I like to think that throughout my life I’ve had more than my share of jobs. My first (aside from digging trenches in the backyard) was delivering newspapers. Since then I’ve cooked KFC, worked for a diplomatic mission, at a newspaper and as an accountant. I had a part-time job with a watchmaker, another with a jeweller. I’ve freelanced all sorts, leeched off a foreign government and panhandled. I even started a travel website. It sounds like a lot, but my guide Aziz leaves me in the shade.
He’s showing me around Kuala Lumpur’s Brickfields and Chinatown—food is the excuse, but I’m listening more than eating. Like me, he was an accountant for a spell, but, also like me, got out of it because it was boring. He’s sold cars and houses, worked as a dive instructor and a masseuse. His Queen’s English makes me (impolitely) crack up as he lectures me on Britain’s colonial adventures. I laugh because he swears like only the British can, and, well, he does not hold back.
“British Bastard Bullshit,” or something. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We’re standing on the greeny expanse of Merdeka Square, it is late morning, but already so hot I’m surprised the grass isn’t withering and turning brown in front of my eyes. Aziz is raving, with justification, about what he calls the “British Bastard Bullshit.” As he rants, he waves his arm in the air, vaguely in the direction of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
“The guy who designed that, he was a right XXXX,” he tells me.
He points down the road at the Textile Museum, also the responsibility of the same English gentleman.
“That too. Look at it. Would you eat a cake that looked like that? I wouldn’t. I mean, it’s a bad cake, level it I say.”
Aziz has come recommended by a friend who’s lived in KL for years. They describe Aziz to me as a character worth looking up.
Aziz on the Textile Museum: “It is a bad cake.” Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“He won’t give you a spiel sanctioned by Tourism Malaysia,” they tell me.
They send me his number and tell me to drop him a line when I arrive. He doesn’t do email or anything like that they say. He’s not a tourist guide, but tell him I asked you to show you around, you pay for food and give him 200 ringgit at the end. You can thank me later.
The plan is to meet in Brickfields early in the morning, in front of the Vivekananda Ashram on Tun Sambanthan. Tall with a bowl haircut and broad round glasses, we shake hands and he starts talking. From that moment till late in the afternoon the only time he stops talking is to eat.
Let’s meet at the ashram. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Not far from the ashram we dive straight in. A sweets stall, the owner and him old buddies, he points at items, rattling off names machine-gun style. “Try this,” he says, picking something up, tossing it to me, “sweet yes?” he asks before it is even in my mouth. Another comes my way before I’ve even had time to swallow the first.
He picks up some sort of custard tart then bites half off and pauses, handing me the rest. Under his breath, he says the owner’s wife makes them but they’re not the best ones in town. I stand there wondering why I’m paying to eat a half-eaten tart that isn’t the best in town. Then a wave, I pay, and we move on.
At least he didn’t throw eggplants at me. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Shortly after we’re in a food hall of sorts. Lined with vendors selling all manner of fare, it is busy with the morning shift—it isn’t even 8 am. We sit for coffee and roti as he starts on a spiel about Malaysia’s treatment of its South Asian population. As he rants about Bumiputera, it is clear he is not a fan, and I nod then try to interject—I’ve heard this all before. He cuts me off with an expletive, telling me to let him finish.
Yes, this is not a Tourism Malaysia sanctioned event. I eat, drink, and listen.
We’re walking again, down a grubby side street with low rent hotels I assume are short-time places. On the corner, an older Chinese couple has a stall doing their own take on fried dough. As we stand there scoffing, he turns charming and his speech slows. He wants me to take this in.
Blood pressure drops at Kamek Mosque. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“People think of Brickfields as the city’s Indian district, and while it is, it isn’t. These people, they’re Chinese, they’ve sold here since I was a boy. Around the corner, we can eat Malay, around the other corner, yes, what you’d call tandoor. But, Stuart, this is the wonderful thing about this city, it is everything everywhere. If only the government idiots (he uses a different word here) could understand that.”
Not long after his performance at Merdeka Square, we cross the Klang River to Masjid Jamek. The area is in the final stages of a (controversial) beautification project, but it isn’t there yet. We sit in a quiet area between the Moorish mosque and river while he goes through a potted history of the city. As with his Bumiputera sermon earlier, I’ve heard this all before, but he’s calm now.
At Vishal Food Catering in Brickfields (on a different trip, hi Rich!) Photo: Stuart McDonald.
His speech hushed rather than screeching, he chooses his words with care. While the earlier stretch was a mix of fun and bizarre, this is from the heart, he wants me to understand. He revels as a storyteller, and tells me how this area of the city has seen so much change. He’s not railing at development nor harking back to the good ole days. He tells me about his family and his parents, whose life was not easy nor comfortable. We sit for close to an hour, then looking at his watch, it is time to go.
We dogleg our way over to Chinatown. He’s lost his calm demeanour and staccato Aziz is back. We end up in a noodle house, somewhere I know well, though I don’t say so. I slurp while he talks, telling me the background to the place and about the family who run it. He tells me they’ve done well for themselves. They’re quite wealthy, he says. He seems, almost envious.
You talk I’ll slurp. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
From here it is a short stroll, almost kitty-corner, to an open-air food court. I’m bursting at the gills and not ready to eat more, so we drink Tiger, surrounded by a mix of Malaysians and tourists. It is mid-afternoon and I pour my Tiger into the small shot glass as slow as I can. I’m tired and happy to chat aimlessly. He’s keen to move on.
We walk the length of Chinatown, top to tail. It is busy at first, but the crowds thin as we work our way south. Near the bottom, we pull up at a shophouse with an elderly, shirtless guy sitting at the door. He waves us in, following behind. It’s his house, and the three of us sit in the dim and cool front room. The old guy’s wife brings out tea and we sit there sipping. Aziz and our host are friends from way back it seems, and they shoot the breeze. It is like I’m not there, and I can’t decide if this is a part of the tour or what.
More tea comes, and some tiny sickly sweets. The thought of eating more is enough to make me ill, but, out of politeness, I force one down. It is not delicious. Aziz looks at me, I haven’t hidden my distaste well, and he smiles in a cheeky way, proffering the plate at me to have another. I refuse, but in the end, force another down.
Frosty Tiger out of shot. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Then we leave, around the bottom of Chinatown, through a gaudy temple, then stop at the stairs going up to the train. The tour is over and we shake hands as Aziz bids me farewell. It’s been a fun, albeit exhausting day, and, it seems he’s enjoyed it as much as I have. With a wave, he heads up the stairs and is gone.
Later, as I make my way back to Bangsal, digesting the day (physically and mentally), I think about what a find he is. A true evangelist, as comfortable with the flaws as the features of a city he loves, but that I’m not sure he feels loves him back.
About a year after our walk around town, I hear Aziz has passed away. A heart attack, yet not even fifty years old. Taken far too soon. Rest in peace Aziz.
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