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Kuala Lumpur's Renaissance

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

Photo: François Dischinger

Another favorite source of material was gossip Maugham overheard at the Long Bar of the Selangor Club, a Kuala Lumpur institution now 122 years old, on the edge of the cricket green (always the centerpiece of British-administered towns). The cricket grounds have been cut back to a smallish patch now named Independence Square, but the clubhouse is still there, a faux-Tudor building abutting the truncated field. Today, the Long Bar is known mainly for its cold beer, fading photographs of bygone rugby teams, and an antiquated rule excluding women. Some tourists come to catch a whiff of the clubhouse's history or perhaps a glimpse of the Moorish high-court buildings across the road. But most don't stay long, preferring to flock back to the shops, clubs, and restaurants downtown at Bukit Bintang or on the nearby Beach Club strip where Ibiza is located.

That's too bad, really, because in some small part of the city's consciousness lingers the memory of an older, smaller Kuala Lumpur, barely more than a colonial town, where the Chinese ran the shops while the Malays tended to their rice in the kampangs (villages) and the Indians worked the rubber and oil-palm plantations they were born and raised—and would die—on. Those times are long gone, of course, but a similar reality still thrives in the city's ordinary, outlying neighborhoods, where Malaysians of all races mingle in an unlikely tableau of shared prosperity and peaceful coexistence. The K.L. suburb of Puchong is one of my favorite places to see that in action.

Twenty years ago, Puchong was a one-street village of a few hundred people, mostly Chinese petty traders and shopkeepers. Now it's a thriving township of 560,000 residents of all races, and claims a Carrefour and a Tesco. In a pasar malam, the congenial evening market where everything from pots of homemade chile sauce to automobiles is sold, I watch a typical scene unfold: Skinny Tamil waiters rush to and fro in one restaurant, heaping huge mounds of steaming rice onto banana leaves, then dishing out an endless selection of curries and sauces. Elsewhere the hiss of a gas-burner flame complements the clang of steel spatula against iron wok as Cantonese men prepare stir-fried dishes. Malay families wander among the food stalls; in some groups, even the six-year-old girls are clad in head scarves, while others wear jeans and T-shirts, chatting and laughing as they chew on a grilled piece of squid or corn on the cob. A small crowd clusters around a tent where car salesmen are busy touting the virtues of the locally manufactured Kancil (a 600 cc subcompact with a vague resemblance to the iconic Mini) that sells for about $6,000—60 percent of the country's average annual per capita income. Chinese, Malay, and Indian children squeal, shove each other happily, and scramble through the open doors of the cars as their grave-faced fathers kick tires and talk knowledgeably about horsepower and torque. "When it comes to buying a car," salesman Mohamad Nazri says with a laugh, "there is no difference between the races. Under the skin we all want the same things—a house, a car, a good life for our families."

And yet, the affirmative action and global trade that brought Malays into the middle class now threatens to keep K.L. in a sort of stasis. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and the most outspoken critic of Mahathir's administration, is concerned that the system has created a generation of overdependent, underqualified Malays. "The program can no longer work in an increasingly globalized world," Ibrahim says over a cup of coffee at his house. "Graduate unemployment is huge. And these issues can explode"—as they did in 1969—"if they are taken up by demagogues." Speaking about the impact of the affirmative action policies that discriminate against Chinese Malaysians, Azmi Sharom, a law professor and sometime social activist, tells me, "You can't expect to exclude thirty percent of the population from the best universities and jobs and not face the fact they are going to take their talents elsewhere." Estimates vary, but there's little dispute that in the recent past Malaysia has suffered a serious brain drain, specifically among middle-class Malaysian Chinese. Unable to secure places at local universities, many go abroad to study and never come back.

But as Sharom also points out, Kuala Lumpur has an ace up its sleeve: its immigrants. While America is embroiled in a border debate, Malaysia welcomes workers from all over the map. The city has always relied on newcomers—laborers from China's southern coast, Malay farmers from the rice fields of Kedah 300 miles north of the city, and, these days, computer programmers from New Brunswick working in K.L.'s own mini–Silicon Valley (the much-touted Multimedia Supercorridor). As long as they continue to be embraced by this patchwork society, there will always be an influx of new citizens, Sharom argues.

And there's another type of immigrant attracted by Kuala Lumpur's increasingly cosmopolitan edge: the returnee. Cheong Lieuw was born and bred in K.L., then spent nearly three decades achieving fame in Australia as the chef who, in the 1970's, more or less invented Asian fusion at his Adelaide restaurant, the Grange. Now Lieuw has come back to open a new restaurant, Senses. But he would have returned anyway, he says. "I do nothing but eat while I am here," the rumpled, slightly roly-poly 55-year-old says a little ruefully as he watches a waiter at Senses serve me a bouillabaisse inspired by a local coconut-based curry called laksa. "All Asians are food-obsessed, but K.L. is really special," Lieuw says. "Right now, for me, Kuala Lumpur is one of the most interesting places in the world because it just has so much variety." So long as that variety continues to lure boundary-breaking residents like Lieuw, it will remain one of the world's most dynamic urban centers—a heartening prospect for a city facing an uncertain future.

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