Strange as it may seem, I found myself wandering around streets some 350 kilometres away during the lead up to the New Year, thinking for a while that I was in a Singapore that I had my wonderful childhood in. The streets of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where I was has been a source of fascination for me since my first visit there as a child of six and it has also become, along with other parts of the country, a place where I often search for that world – the Singapore of my childhood that is now lost to me. The streets of Kuala Lumpur today and those of the Singapore of yesterday are undeniably two very different worlds – worlds far apart in many ways. Both cities have seen dramatic changes in four decades since my first visit and are today hardly recognisable from the cities they had emerged from. There is however one key difference in how either city have gone through their respective transformations. Where with Singapore, much of what made Singapore, Singapore, has now been lost – replaced in many cases by the cold hard stare of glass, steel and concrete, there is still the buzz of daily life that can be discovered nestled in between the towering edifices of modern Kuala Lumpur.
An area that I take particular joy in wandering around has become known as the city’s Chinatown – centred on Petaling Street or Jalan Petaling, once a must-go destination on my almost annual visits to the city to savour some of its culinary offerings. The street market it is well known for has unfortunately seen the inevitable invasion of stalls that provide a wider apppeal to a tourist than the local, but there is still in and around the area a world much like that old world we have left behind in Singapore to stumble upon. It is in the five-foot ways and narrow alleyways off the main street that this older world I seek is tucked away. One, alleyway which runs parallel to Petaling Street off Madras Lane (or Jalan Sultan) is home to what must be a well known wet market, teeming in the early hours of daylight with many from the area and beyond, in search for the day’s supply of fresh produce. I first came to know of the market on a trip to Kuala Lumpur that coicided with my very first journey out of the now forgotten Tanjong Pagar Railway Station some two decades ago – and it nice to see that it still is set in that wet, slippery and less than pleasant smelling passageway that leads to what must seem like a reward at the end of it.
What lies at the end of the wet market is a cluster of food stalls – ones that have a reputation for being amongst the best in a city where sumptous street fare is never hard to find. Despite the less than pleasant demeanour with which customers of some of the stalls are served, the cluster never fails to draw a steady stream of hungry customers in the mornings and the very popular Chee Cheong Fun, Yong Tau Foo and Assam Laksa usually sells out by the time one arrives for a late lunch.
After a bowl of the irresistable Assam Laksa and a glass of warm soya bean milk the morning I found myself there, there was still time to discover what else Madras Lane had to offer. The five-foot ways and crowded back lanes was certainly a joy to wander through -a hole-in-the-wall shop with colourful magazines strung up for sale, as well as a shop lot where one could have an offending mole removed caught my eye as did a back lane strewn with pushcarts awaiting use to serve the evening’s dining crowd, a back lane barber, a sidewalk fortune-teller, and a cobbler waiting patiently for his next customer.
I suppose I would have spent the entire day immersing myself in that old world – but that unfortunately wasn’t that Singapore that I had sought, although it did in many ways remind me of it. It was time then to transport myself to the new world – first for lunch and for a look at another area I was familiar with from my early visits to the city – the Bukit Bintang area which has also seen tremendous change. And as darkness descended on the city for the last time in the old year, it was time to embrace the new – in a way that even an old world cannot escape from – with a blast of colours in the sky, but perhaps in a gentler and quieter way than it would have been if I had stayed at home. With that there is a realisation that much of the old ways will soon be forgotten … but there is that hope that the city I found myself in, would cling tightly on to those little reminders of its past which would allow me many more opportunities to seek the familiarity and comfort of the old world that I can no longer find in the place I grew up in.