There is a thin stretch of typical, urban Petaling Jaya five minutes walk from the house, which is, on the surface, somewhat identical to many thousands of similar locales in Malaysia. However, given our proximity to this stretch, like any highly frequented spot, the familiarity of the warm shop gives a feeling of comfort and safety, in spite of the graffiti, rats, and occasional stench.
The warm shop was given it’s name by Caroline’s cousin twenty years ago when she was two, and it stuck. But it’s not just one shop, as the name suggests, but an entire street consisting of a grassy area on one side of the road, and a lower-middle class, four story apartment block that stretches the entire 500-metre length on the other side. The lower levels of the apartment blocks have almost everything that a basic lifestyle requires; food vendors (fried noodles, hor fun soup, roti breads, various animals on rice (duck, chicken, pig), filled buns, pan mee (handmade noodles), nasi lemak (plain, beef, chicken, squid, fish), milky desserts, curry puffs), at least four barber shops (one Indian, three Chinese), several printing shops, a photo processing and passport shop, a stationary and sports shop (they’ll sell you exercise books while restringing your badminton racquet), and a place to buy or top up mobile phones.
The name warm shop was probably coined by Caroline’s cousin because a) why go to all that effort of making a hissing sound at the end of the word ‘shop’? And b) the lack of air conditioning, excess of concrete, and proximity to several jammed roads makes the area quite warm. That’s probably what her 2-year-old brain was thinking.
A lovely woman, known to us only as Aunty, is one of the sellers of dead animals on rice. We go there at least twice a week to eat her char siew (barbecued pork), or siew yok (one of my favourite things in Malaysia; roast pork cut into slices with three layers – meat, fat, and crispy fat), or roast chicken, or steamed chicken, or roast duck. She often asks me:
“You here for work or study or holiday?”
And I reply something different every time, because I’m not exactly sure why I’m here. But my varied answers seem to satisfy her.
The blue, plastic tables of Aunty’s establishment stretch down some steps, across a thoroughfare, and towards the eatery next door, where they spill under the canopy and become that stores tables. The line between is so blurred that it’s non-existent. Several workers scoot around taking drink and snack orders, and require payment separately from the food. It’s a collaborative eco-system and everyone seems happy with the arrangement. The clientele for both shops is mainly Chinese, and I get the feeling that some of the older people sit for hours on the blue chairs cackling, drinking shi cha, and likely hoping that the minors and bulbuls don’t crap on their heads from the towering trees above. Occasionally newborn kittens will bound through the surrounding bushes, attacking their patient mothers stealthily or stalking rats and shrews. The chirping of birds and chatter of people will frequently give way to the long, deliberate honking of a car, a call from an irate driver to all people who have double-parked, one of whom has blocked his exit.
The neighbouring eatery serves Ipoh hor fun, a garlic-infused chicken noodle soup made famous in the Ipoh district of northern Malaysia. It’s a healthy breakfast, which can be offset by sweet kaya toast and tea with condensed milk. Recently this establishment (which we simply call ‘the hor fun place’) underwent a few weeks of renovation. We were excited to see what had been done, and waited with baited breath for the grand reopening. On that fateful day we showed up expectantly, but the only difference appeared to be a change in the staff. The smiling young guy who used to approach our table and say, “Teh c peng?” while holding up three fingers, had been promoted to something-in-the-kitchen, and three semi-competent workers had started doing his job. There are no uniforms at places like this, which is why the newest staff member, a middle aged woman, could happily wear a shirt that said, “this shirt would look great on your bedroom floor” and get away with it. It’s unlikely she knew what it meant as she didn’t speak English, but it was written in a jaunty, pink font that was entirely non-suggestive.
Next door to the hor fun place lives a giant cat who spends lazy days inside a printing shop on a blanket on a cushion. He is easily the largest cat I’ve seen in Malaysia, a country when even the fat ones are tiny (and rarely fluffy). Two years ago he was dumped outside the printing shop, and the owner took pity on him and offered him a job cleaning up all the cat food she kept spilling. One day, without warning, she took him to the vet for immunisation and to get his balls chopped off. He’s never been the same.
Several lots down, past a couple of convenience stores and a mamak is Kedai Foto Star, a shop that sells outdated cameras (but not outdated enough to be considered ‘classic’. Think late 1990’s) and takes passport photos for you. The proprietors are an aging Chinese couple who always seem to be inconvenienced by the presence of customers. I went in recently to have a photo taken for my Thai visa during their snack-time. With a great huff the man stood up and directed me to the photo room. Once he was into the swing of things he lost his initial grump, but he still remained firmly no-nonsense.
“Ah… white.” I replied. He huffed and pulled down a blue bit of cardboard on the wall, revealing a white one behind it.
“Here. Brush your hair.” He handed me a brush and pointed to a mirror. My hair was tied up, but feeling that it was necessary to do something, I untied it. I didn’t use the brush.
“You want gown?” He pointed to some dusty suit jackets hanging on the wall. The wall had a very poorly painted picture of a bookshelf on it, presumably as a background for recent graduates who didn’t really want a job. I could see already see that the jackets were far too large for a normal person, so I shook my head.
“Look up. Down! Chin in. Left. Left. Left right! Okay smile.” I wasn’t sure if smiling was allowed (it’s not for NZ passports), but I wasn’t going to argue. He took only one photo. Evidently it was good enough for me to get my visa.
The colourfulness of this little stretch of shops keeps going. Across the road at the end of the park is a community hall where old ladies blare Chinese music and do “Indian dancing, I think. Line dancing too.” According to the “senior” lady that I spoke to. The doors remain wide open on the side of the building so the music can be heard from the other side of the road. The parking area for the hall has bins for recycling, and there’s usually a happy pack of stray dogs hanging around, ruffing and playing Who Wants to be Alpha Male? Opposite the hall is a small food court, where Malay workers from the surrounding area will eat moderately priced nasi lemak (fatty rice, sambal and whatever else you want) and sit and chat. Follow on further and and you’ll come to a small indoor vege market which often smells very strongly of fish and is surrounded by drains of rats. Turn a corner and a smiling barber will be sweeping hair into a drain, right next to a store that serves fried noodles for chump change. Walk a little more and a man will be in a darkened room, the corrugated iron door open just a crack, practicing Chinese melodies on his aging keyboard with a repetitive electric drumbeat as backing. Further down is the ‘dodgy mamak’, as Caroline’s brother calls it, where roti and curry is served alongside rice and noodles, available at almost any hour of the day. ‘Dodgy’ because of the almost exclusively male clientele, not the food. Next door to that is Klinik Kok, where I recently got a jab for hepatitis.
Four years ago, like a circling shark, a developer had an idea to tear down the whole row of apartments and put up condos. This destruction would have obliterated all the quirky stores in the area that had been standing for fifty years, and it almost goes without saying that rental prices in the new complex would have been beyond the means of anyone trying to open up shop again in the same location. It would have become another row of the standard fare; 7/11, Oldtown (Malaysia’s Starbucks), Papa Rich (Malaysia’s Starbucks), Coffee Bean (Malaysia’s Starbucks), Starbucks, (Malaysia’s Starbucks) a pharmacy, and a supermarket. The residents were offered a couple of hundred thousand each for their apartments, which was a juicy amount of money, but not enough to set them up elsewhere. For people whose roots had been dug in so deep, it was likely more of an insult than an offer. And so of course there were protests, nobody accepted the offer and the developer moved on.
Today is Thursday, which is market day at the warm shop. The day when double parking becomes triple parking, pancakes are sold next to papaya, and men in bloodied aprons ask you if you want the head chopped off your kampung chicken or left attached. Next Thursday will be the same, and the months and years will go on and on after that.
Like many neighbourhoods, this one looks entirely unremarkable to the uninitiated. Every time I’m in the car I drive past countless areas like it. Areas where the three majority Malaysian races seem to get along, in spite of ongoing contradictory suggestions from the media. Areas I’ll never know, or explore, or have stories about.