Having grown up as a Penang-lang, I have always thought of Kuala Lumpur, or more affectionately known as KL among us Malaysians, as the big city.
I can still remember my first memory of having set foot in the city, way back when I was a little girl of 10 years old. My father was posted at the army mass in Sungai Besi, and my mother, along with my younger brother, and me took the overnight train from our home in Butterworth to KL. I remember seeing the majestic KL Railway Station for the first time and feeling marveled.
I have always had a soft spot for old buildings, which are abundant in Penang, but the KL Railway Station was in a class of its own. Even then, KL gave the impression of a car-dependent city. My father picked us up in his old beat-up Suzuki Vitara, and off we went into the big city. What I remember most from the trip was going to the big MPH in Bangsar and buying all these Enid Blyton and Sweet Valley books, which I couldn’t find in Penang.
Evidently, it was convenient to travel in a car for a family of 4, but my father, ever the strict army officer, was adamant that the public transport in KL was evil.
We took the car everywhere; from visiting my mak long’s family in Kelana Jaya, to Subang Parade that housed the only Toys R Us at the time for my brother’s sake, to my father’s home away from home opposite Tugu Negara. Evidently, it was convenient to travel in a car for a family of 4, but my father, ever the strict army officer, was adamant that the public transport in KL was evil. Back then, there were only these pink mini-buses that serve as public transport to commute the city dwellers. I remember these buses vividly, as we would almost always need to avoid an accident with them every time we ventured out. There were cars, cars, cars everywhere- each going at a faster, more aggressive pace- a big difference to the slower car and ferry rides we would normally take back in Penang.
Returning to KL as a university student in the early 2000, I was not surprised to find that the city was still heavy on the usage of cars. By then, there was the light rail transit (LRT) that eased the travelling within the city somewhat; and serves as a refuge for penniless university students. The pink mini buses were no more, replaced with bigger, but not less dangerously driven buses called RapidKL. On weekends, I would haul my bag of laundry up one of these buses, take the LRT to Kelana Jaya, and take another bus home to my aunt’s house.
I love LRT rides. It allows me to read and to watch people. This was before the invention of smart phones, but already people are happy to be engrossed in their own world during such rides. I remember only one incident where I was in conversation with a stranger on the LRT. He commented on the book I was reading, Geraldine Brooks’s Nine Parts of Desire, because he said I looked too young to be reading such books. What happened next was an impromptu conversation about female rights in Malaysia- all in the span of a train ride from KL Sentral to Kelana Jaya!
I love LRT rides. It allows me to read and to watch people.
Some days, when my timing coincided with my uncle’s arrival time at the Kelana Jaya LRT, my aunt would pick both of us up. I would see many families making similar arrangements, as it was easier for those working in the golden triangle of KL to commute into the city via the Putra line. By then, I had convinced my father somewhat that his little girl could manage the evil KL public transport. But that lasted only for a year and half. My father then loaned his Kelisa to me, for me to drive from campus to my aunt’s house on the weekends.
That was the beginning of a car-dependent me. I again returned to KL after living in Australia for 4 years in 2010. The first thing that my parents arranged for me when I returned was a car. I guess, you can never change your parents’ mindset, no matter how old you are. Admittedly, it is easier to get around in my James (I named my now car after Prof James Watson, the co-founder of the DNA double helix), than taking the public transport. But on some days, just for nostalgia and convenience, I would take the LRT into the heart of KL.
It all feels different now. Every person on the LRT would be playing on their smartphones, trapped in their microcosm of space within the bigger public sphere. What stayed the same was Yasmin Yusoff’s voice announcing every station’s name as the train arrives.
Somehow, that always gives me the comfort of home, being back in Kuala Lumpur, my city.