Going Local – the illusive suburb in Kuala Lumpur

I lived at the southern edge of Kuala Lumpur city for many years. To me, staying near the edge of the city does not imply a suburban environment…

Three major highways transact this neighbourhood called Sri Petaling; host to the Commonwealth Games of 1998. Kuala Lumpur (KL) has just over 1.6 million inhabitants and the number has not grown significantly for the last ten years. That’s because the administrative boundaries have not grown and spaces available for affordable housing have shrunk. We choose to move away from the city centre as housing prices become unbearable. When we speak of KL, we normally do not exclusively refer to what is inside the administrative boundary of Kuala Lumpur. We loosely include cities and towns that immediately connected with KL such as Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya to the West, Serdang to the south, Selayang and Gombak to the north. Although they fall within the political boundaries of another state altogether, the citizens of KL hardly notice the difference. Boundaries and city limits are rather meaningless here.

Like many KL dwellers, I was not born here. I have moved about so much that it took me awhile to try to make sense of what is considered my neighbourhood and what it meant. Each time I moved to a new neighbourhood, I have to acquire new lifestyle habits to adapt to the new spaces. Everything is put in place like a jigsaw puzzle, predetermined, and readymade for my consumption.

There is always some form of homogeneity wherever I go. Signs of religious culture permeate into the public domain marking its territory. Sometimes they are prominent and sometimes hidden. Still, they help personalize the space and provide some form of hope for those who believe in them. Playgrounds and parks are yet another form of modern city living. Children’s playground is typified by the stereotypical gaudy bright-coloured modular playhouse structure with combination of climbers and slides. Moulded like a standard issue toy out of a box, they were put in place to govern and define how our children should play. Each housing development I have been to shares the same nightmarish recurring pattern. Perhaps they will provide some meaningful nostalgic memory for the urban children.

I enjoy the anonymity of apartment living. Between my front door, the half-lit corridors, the lift, the parking lot and my car, it has become an enjoyable ritual for me. My memory of the rest of the city is just meaningless fleeting images passing by my car window. Distancing myself helps to keep me sane from the city life’s banality. Does this make me a local who rarely venture out of my suburbs? Perhaps. In reality, it doesn’t matter. I take advantage of what my environment offers. A suburb in the 21st century is a self-sustaining hub of commercial and social activity, not just a collection of homes people retreat to in the evening. I think that’s the direction suburbs should take. To grow and facilitate the growth if its population, regardless of what’s planned as official boundaries and city limits.

The Malaysian government announced the plan last year to create a Greater KL in 2020 encompassing 10 municipalities covering 279,327 hectors. By which time, I wonder if I still be able to find the suburb and the edge of KL or would I ever need to.

Kuala Lumpur – Where’s our green?

Are we ‘green’ in Kuala Lumpur? What is the meaning of ‘green’ in KL?

From a plane that approaches the runway of KL International Airport, some 50 km away from the city centre, I can see green, endless green. Those are our precious oil palm plantations that stretch for miles and miles into the horizon. This is not as visible from the ground. But along the highway into the city, I can also see some green on both sides of the road. Green is basically everywhere.

Green is the color for masking the gray in our city.

Kuala Lumpur has an ambition to be a tropical garden city. Mind you, green as a color of plants must not be confused with “green” as in being environmentally friendly. “Being green” is much more complex than just planting a few trees. Nevertheless, they make the city dwellers believe that they are living in a sustainably green and environmentally friendly city.

In Kuala Lumpur, parks and green spaces are fixed categories in ‘land use planning’, they are called recreational and sports facilities such as golf courses, sports complexes, polo fields, play areas, etc. KL city planners do not distinguish between concrete sports facilities and public parks with trees and lake. They are all considered recreational facilities for everybody. All these spaces combined only represent 6.5 % of the total land use in Kuala Lumpur. After subtracting huge private golf courses, and sports complexes, what’s left for the public is very little indeed. Even with such a tiny percentage, I can still see green everywhere in the city. Is that an illusion?

Perhaps, green can better be measured by looking at the decorative plants along the busy streets in KL. Embracing a green concept by inserting all types of flora to fill spaces between concrete pavements has become a trend in KL. Kuala Lumpur made sure that even concrete pavements have their cubicles for trees. We can still see green even though there may be no soil in sight!

What is this all for? I have to admit that it does make urban living more enjoyable, visually attractive and creates shades that make a congested Kuala Lumpur look and feel much cooler.

Overall, there are two types of green in Kuala Lumpur: the out-of-control green and the controlled green. City management is about control! We reserve designated spots for plants: on the road side, between road dividers, in lavished pots and in gardens. Once we lose that control over nature and when nature tries to come back, we moan, groan, and even cry out in despair. We chant for revolution and renewal. We wish those “green patches” away. Troops of city workers march out and about the city all day every day to put some more fresh plants out or to take some away from unwanted areas.

All these efforts of managing green in the city are not at all cheap. Costs for the upkeep of public parks run into the millions each year. We KLites don’t usually think about the maintenance costs or whether the costs are appropriate, justified, and worth spending.

Yet again: is green in our surroundings enough to make KL a better city? What kind of green are we really looking for? Perhaps, while asking the question “where is the green” we can also ask about places for gardens. Do they still matter to us if they are just purely decorative? Where do they belong? What role do they really play in our lives?

Maybe we have to change our perceptions? There is no lack of “green” in Kuala Lumpur as I see it. But the concept of recreation is not a sustainable concept and sustainability is not limited to green only. Water, energy, pollution, population, transportation, health and many more factors constitute this interconnected ecological system in the city. Planting trees makes good publicity for the press, looks good for the eyes, and feels good for our lungs. But there are other issues at stake.

The trees and gardens should play a much bigger role in our urban development of sustainably green living. Only time can tell what will happen to our green in the future; but we should do more than watch our clocks!

the fine art of touching…

We have this strange obsession to touch photographs.

Nowadays, I sat in front of a small photo gallery in Nikon Centre KL for most of my working hours. I can’t help noticing how much people like to glide their fingers over the surface of the print as they stroll by. Some merely just like to have their hands touching the surface when they look at the prints, almost as if they are trying to make sure that the photograph is real. What they are trying to feel from the surface I really cannot tell. And what kind of feedback they can get from their finger tips from that touching is beyond my imagination as well.

Has the status of photographs diminish so much that they are no better than a road side poster on the wall? I don’t know. Photographic prints are very sensitive to touch. Not from the physical act of touching but from the oily grease on our finger tips. The oil leaves a visible impression on the surface that cannot be removed without damaging the print. Once the impression is there, the oil will gradually corrode the surface and making the impression even more visible. The damage is irreparable.

Aren’t we suppose to only look at photograph? Where does this touching come from? Let’s bring some respect back to photography. Seriously.

Angsana: Contemporary Southeast Asian Photography Takes Flight, 2902 gallery

Angsana: Contemporary Southeast Asian Photography Takes Flight, Presented by 2902 Gallery @ OldSchool

ANGSANA: Southeast Asian Photographers Taking Flight is an exhibition that brings together the works of notable contemporary photographers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Taking the name of a tree species that is common in Southeast Asia, the exhibition is a showcase of highly sophisticated images captured with well-honed skills and expertise. Put together, the works provide a glorious ins…ight to the burgeoning standards of photography craftsmanship and the blossoming photography industry in Southeast Asia. By intertwining different artistic talents of the region, it is also a platform of cultural exchange and understanding.

Participating artists:
Agus Heru, Indonesia
Agung Nugroho Widhi, Indonesia
Angki Purbandono, Indonesia
Ang Song Nian, Singapore
Akiq AW, Indonesia
Eiffel Chong, Malaysia
Ho Hui May, Singapore
Joel Yuen, Singapore
John Clang, Singapore
Lim Thian Leong, Malaysia
Manit Sriwanchipoom, Thailand
Mintio, Singapore
Nge Lay, Myanmar
Oh Soon Hwa, Korea/Singapore
Zhao Renhui, Singapore

ANGSANA Party is on 15th January 2010.
Time: 7pm till late
Location : 2902 Gallery
The Angsana Party is by invitation only.
Please RSVP via email to angsana@2902gallery.com or call 6339 8655.

A Fringe Event of ArtStage Singapore

billboards 2011

My new job has taken up most of my free time. I’ve lost the privilege of enjoying the flexibility with the time I used to have. As my camera remains stagnant on the shelf, a lot of my surroundings have changed. I watched it happened as an impassive observer. Change in a city is always a good thing. It means that something has advanced, moved forward. It is a sign that we’re not creature of routine, repetition and habit.  We change as our environment changes.