I am writing from Kota Kinabalu, the major city on the west coast of Sabah in Borneo, where I arrived after spending almost two weeks in Kuala Lumpur (KL). Kuala Lumpur is not easy to grasp. Now that I put more than 1000 km between me and the city, I will try to sketch some note in perspective.
At first sight, KL is ugly, chaotic, polluted. I can hardly imagine any tourist spending more than three or four days there. Yet, if one knows some locals to show them around, KL will quickly grow on them. My local connection and I met in Zurich, when we were both employed at the university. As naive as I am, I have never thought that Malaysian people that can afford coming to Europe for studying must rank quite high in the social ladder of their home country. So it came as a surprise when I got to KL and I found myself projected among my friend’s friends, heirs of fortunes built on oil, mining, or in the golden age of timber logging. On my side, being currently jobless, homeless, and traveling on the cheap, I found myself a place to stay in a hostel in Chinatown. This situation gave me a good insight on KL’s social extremes. On one side the wealthy 1%, on the other the Chinatown of fake junk sellers, paperless homelesses sleeping on cardboards on the sidewalks, ladyboys’ pimps, rats in the streets.
In Italy, my home country, everything is shades and nuances. Kuala Lumpur is nothing like that. Although KL has many and intertwined faces, they are all clear-cut and laid in full light. They represent more of a puzzle and less of a blend compared to what I am used to deal with. The multifaceted spirit of the city is reflected by its languages and cultures. There is Malay, obviously, but also Cantonese, Mandarin, Indian. The lingua franca is the local English, that rooted during the colonial age and has ever since absorbed words from all the languages spoken in the city.
Kuala Lumpur reminds me of a polluted, chaotic, more colorful version of Zurich. I know that those that know Zurich will laugh at the comparison, yet both cities share the multiculturalism, and just like Zurich, KL has a close relationship with the surrounding nature – although less peaceful.
There is tension and enthusiasm in the air, like the one that can be perceived in relatively young countries as Malaysia is. It feels like everything is possible, both good and bad, and the city finds itself in an unstable equilibrium, still trying to settle its path.