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Mat Salleh and the Temple of Brown

  • July 6, 2005
  • 116 Views

By Benjamin McKay

Getting Lost

You may recall that two weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Professor Madya A. Razak Mohaideen’s Lady Boss for Kakiseni. This week I wish to share with readers the tale that surrounds my eventually seeing that film. It is a tale of how I began to at last discover both the joys and tribulations of shopping in Kuala Lumpur.

I first attempted to see Lady Boss at the Cineplex of the iconic KLCC but it was, alas, school holidays. The good news for Malaysian parents is that their young off spring have a delightful capacity for patience. Waiting close to half an hour in line to buy a ticket only to discover as I approached the counter that it had already sold out, is not a situation I would normally warm to – Mat Sallehs have notoriously short fuses – but I took these youngsters as my guide, and therefore cheerfully accepted my fate.

My next attempt to see this film proved much more successful. I had already on a previous occasion been lost for a day inside the vast tomb-like mausoleum that is the new Berjaya Times Square and hazarded a guess that if I arrived early enough, I might just beat the young school holiday makers to the Cineplex entombed therein. I arrived at 10 am for the 11.50 session of Lady Boss and was pleased that it took me only an hour to find the box office. I had time therefore to explore.

Berjaya Times Square is one of those extraordinary shopping mall/ theme park/ hotel/ apartment/ integrated resort sort of places that are designed for those who need to lose themselves for a day in air-conditioned splendour. The whole complex has a combined floor space of 7.5 million square feet and of that about 3,450,000 square feet are devoted to the art and science of shopping. With 1,000 specialty shops, 1,200 serviced apartments, 65 food outlets, Asia’s largest indoor theme park and the country’s first IMAX cinema, one might not be lost for options, but it takes great skill in just not getting lost.

Any intrepid traveller will tell you that the best way to discover a country is simply to get lost in it. Lucky then that I was in Berjaya Times Square when I finally acknowledged this salient piece of advice. After the movie, I gave up trying to find which escalator might unearth me from the labyrinthine maze and with the good Professor’s film still endlessly going over in my mind, I decided to just hand myself over to the building like some sort of travelling pilgrim.

Getting Vacuous

In his flawed but interesting book, The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur, Ziauddin Sadar describes your capital city as a post-modern place. There are buildings around town that might fall into the category of post-modern if one applied an architectural analysis to the skyline, but the idea that the city per se is post-modern seems slightly easy and rather vacuous to this writer.

Your city does have a number of interesting recent buildings that have a post-modern air about them in that they collect a rag tag bunch of architectural styles and piece them all together in a sort of pastiche homage. Kuala Lumpur is however not alone amongst the world’s cities for having allowed their city fathers to adorn the skyline with such developments. The architecture of faux pastiche litters the entire planet. Some of it is of course perfectly harmless and some of it is alas revolting.

Lot 10 is simply revolting. It looks like a fungal green piece of bubble gum that has been spat onto the corner of Jalan Bukit Bintang – and like dried up shiny bubble gum it appears now to be firmly wedged in all its Shrek like ugliness. Then on the other hand you have the incredible and rather whimsical Sunway Resort – stroke – Shopping Centre – stroke – Theme Park. The pastiche of styles here would be far too easy to categorise as post-modern. For this is simply a theme park attraction replete with Pyramid and Sphinx and water lagoons and monorails and other such shopping necessities. No, Sunway is pure Las Vegas – and as we all know there is a place for all things Vegas – but unfortunately it hasn’t been successfully contained within the boundaries of the good state of Nevada. Still Sunway doesn’t offend in the same manner as Lot 10 does.

So what of the new and imposing Berjaya Times Square? It certainly has a noticeable gravitas about it – after all it is extremely large and extremely brown. Brown as we all know has a nice, safe conservative air about it. The shopping mall itself is wedged between two large brown towers with blackened glass windows that are all nicely cut with lines of brutal architectural severity. The sense of gravitas comes across like a blend of Gotham City and Blade Runner – but much tidier and much more – well, brown. And what a shade of brown it is!

Getting Superlatives

In addition to being Malaysia’s largest shopping mall and having Malaysia’s first IMAX, and Asia’s largest indoor theme park, the web site for Berjaya Times Square boasts that it is the ”world’s largest building ever built in a single phase.” Not being an architect myself, I can only hazard a guess as to what that statement actually means, but it does again confirm my suspicion that the local desire to over-achieve is perhaps as well founded as it is clearly endearing.

Gaining access to the building is problematic for those of us who are pedestrians. Rather than risk life and limb crossing the traffic on Jalan Imbi, I did discover quite by accident that you can gain access to the complex by going up the Imbi monorail station escalator and then down a group of stairs to your right and following a tunnel under the monorail you then arrive at a side entrance several levels up from the street. There is an information counter not far inside the building on this level but they don’t have a map or a floor plan, and my request for one seemed to be seen as rather unadventurous. There are floor plans posted on each individual level, but clearly I don’t watch enough National Geographic Channel for they remained a complete mystery.

If the Professor’s movie didn’t satisfy my need to unearth some profound insights into modern Malaysia then surely a bookshop would. And what a bookshop! In a building full of superlatives lies another world record­-breaking achievement – the planet’s largest franchise of the Borders Books chain! Alas Borders only reaffirms the notion that English has triumphed as the universal language – imperial, or otherwise. There is not a lot here that covers Malaysia, unless you are looking for a delightful set of coffee table tomes on the countries flora and fauna and its excellent array of cuisines. Hidden however in a corner of this vast two-storey emporium is a small section devoted to books published in your national language. There was little that could be called literary – just one book of anthologised poems amidst a single shelf of lurid covers all with “cinta” in their titles. The selection can only be politely called limited, and I sincerely hope the Borders people do something to address this for it makes a mockery of their pride in being something world record-breaking. Much more space has been devoted in Borders to the coffee shop; the stationary section; global magazines; and the rather odd inclusion of something called the World of Feng Shui. This intriguing little addition to the otherwise serious business of book retailing proves once and for all that there is no such thing as too much faux gold and gilt.

Getting Out

I left Borders empty handed – something my credit card no doubt felt relieved about. I managed to get further lost in the maze of floors and shops and to my relief I did manage to get a few excellent local VCDs. By and large, however, there was little here that I couldn’t find elsewhere and perhaps my hope of finding cultural solace in the art and science of shopping was nothing if not shallow after all. The building itself is the attraction – in all its exterior brown and intestinal white. The architects have certainly created a temple, Indiana Jones like, out of their vast space on Jalan Imbi. I notice too that they have planted a veritable rain forest of palms on the roof of the mall and we can only anticipate that in a century or so the jungle on the roof may begin to reclaim this temple of consumerism and perhaps when a new breed of archaeologists uncovers the ruins of Times Square, they will finally be able to map it. In the meantime there is the very serious danger of not ever finding your way out of the place – but after persevering I managed to find an exit.

My day was not a total loss, indeed it improved immeasurably when I decided that I was determined to buy some good local literature. I caught a taxi out to Bangsar and spent a solid hour or so exploring the real treasures that can be found at Silverfish Books on Jalan Telawi Tiga. Here in the cosy and unpretentious atmosphere of a good old-fashioned bookshop, I was at last able to do some damage to my credit card. This shop clearly loves this country and anyone wanting to know a little bit more about Malaysia is advised to head here quick smart. It might not be able to compete for the title of biggest or largest or even brownest, but it certainly deserves to be accorded the title of “Best” bookshop in Kuala Lumpur.

I headed home in a taxi, satisfied at last. As my driver ran red lights, honked his horn and pushed his way without his indicator through the heavy traffic, I sat back and calmly read some beautiful words in a book of poems I had bought by Salleh ben Joned, Sajak-Sajak Salleh: Poems Sacred and Profane. There was nothing overblown, pastiche, post-anything, nor indeed even brown on the pages I was devouring through the streets of this fine city. The whole place started to look alive and welcoming and dynamic again. And while I read these wonderful poems I began at last to forget the horror of Lady Boss and the sad overblown gravity of Berjaya Times Square. And when I am out walking next and am faced with the monstrosity of Lot 10, I shall calmly try to remember these words:

“Amidst the dull labyrinth of this desert,

he creates his own oasis of the sacred.

Holding on to the clew, gift of Ariadne,

he paints his way towards epiphanies.”

(from “Oasis” by Salleh Ben Joned, in Sajak-Sajak Salleh: Poems Sacred and Profane, Pustaka Cipta, Kuala Lumpur, 2002 – and available at Silverfish Books in Bangsar)

~~~

Benjamin McKay is completing his thesis on a social history of 1950s and 1960s Singapore and Malaysia as revealed to him by the locally produced films of that era. When he is not here in Kuala Lumpur, he is at home in the northern Australian city of Darwin – a place that may well not confirm a number of the theories of its namesake, Charles Darwin.

First Published: 06.07.2005 on Kakiseni