Monday, May 18, 2009

KL, my perspective

Every journey offers lessons to be learnt - the responsibility lies on us to see them as such and grab hold of the opportunity to reflect, learn and grow; and not simply to view them as a passing phase in life - what a waste that would have been!

My trip to KL this time round was short (2 days, 1 night) - but eventful and colourful nonetheless. It was a last minute trip planned for the weekend - for my husband, it was to be a time to rest and relax; for me, it was to seek the historical and cultural heritage of the city. I have read of 3 famous buildings in KL: the Old KL Railway Station, Sultan Abdul Samad Building and Masjid Jamek. I have only seen photographs of these beautiful structures on the internet, and would like to view them from a fresh perspective - mine. And so as we depart from Larkin Bus Terminal in JB for KL, I was like a school kid on an excursion, anticipative of an adventure. As far as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with KL - the capital city of Malaysia, the land of my birth. Although I was born in JB, I have an affinity for KL shared by fellow citizens, whether or not we agree with the political administration of the country.

It is a city messy and congested - crowds of city dwellers and migrant workers dot every street and corner like ants in their colony; roads, flyovers and highways intersect at all points and junctions like wire mesh; old low-rise buildings, new skyscrapers, paint-tattered shophouses line the streets and wide land mass on low lands and high grounds - all of which evokes a sense of chaos yet unexplained congeniality. Looking at KL in a glance - one would think the city planners probably did not put much thought into its urban planning. But take a harder look and you'll see some serious planning and accomplishments in certain, concentrated areas. The downtown KLCC (Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre) arena, for instance.

There is the jewel-in-the-crown, the magnificent Petronas Twin Towers. Seen from any angle at any time of the day, this behemoth of a structure is sure to leave you spell-bound as you marvel at the ingenuous architecture and engineering that goes into the design and construction of this impressive landmark that has come to be identified as the symbol of national and economic progress for Malaysia to the rest of the world. 

The Philharmonic Hall lies in the heart of the Twin Towers, making yet another statement - that it is both grand and cultured. Walk through the corridors and stairway of the Philharmonic Hall and observe its grandeur, made more poignant by the congregation of distinguished, international musicians, performers and artists. 

The huge shopping mall, Suria KLCC, attracts both locals and foreigners to its wide and diverse range of retail outlets that cater to both the middle and upper class shoppers. In front of Suria KLCC is a large park, lake and jogging track for urban dwellers to enjoy nature's beauty against the backdrop of the gigantic Twin Towers. The Aquaria KLCC and Convention Halls draws throngs of people to its many trade fairs and exhibitions of international class. I must say, I am impressed by the modernity of them all.

Now, back in the city, walking under a scorching, tropical sun was no laughing matter. My husband and I had a few moments of conflict over my taking too many pictures, rendering him hot, burnt and frustrated in the sweltering heat. But I had to see those 3 historical monuments - they were the reason I came to KL. My hair messy, my tee-shirt clinging to my sweat-drenched back, my skin burning from the immense heat, I braved the natural elements to capture their glory on film. These 3 structures share 2 common traits – they are slated for conservation under the National Heritage Act, and the architects who designed them were all British and inspired by the Moorish architecture of Muslim mosques in India.

Jason and I travelled around the city on monorails and LRTs - the best way to observe a city and its people. It is my personal belief that the best place to observe the lives of ordinary citizens of a city going about their daily routine is in the city's trains (monorails/LRTs). There you'll see sleep-deprived blue collared workers dozing off, students wearily making their way to and from school and a whole string of remedial classes and extra curricular activities, white collared workers clutching their briefcases and speaking into their mobile phones, mothers cradling their newborns while fathers hold the hands of toddlers or push the pram. Everyday people about their everyday lives - a city in motion. It struck me then that people anywhere all round the world are the same - we are all trying to survive in our respective environments; no matter how harsh or comfortable, backward or modern.

Now back in Singapore, sitting in my comfortable tall-backed chair, typing on my computer as I look out into the greenery outside my window, I reflect on KL with nostalgia. I do love the city, despite its chaos. I do love its people, despite its often high crime rate. I do love its history, despite its lack of proper upkeep. I do love its government, despite its many apparent flaws. I guess I can rightly conclude that I do love the land of my birth, no matter how imperfect and slow its national progress is.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Short story: Home - where we belong

No matter how many times she swore never to let her father's voice torment her, it always did. She was always living in fear of her father's sudden temper outbursts and the pain and shame from caning that she has come to associate her father to a tyrant, a sort of autocratic leader like Stalin who ruled with an iron fist. She sometimes joked with her elder brother Wallace that father was a 'communist' – when he spoke, no one dared to interrupt. What he says goes. No one could question nor defy him.

Yet she understood the hard side of her father. She has heard him scream in the middle of the night, while he was asleep, a scream so tormenting she found it hard to sleep after. In the morning, as she took her usual seat at the kitchen table, she would eat her breakfast in silence and observed her father intently, looking for any sign that could explain the mystery the night before. None. His face offered no answer; in fact, he did not look bothered at all. She winced in disappointment. Finally, unable to hold her curiosity no longer, she caught her mother when she was alone cooking, and creeping up quietly behind her, while stealing glances at the kitchen doorway to make sure her father did not step in, asked in a low tone, "what happened last night?"

Her mother, wiping a film of sweat off from her forehead, answered softly: "He dreamt that he was being beaten up by his father. He always does. Even at this age - can you imagine? You see, your grandfather was a very violent man. And your father had it the most. He was most severely beaten by your grandfather all through his boyhood. And when your dad dreams, it was real to him. He still feels the agony of his childhood..."

Mindy's heart broke. 'So that was why he was always so hard on us,' she thought to herself. Excusing herself, she went up to her room and closed the door behind her. Tearing out a piece of paper from her notebook, she sat down and wrote her brother Wallace a letter.

"Dear Wallace, I miss you. It has been three years since you last came home. Dad and Mom miss you too. We all do, you know that, don't you? I am writing to explain why Dad hit you so hard the last time you came home announcing your plans to drop out of university. Please understand that Dad placed high hopes on you to be the first graduate in the family. You know Dad, he was always studious, reading late into the night, even bearing hopes of going back to school himself. Can you imagine? At 58? But that is Dad. He loves knowledge, and had hoped that you would too. It was understandable why he reacted so strongly when you decided to drop out of university. You were given an opportunity he never was.

You see, Dad had a rough childhood. He was a hard working boy, and had big dreams of being a policeman, but his father could not afford to send him to high school. When his father found out that he has not been tending to the chickens and pigs in the farm, but had instead been hanging out in the backyard of schools to listen to lessons being taught, he became furious and chased him around the 'kampong' compound, hitting him again and again with a thick wooden rod.

How do I know this? Mom told me. You see, last night, I heard Dad scream in his sleep. And when I asked Mom this morning, she told me the whole story. Dad always dream the same dream - and he is 58 years old! He is still being tormented at this age. I am not writing to justify the pain Dad caused you. I am writing to make you understand why Dad leashed out on you in such anger.

Wallace, stop running away from Dad. Stop running away from our family. I don't want you to get married some day, have kids, and still dream of being beaten by Dad when you are old and grey.

Come home soon ok? I love you, big bro.

Love, Mindy."

That year, her brother Wallace came home to visit. He brought with him a new girlfriend the family has never met before - a young, sweet-looking Thai girl whose age was the same as Mindy. Since Wallace's return, things at home brightened up. For one, Mindy's father came to smile more often, and spoke kinder to them both. His outbursts became less frequent. Mother cooked nicer dishes too; an occasional Thai dish or two; a new skill she learnt from Eleenikrabot, Wallace's girlfriend. Even the family dog barked lesser, Mindy noticed, which has found for itself a new joy - chasing birds across the front porch on hot, lazy afternoons.

Growing up, she has always wished she was born into a different family, in a kinder home. Yet through the years, she has come to thank God for her imperfect parents and her intolerable brother Wallace. She has come to realise that even her parents have their past demons, and even they are learning to deal with it. She realised that no one set of parents have it altogether, that no matter how hard they try, they would be less than perfect.

Standing at the church altar with her handsome groom in hand, Mindy turned around to look at her aged parents and a beaming Wallace with his newly wedded Thai wife by his side. Mindy smiled and under the veil, she prayed that as she steps into a new phase in her life, into a family of her own now, she would always carry with her a valuable lesson learnt – that there is no greater place on earth but a place to belong to, a unit of identification, a family to call one’s own.