Photo by Paul Gadd (http://blog.paulgadd.com)
Drugs are banned in Malaysia, under punishment of death. One is reminded of that when flying into Kuala Lumpur, presumably in order to go and smoke the last bit of weed on the toilet. It does seem a kindness extended to all potential drug smugglers or medical drug users, but it is emblematic of a certain strangeness of Southeast Asia. Before you cross this line we will be the most polite people you have ever met, but if you cross it, you will suffer and die.
This is an extreme way of putting it, of course, but not an entirely wrong one. Shadows and darkness of Asia, however, are my own peculiar fascination, perhaps to counter the images of exotic paradises conjured up by travel agencies. My goal is always to see a country with the eyes of the people living there.
From the airport, which has a Muslim prayer room, toilets gleaming with water from the many hoses screwed to the walls, pizza and probably also a Starbucks by now, it is a long ride across featureless and slightly dreary rice paddies, occasional palm trees and bright modern mosques with a peculiar decorative insanity which would not be entirely out of place in Las Vegas, to get to the city. The sky is either overcast or ominous. Thunderstorms are spectacular in this latitude.
The city, which seemed so teeming, so crazy before I ever went to India is actually…placid. Fringed with suburban middle class homes and car repair shops that spill metallic innards all the way to the street, it seems quite familiar. In the early 2000s it had tinges of what was considered futuristic in a certain cleaned-up Blade Runner way – a creaking and gleaming monorail gliding through the center, huge neon billboards along house-fronts that were all mirror and glass and reflected sky, gigantic luxury malls that seemed to me (the Westerner out of his depth for the first time) like momentary returns to the world I knew. But there were enough signs of otherness; the mustachioed watchman with a gigantic black shotgun strapped to his back who paced around his plastic chair at the entrance of BB Plaza; the nervous agitation of the Chinese man handing out flyers for acupuncture treatment and who would convulse into something approaching an angry internal tantrum every once in a while; the catcalls of scammers looking for their foreign prey.
Scams in KL (as the city is called by locals) range from the frustrating, to the amusing, to the ingenious and back to the straight puzzling. “Nice hair,” is a favoured entry-phrase and from there everybody has a brother or sister that happens to be studying exactly where you happen to live or who at least wants to study there. In one rather amusing instance this sister – who, usually, remains a mythical creature and is only alluded to – was actually produced, right in the flesh and in front of me. “This is my sister,” the young man said and a slightly demure girl in grey and blue was suddenly before me. Unfamiliar with this particular variation I could only mutter, “Nice to meet you,” and hurry away before whatever unfolded would unfold.
Usually your typical scam runs like this. Somebody strikes up a conversation, invites you for a drink and at some point during the friendly conversation he calls up some of his friends who he’s meant to meet. Malaysians aren’t very forward people unless they know you and if someone approaches you, they want something. So these friends are actually not going to let you leave but will invite, hound you even to come with them – although they know perfectly how to calibrate the mood so that you will feel pressured but because you think that you really want to meet the friends of this friendly person, after all you are here for an adventure and what’s nicer than hanging out with locals. So you meet your new friends and they have to go somewhere, but they do have a car and so you hop in. The conversation is kept going and everybody is easy-going and smooth, so soon you pull up at a house and you’re led in to meet other people, other friends or maybe even family – because you half-remember some platitudes about Asian hospitality that doesn’t strike you as strange (and indeed it isn’t strange in many parts of the world to be invited like that) – you don’t even realize that most of the friends (your “handlers”, actually) have already left and you are now in the clutches of the main actors of this perfidious drama. A middle aged man with an aura of weary power, very gregarious as everyone up to this point. The house is very clean, it would seem barely lived-in if you took the time to think about it, but you’re kept engaged by an offer for food and coffee which, by some strange quirk of fate, is just about ready. There are also two vaguely pretty women, but they stay in the background – so far – only serving you food while the main man is serving up his tale. You casually chat about travelling and about the beauty of his country. He’s a biker, he says, quite dangerous and adventurous, he means to imply. He lifts up his right hand and you notice that he is missing three fingers, due to a bike accident a few years back, he says. Now he works as a croupier in a casino, he says, and suddenly you get the vibe of chance and high stakes that has been tingling in the air before but that you didn’t really notice. Do you play? Not really. Ah, so he will teach you a few tricks, after all he knows them all and if you ever sit at a table in a casino his tricks will help you cheat the dealers. He probably winks but it is hard to tell since he’s wearing tinged glasses.
So you are being led to the next act. An upstairs room with a poker table. A quick rundown of the rules. He tells you that he will count the cards and give you a sign if the cards are favourable enough for you to bet high. He is a good actor, managing to make you feel like you’re being prepared for some sort of spy/secret agent drama. The whole atmosphere seems heightened, like in a movie. If you were to think you would realize that it is just the whole fake setup, but in this mood you’re ready to go for it. Somewhere into this atmosphere pushes another story, a sappy one. A telephone rings, the man answers, talks and hangs up, visibly distraught. His wife is highly pregnant but there will be complications, the doctors have said. He has known this for a while. But you see, he is in debts and he will not be able to pay for the treatment if anything goes wrong and the kid will not really grow up the way it should. How about a deal, then? He seems to debate this with himself but then he decides to trust you – to trust you, a complete stranger. How about that…we rip off rich people in the casino together? I will teach you all you need to know and we can split the money.
A tense moment, but he can see in your face that you are inclined to agree. Next stage. You know, he says, there is a woman who comes here sometimes and she likes to gamble. Very high stakes, you know, but she can’t help herself. In fact, she said she would be here today. We can practice and when she arrives, she’ll be the first target.
Well, as the bell rings the seams actually start to show. It is all too well staged, but for some reasons this also means that I want to play my part properly. She arrives, the gambling woman, and I feel suitably nervous about my first assignment. She is middle aged, wears glasses and exudes middle class prosperity – a bored wife who likes to raise the stakes. These people actually are marvelous actors – or maybe I just want to believe it, caught up in their play
We chat a bit. Apparently I look a bit like John Lennon to her. Of course she wants to play and we sit down. The croupier is telegraphing me his moves, winking at me with the subtlety of a tombstone and I win a few rounds. We have been given chips, meaningless chips, because there’s no value behind them, no weight. The gambling woman seems to want to go higher, so the stakes are being raised until she challenges me. This is not a real game. I like real games – what can you bet? Suddenly the atmosphere changes. She says she will put 50, 000 Ringgit on the next hand. I feel how the croupier is deserting me, changing sides. What can you bet? I’m pushed into a corner, so I take out my credit card and put it on the table. Now the game is on. The two are like vultures, each for their own reason. The croupier calls for a break and the marginally pretty girls from earlier take care of the gambling woman.
Listen, he is insistent now, urgent. We can beat her. I will help you. You just have to raise the money and then we split the result. You have to do it, we got her! He can see the money in my mind now and he thinks that he has me. The more insistent he becomes, the more detached I feel. A part of myself is caught up in the game, but the other part is removed, studies the whole drama being performed here.
The gambling woman is whisked off the stage – she has to think about it, they say. She is replaced by the two marginally pretty girls, all relatives of our main performer, it seems. Sisters, wanting to study in Vienna? The cynicism catches them off guard for a moment, but they recover and the prettier one tries to mollify me. She attaches herself to my side and tells me some encouragements. We need to go to a jeweler’s to get something of value because the gambling lady will not continue if all there is on the table is some worthless piece of plastic.
So off we go to the jeweler’s. The first man, the one who chatted me up, is back as our driver. Two ladies at my side and a shrewd looking woman behind the counter. It is a small counter is some nearby shopping center and they have their eyes on some exorbitantly expensive gold chain. I know my credit card will not cover the price, so I go ahead with it. The woman at the counter takes my card and returns a minute later, putting it down before me. Doesn’t work. I smile and watch the ladies around me getting restless. We need cash, they decide, so it’s off to an ATM. Enter the highest number, they insist. Again I know that there is a limit on the card and it will not work. I enter a ridiculously high amount. Refused. I shrug. The ladies are close to a tantrum.
We go back to the car and they ask where I’m staying. The game’s almost at an end. They are none too happy. In the car the prettier one shows me an image of her taken ten years before. She was beautiful. Is it an attempt to seduce me? At that point it’s just too much. Isn’t that all a bit too much, the story with the pregnant wife and all, I say as we talk about the croupier who is not with us now. The temperature drops steeply. Too much? I feel them mentally recalibrating their drama, seeing it as overwrought for a moment.
They drop me off near BB Plaza, close to where I had been picked up. Can you at least give us something for the petrol? I feel the drama’s worth something – after all they’ve been amazingly dedicated performers – and fish a blue 50 ringgit note out of my pocket. I watch them drive off. On the way home I stop at a street kitchen for some food and smile incredulously at another woman who approaches me. “Nice hair!”