We went to Malaysia.
On our third day there, we were lucky enough in Kuala Lumpur to bump into Peter Hoe. Brigid had written pages of notes for our ten days touring across Malaysia, most taken from the web – from TripAdvisor and the like. Some were not as helpful as we’d hoped they might be (like the Dim Sim up by the Thai border, which was a bit of a drive from the Traders Hotel across from the Petronas Towers, although our navigator almost got us there a few days later but that’s another story). Others, such as the tip about Peter’s Emporium, just off Chinatown’s famous Petaling Street, were bang on.
We’d wandered down, through Chinatown, past the intriguing T-shirt that asked questions about this strangely enigmatic country, stuck somewhere between a pre-medieval Arab world and the mid-21st century in South East Asia.
We’d decided (ok, I decided, based on a few guidebook or vague memories from a taxi drive a year earlier) to check out Central Markets. I like a noisy, overcrowded Asian market as much as the next over-heated tourist. Sadly KL’s Central Market was not it. Apparently, it used to be just that, but now it’s a very sanitised, clean, boring waste of space full of ‘ethnic’ knick-knack shops stocked with items from Bali.
So we left and wandering in ever increasing circles in the 35 degree mid-day sun looking for something, until Brigid suggested we search out the recommended Peter Hoe (everybody say….) Emporium, and we found it, hidden away on the second floor of an old building, without a sign.
We actually stood outside it for ten minutes, smiling at the nice Indian girls, vaguely looking around and feeling lost, like the out of odds tourists we were – until we noted the building number. Gosh, this was it, how silly. We went in, up to the second floor.
Peter’s place was an oasis, a refuge from the heat. And whilst Brigid and Sandra wandered around (looking at the items, mostly from Bali but very well selected), Blake and I went into the café. I bought a Lemon drink.
And looked around for a hat (Brigid said I already had one in Bali so it was a waste – she bought me a travel iron instead, but that was later…)
And out came Peter. The building, he said, was once the tallest in KL. So much so that the Japanese Kempeitai had used the place as their headquarters during the occupation. He pointed out the remnants of the room divides that once broke the large room down into smaller units and mentioned that the rooms were where the Japanese broke people down too. It was a chilling thought that sixty years earlier this oasis was once a place of screams.
Peter felt he’d exorcised the ghosts of those days by removing the partitions and filling it full of rather more beautiful rooms and we nodded but wondered all sorts of unhappy things anyway.
In a city like KL, or indeed any Asian city, you need a Peter Hoe, otherwise you spend your time wandering wastefully around the likes of the Central Markets.
So we listened to his advice on things to do and food and headed off in the direction of the recommended Islamic Arts Museum next door to the imposing, although rather clinical looking, National Mosque (there are some stunning mosques in KL but this, from the outside at least, is not one of them).
We quickly realised that, as helpful as Peter was, clearly he was not one who walked. His instruction of a five-minute easy stroll, under the wonderful old colonial railway station (although as Blake pointed out, perhaps not so wonderful to the deportees selected by the former tenants in Peter’s building, to go north to Thailand in 1942–3) was optimistic.
Half an hour later, through the tropical midday heat and over the railway station, we arrived.
We wandered the museum for some hour or two, and the fabrics, calligraphy, weaponry and much more were inspiringly beautiful in their execution and detail. I particularly enjoyed the Islamic architecture room but was not alone in noting that the prophet’s palace in Medina (it’s the one at the front of the photo in the link) was quite massive and thinking that he was perhaps another religious ‘prophet’ who had decided that claiming a direct line to the lord was an easy way to a not insubstantial following and lifestyle.
And we wandered through the ‘Women in Islam’ exhibition, but felt uneasy that 14 centuries of Islam seem only able to produce some thirty women worthy of note and many of those profiled here were profiled as powerful wives or mothers of male rulers. It was uncomfortable and both Brigid and I commented that they did themselves few favours with this exhibition.
That evening we wandered to Peter’s next recommendation, a little Chinese hole in the wall just south of the Bukit Bintang strip. Amongst the best Chinese food in KL said Peter and he was not far off.
The Paper Chicken, as greasy and unhealthy as we knew it was, was just fine, and we compensated ourselves by reminding ourselves of our morning/afternoon walk.
The owner, a Chinese-Malay woman called Jessica arrived and announced that she’d lived in Papakura for many years, with her Welsh husband. I don’t think many New Zealanders make it south of Jl. Impi to the small food district she operated in, or at least she said so and we talked for quite some time.
She was enthusiastic. She was also opinionated.
She tore into all sorts of people: Maori, Unions – well actually that was the core of it – over and over. And New Zealand. My very good friend, Blake, who is half Maori and a former Union negotiator, sat very quietly. I was quite proud of him as a lesser person would’ve taken her strongly to task – taken those gaping chasms in most of her rants and driven a Tokoroa Timber truck & trailer through them.
But I guess she smiled so much and chattered so sweetly that he couldn’t bring himself to do it. And then after all that, she grinned and said she’d kept her NZ residency – just in case y’know…
We wondered what happened to Jennifer?
You see, next door was a rather upmarket looking café: ’Jennifer: Taiwanese Food’. Somebody had put a bit of money, effort and thought into the place. That said, though, it was a weekend night and the lights were off. Everywhere else in the precinct was busy but Jennifer was tutup – closed.
We asked Jessica but she was very cagey: something about an affair with the Myanmarese chef. But it didn’t wash, it sounded very non-committal. We looked and wondered, but it seemed Jennifer had clearly gone. Maybe she’d decided that the completion was too much and hopped it back to Taiwan with the guy from Myanmar. But it seemed strange that Jessica, who had an opinion on most things, had no real idea where her next door neighbour was.
Where is Jennifer?
Thank you, Peter.