in the roofs.

The ground floor is a few steps above the street to ensure that the torrential rains have no chance of backing up into the houses.

The best place to see them in Singapore is Little India – – this image, further up this webpage.

The two-storey portions of the houses are not divided in any regular sort of way, unlike the colonial houses in Cuba, for example, that follow a pretty standard plan. Their courtyards are pounded by the tropical rain, the basin/pool on the floor filling up rapidly both with rain and also with run-off from the roof, which is channelled from gutters around the edge of the roof opening into a pipe in the wall and disgorged into the basin from a decorative spout; it then drains away slowly. This is good feng-shui because water is like money: it should come in very fast and only be spent very slowly!

(... and, on the left above, the Honky Tonk Haven jazz bar, almost next door to the Wayfarers Guest House where we stayed on the Malacca River.)

Food stalls and shophouses on Chulia Street in George Town

(Below): The architecture in Malacca is subtly different, with a fair share of classic shophouses like the ones above but a large number of buildings, especially near the riverfront, that lack the arcades on their front facades. The Madras Café, in Malacca's superb Little India, was a variation on the shophouse that wrapped around a corner, with metal roller awnings for night-time security and bamboo blinds for storms. A steady stream of people came by, some getting take-out rotis, others sitting inside or in the 'sidewalk' galleria to eat nasi and mee gorengs, laksas and other Malay-Indian foods. Kopi-O (the local coffee with milk) was our standard for breakfast, Tea-O for lunch. No air-conditioning required in spite of the heat thrown off by the griddle and the outside temperature of 30 Celsius.

A dilapidated riverfront house with a banyan tree, its air roots almost touching the ground, in Malacca

Final day: Ben and Kee's comfortable condo back in KL, relaxing and enjoying the company of their very relaxed cat.

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Artwork & text © Michael Kluckner, 2013