A Stranger in my Town

A buddy of mine once quipped, “You’ve visited and photographed quite a few far away places in the region, what about KL”? He certainly had a valid point. The thrill of exploring your own home city often seems less inviting. Perhaps it’s just a case of familiarity breeds contempt. I live here, what could I possibly find that I’ve not seen before?

A trip to KL’s city centre on any given day requires mental preparedness, a tank full of gas, your prayer beads and a bucket full of luck. One drop of rain and the city can get gridlocked for hours. The long weekend holiday for Malaysia Day celebrations were hence a calculated risk and reason enough to head downtown as most city folk had left town. I was in search of a place called Merchant’s Lane which is in the heart of the tourist district of Petaling Street.

The mighty Gods of parking were surely shinning down on me as I was able to easily find an empty parking spot just on the fringe of Petaling street. I must have walked past the entrance to Merchant’s Lane several times but just could not find it. Google maps repeatedly indicated I was right in front of it. So what gives?

Dumbfounded, I spotted several people disappearing through a little green door. I’m Malaysian, curious where they were headed, I followed too. Turns out it’s this little green door which is no wider or taller than I am that leads to a cafe called Merchant’s Lane. And here I was expecting a whole lane of fully restored pre-war shop lots like the ones on Concubine Lane in Ipoh. A little disappointed I must say.

All is not lost though, the decor is visually interesting with an old school feel to it. I would hazard a guess that the plants growing out of the cracks in the walls and the unfinished state within the cafe are from a time when this shop lot was possibly abandoned and left to rot in the elements. A nice touch indeed. Rather than strip it down and try to make it look spiffy with a new coat of paint as most people would have done, the rotted out interior has been nicely preserved and appointed with rustic furnishings that only add to its charm.

Their kopitiam menu had the usual suspects, local Malaysian snacks and dishes, but prices are obviously fixed to cater to the tourist wallet. RM15 for an iced chocolate a.k.a milo ice? Okay, so that was an anti-climax. I’ve come all this way so I may as well make the best of it.

It’s been years since I walked down Petaling Street. It’s always crowded with tourists in search of that ubiquitous souvenir. I’m constantly reminding myself to keep an extra eye on my wallet and have a firmer grip on my camera. I’m being watched by several shady looking characters hanging around the sidewalks in the vacinity. Getting mugged in this part of town is not one of my plans for the evening and the last thing I need is to have to hit someone on the head with my DSLR. That would be painful for those on the receiving end me thinks. But better safe than sorry, so I’m ready for anything.

The place looks pretty much the same, smells pretty much the same as before too but the folks peddling their wares have changed. The makcik and pakcik, uncle and aunty are all but gone from the scene, now replaced by foreign workers. I’m just as much of a tourist face to the Bangladeshi and Pakistani chaps who are now the custodians of these shops as anyone else who dares walk here.

Everything I touch is met with an arbitrary price quote, usually 3 to 4 times the actual price. Gone are the days when I could have some fun bargaining in Bahasa Malaysia, “Saya orang Malaysia aunty, bagi harga betul ok“,  in order to solicit a discounted “for locals only” price from these then mom and pop operated stalls.

The tides of time have certainly taken its toll on Petaling Street, an iconic tourist and shopping destination that sadly is no longer run by local Malaysians. I’m nothing more than a stranger in my own town.

The Roving Photographer
Sept. 17th, 2016

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