Monday, February 2, 2009

KLites -- warts and all

KUALA LUMPUR celebrated its 35th year as a federal territory yesterday. It was also its 37th anniversary as a city. The "muddy confluence" that marked the meeting of the Gombak and Klang rivers has certainly come a long way since its days as a miners' trading post.

Old timers will remember the hostage-taking drama by the Japanese Red Army at the AIA building in Jalan Ampang in August 1975 in exchange for the release of five of their imprisoned comrades. And also a soldier's shooting spree in Kampung Baru a decade later. Or the public protests of the 1990s that spilled into the new millennium and which sent shivers down the spines of those who had lived through the horrors of May 1969 and whose fears were rekindled each time there was a public demonstration - whether it was peaceful or not.

You will also recall, albeit with much amusement now, how we dealt with the "social menaces" of the 1980s when the skateboarding, breakdancing and BMX craze blazed through the city's sidewalks. Self-appointed guardians of public morality promptly blamed "western influences", urging the authorities to act before decadence turned our youths into permanent sidewalk residents.

But of course, nothing happened -- those fads faded away, just like many before them did; remember bellbottoms and miniskirts?

When commuting became more difficult in the mid 1970s, mini buses were a welcomed respite. However, their drivers' death-defying antics, bullying tactics and penchant for breaking every traffic rule in the book saw the pink terrors taken off the streets in the late '90s and left regulars to mourn their passing.

We had our share of urban legends, too. Remember the orang minyak (oily man) of the '70s - the black arts apprentice who was cursed to become an oily humanoid and could become human again if he had 21 virgins? At a time when kerosene lamps still lit parts of the city outskirts, it was a hot topic at morning markets. And yes, hantu kum kum also had her fair share of fame several years down the road. But as it turned out, the tale was a cruel joke played on a homeless old lady who had to earn a living selling socks door-to-door rather than the child-kidnapping witch someone made her out to be.

KL had its moments under the world's spotlight, too, in the many "put KL on the world map" events held since its formative years.

Among them were the first PATA conference in 1972, Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in 1989 and the Commonwealth Games in 1998. Remember how council workers feverishly spruced up the city with "instant" trees and shrubs? And how unappealing sections of the city were hastily hoarded up from view?

Most of us who still remember can smile at how much we had gone through to have come this far. There were some shortcomings but then there were also achievements that we can take pride in.

Our city's skyline today is as much our bragging right as is our latest shopping mall if architectural accomplishments and amenities are the yardsticks one uses to measure a modern city with. If connectivity is the benchmark, then rest assured that KL is well connected. Just sniff the air for WiFi or Wimax and chances are that you will catch some, easier than you would a cold.

But I think KL's greatest asset is its people, fondly known as KLites, a term collectively used to describe those who call this city home.

You see them in the mornings at mamak stalls and you fight with them for tables at hawker centres at lunch. You bump into them again after work as you try to stop their flashy cars from cutting into your lane.

You stumble upon the same cars again later in the night, happily double-parked near your neighbourhood watering hole, with their drivers blissfully missing.

If you are new to the city, you will learn to get used to the idiosyncrasies of its people, warts and all. Some of them are nice and helpful, others ignorant and opportunistic; some are friendly, others hopelessly arrogant. Some are rich, some are poor -- chances are that neither will let you know.

KLites irritate you like hell sometimes but if none of them were around, such as during festive breaks like this, city life would not be the same -- unless of course you speak and understand Nepalese, Indonesian, Tagalog or Burmese.

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