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Is This Malaysia's Moment?

Bashir Shariff, an investment fund manager whose family emigrated from southern India generations ago, guided me to the best of these retro hangouts, places that his father-- an official in the British colonial administration-- would not have been allowed to enter before Malaysia was granted independence in 1957. The most accessible spot for inhaling colonial nostalgia is the Coliseum Café & Hotel, once a favorite with British rubber plantation owners on leave from their jungle redoubts. Nowadays, the patrons are mainly Chinese, Malays, and Indians, who affect a bored British look as they lounge in old leather chairs, blowing smoke rings toward overhead fans after a dinner of steak-and-kidney pie. A half-century-old newspaper clipping on the yellowed wall advises readers, "How to know when your servant has malaria."

Another former colonial stronghold, the Royal Selangor Club, is now a multiracial gathering place for the business elite. But some prejudices remain in this marble-floored, mock-Tudor building: the bar is still restricted to men. Photos on the walls hail early-20th-century cricket and rugby stars, and the drinks are overly generous. "Wives don't like this place anyway, because so few of the fellows come home sober," confided Bashir.

Karim Raslan, a noted journalist and lawyer of Anglo-Malay parentage, and his friend Valentine Willie, a Borneo aborigine who owns the leading K.L. art gallery, are the sort of affluent intellectuals too young to remember-- or care much about-- the colonial era and its secular shrines. When evening comes, they gravitate to the Bangsar district, with its low skyline of former warehouses. "You don't have all those buildings towering over you," says Raslan. The free-spending hordes are also drawn by the district's countercultural feel and the fact that the Bangsar-- unlike much of the rest of the city-- is as friendly to walkers as to drivers. Patrons flow in and out of the English-style pubs and spacious minimalist restaurants and crowd around street stalls.

The mostly Chinese residents of the island of Penang, some 230 miles north of Kuala Lumpur and the scene of my durian hunt, seem a lot more determined than the capital's denizens to prevent rapid development from obliterating their cultural landscape. The most visible part of this heritage lies within the 40-square-block core of Georgetown. I couldn't wait to abandon my taxi and explore the narrow streets on foot.

In the center of Chinatown is the 19th-century Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, built by a trader of such extraordinary wealth that he was dubbed "the Rockefeller of the East." He hired China's finest artisans to erect his ornate blue house in a traditional courtyard plan, with ceramic bas-reliefs.

Laurence Loh, a local architect, is spearheading a restoration campaign, along with several other conservationists. "We don't have a clear notion yet of what we'll do with it-- besides saving it from being torn down for an office or condominium tower," Loh says. The pace of the work has been painstakingly slow. But the project has spurred other private preservation efforts on Penang. The so-called clan halls, which once operated as hostels and mutual-aid societies for Chinese immigrants, are being renovated to serve as schools and cultural centers. Shattered roof tiles are being replaced, and snarling marble lions guarding entrances have been polished. The largest of these halls have open-balconied theaters for Chinese opera performances.

The rest of Chinatown needs no help. The dynamism of its shopkeepers and artisans is boldly on display. Signs in calligraphy advertise antique furniture and tea sold in lacquered boxes. The cool blast of air conditioners lures shoppers into the goldsmiths' stores on Campbell Street. Nearby, Carnarvon Street is devoted to the needs of the afterlife: its shops sell miniature paper replicas of limousines and household appliances to be burned at Chinese funerals. On Jalan Kuala Kangsar, pajama-clad Chinese grandmothers balance parasols on their shoulders while they scrutinize the fruit, vegetable, and prepared food stands or nibble on nonya kuih, coconut and tapioca pastries, at the cake stalls.

I wandered down Market Street and found myself in the Indian merchant community, where BMW's nudge rickshaws aside and sidewalks are crowded with women in luminous saris, traders wearing ties (despite the stifling heat), and polo-shirted hipsters lugging boom boxes blaring Hindi songs. I bumped and slid through the throngs past shops selling spices, bolts of silk, and jewelry spun as fine as spiderwebs. On Queen Street, I stopped at the Sri Mariamman Temple just as Hindu holy men with long beards and sarongs emerged after hours of prayer.

Later, for respite from the midday heat, I headed to the top of Penang Hill, where it's usually 10 degrees cooler than in the city. From the base of the hill, the ancient cog train began a 30-minute crawl 2,700 feet up to the summit, past moss-covered boulders, prehistoric-size ferns and bamboo, and packs of monkeys leaping through the jungle canopy. Over tea and scones at the aptly named Bellevue Hotel, I could see the mainland across the ship-laden straits. It's little wonder that Penang once had a reputation among Europeans as the most livable place in the Orient. The makers of the film Indochine used a villa on this hilltop to convey the lavish lifestyle that kept colonials rooted in Asia.

By late afternoon, tired and hot, I retreated to my beachside hotel, the Rasa Sayang Resort, a 30-minute drive from Georgetown up the northern coast. After a long swim around the pool, in and out of the shadow of a mammoth rain tree, I lounged on the balcony of my soothing beige-toned room, sipping a gin and tonic. On that sultry night, a haunting full moon peered through veils of clouds, a foghorn announced a freighter's silhouette on the horizon, and waves slapped the sandy coast.

The following evening I joined Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman for dinner. The honorific "Tunku Abdul" gives him the right to the title of prince, but he prefers to be addressed simply as Suleiman. In modern Malaysia even nobility must earn a living, so Suleiman spends most of his time working in administration at the Rasa Sayang.

Suleiman suggested that we drop by a new theater restaurant-- the kind of supper club that features ethnic dance numbers and has proved popular among tourists in Kuala Lumpur-- on the crowded strip of shops and hotels near the Rasa Sayang. The show kicked off with authentic Malaysian dancing. But even my untrained ear began to pick out distinctly Western 1950's melodic strains as the evening wore on. My suspicions were confirmed when the guests-- mostly members of a Japanese tour group-- were invited to join the performers onstage for a basic lesson in the boria, a local variant of the hokey-pokey. The club owner personally came by our table to urge us to join. But I was taking my cues from the prince, and fortunately Suleiman had a "no dice" look on his face.

Locals told me i would be able to experience a more pristine version of Malaysia in Langkawi, a 20-minute plane hop from Penang and the largest of a string of 104 islands. According to legend, an ancient island princess, the beautiful Mahsuri, was put to death here after being falsely accused of adultery. In her dying gasp, she vowed that Langkawi would not prosper for seven generations. In 1987, after heart-to-heart talks with the government and leading real estate developers, the local shamans declared that the curse was over.

This might explain why the rave reviews of the island seemed grossly misinformed when I arrived. The southern stretch, around the airport, looked like a construction site for a new Florida resort: faceless hotels, sprawling golf courses, and shopping centers. Then I was greeted by the mother of all rains, a monsoon downpour so heavy that I couldn't see the road. My taxi driver assured me he could navigate the 20 miles north to my resort blindfolded.


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