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Kuala Lumpur's Renaissance

François Dischinger Inside chef Kelly Brennan's Kuala Lumpur restaurant, Senses.

Photo: François Dischinger

For a while after independence in 1957, it looked as though the system established under British rule to hold together the new nation's diverse races—with the Chinese dominating the economy and the Malays, still largely rural, in control of politics and enforcing sharia among Muslims—would function. But in 1969, disparities in wealth and the Malays' insecurity about their grip on power exploded into race riots that lasted for three days in Kuala Lumpur, leaving hundreds dead. Shocked politicians began a huge affirmative action program designed to shift ownership of the country's wealth to its Malay majority and, at the same time, create a middle class of Malay doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. Its success is probably as much attributable to simple economics as to government policies: Malaysia is a land still rich in natural resources and has largely been spared the natural disasters that plague its neighbors. It also has a relatively small population (around 25 million) and a gross domestic product that keeps expanding at an enviable 5 to 6 percent a year. With the affirmative action program steadily increasing the Malay share of the country's wealth, and an economy strong enough to withstand events like the 1998 economic meltdown that pummeled most other countries in the region, Malaysians have achieved an enviable standard of living. Simply put, people with houses and cars and jobs are unlikely to start race riots.

When I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1998, the city's current incarnation as a thriving global metropolis seemed a very remote possibility. The Asian financial crisis was at its height, and Malaysia's currency had dropped to half its previous value against the dollar in a matter of months. The country's economy was faltering, a problem made worse by a bitter fight between Mahathir and his sometime protégé, the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Within days of my arrival, I was running through the streets with thousands of protesters, our eyes watering from the mist of tear gas that hung over the capital's main boulevards. Now those days of rage and fear are distant memories. The economy's natural strengths quickly reasserted themselves and the protests simply ran out of steam. Today, in fact, you're more in danger of being trampled by hordes of eager shoppers than by demonstrators. You might find your eyes watering, but only from a midnight supper of chakueitiao—flat rice noodles fried with garlic, egg, shrimp, chives, and plenty of chiles—served at an outdoor food stall on Ceylon Hill. The worst fight you'd encounter might be over a table at Third Floor in the JW Marriott Hotel, where the foie gras with a caramelized-pear-and-burgundy reduction rivals any such dish in New York.

Stroll down the city's main shopping drag, Bukit Bintang (Star Hill), and you'll witness the dizzying change overtaking Malaysia's capital city. All of the planet's best-known hotel chains—Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton—are here, complete with glittering, marble-encrusted lobbies and world-class spas. And they've been joined by their luxury-goods equivalents: Donna Karan, Bulgari, Tiffany, Hanae Mori. The spending power brought by years of stratospheric economic growth (not to mention the abolition of tariffs on almost all consumer goods, making this one of Asia's retail magnets) is visible in the packed shopping centers, where silk-gowned Chinese matrons, turbaned Sikhs, and burka-draped Muslim women elbow one another for Prada and Gucci. Continue on down to Kuala Lumpur City Centre and 21st-century excess again hits you in the face, in the form of the Petronas Twin Towers, a pair of skyscrapers created by Cesar Pelli and erected in 1998. Two Arabesque octagons, each sharp edge alternating with a semicircle, the towers gradually taper to slim points. The buildings are linked at their midpoint by a bridge that, from a distance, makes them look like a pair of rockets on a launch pad joined by a gantry. At night, the towers are often wreathed in tendrils of mist, with hundreds of spotlights and the light streaming from office windows increasing the otherworldly effect; they really look as if they're leaving for Mars. For a few years, these were the tallest buildings in the world; in 2004, they lost the title by a score of meters to a new building in Taipei, but they remain the most visible symbol of Kuala Lumpur's new forward-looking persona.

As you stare through the ceiling-high windows at the view from the 27th floor of the self-consciously hip Hilton Hotel (where every room comes with a 42-inch plasma-screen TV, and if you need company, room service will bring a goldfish in a bowl), the raging development that has characterized this swelling urban center comes into focus. Every building visible seems to have sprung up in the past 20 years—or is currently being erected. It's a vista of cranes, half-completed condominiums, and office towers with choked highways snaking among them, all of it reaching out for 20 or 30 miles to the suburbs that now ring the city like a vast sea of concrete poured onto the sites of rubber and oil-palm plantations to house the newly wealthy middle classes in semidetached comfort. The downtown skyline is the usual blockish manifestation of corporate hubris and lack of urban planning.

Hidden amid this forest of nondescript buildings indistinguishable from their counterparts in cities throughout Asia, there are a few reminders of the colonial past. To the east is the former residence of the British governor of the Federated Malay States, a rambling two-story mansion with wide verandas and fluted columns set among the last remnants of the jungle that once covered the whole peninsula. In 1989 it became the all-suite Carcosa Seri Negara hotel, and its bar serves those trying to recapture the era of Somerset Maugham. Maugham's stories—written mostly in the 1920's and 30's—are redolent of a long-dead age when colonial officers dressed for dinner in their remote jungle outposts and rubber planters quietly drank themselves to death while their wives conducted torrid affairs with neighbors. They are also true to life, literally: he lifted most of his material from the pages of the Straits Times—the planters' daily—in some cases barely bothering to change the protagonists' real names.

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