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At home in faraway city of Kuala Lumpur
By Anita Anandarajah and Sam Cheong (From New Straits Times Online of April 10, 2006)
Jalan Silang in downtown Kuala Lumpur is the meeting point for buses passing through the city, bringing with them hordes of immigrants. Walk along this street and one will be besieged by signboards in Urdu, Burmese and Nepali.
Walk along this street on a Sunday and you may well think you are in Bangladesh.
Shops hawking IDD phone cards, mobile phones, film processing and sundries dominate a landscape already choked with fumes and deafening honking from indiscriminately parked buses.
This is nonetheless where the homesick come to get their fix of home. At Kham Myint Sdn Bhd, items from a home far away adorn the shelves.
The Myanmar Times and 7 Day News Journal bring news from home once a week while 90:00 Minutes and First Eleven sports journals are also popular.
Traditional herbal concoctions for ailments ranging from sore throats to spotty skin are also sold here. The yellow thanaka paste used by Myanmar folk to protect their skin from the sun is also sold here for RM3 a jar, while a 10cm piece of the thanaka wood found in the dry northern region of Myanmar goes for RM3.50.
Also on sale are the lung ji, the equivalent of our sarong, chaw (leather slippers), music CDs and books.
One longing for some native music can choose from original music CDs by popular artistes like Iron Cross, Tun Eaindra Bu and Ane Nge.
Books are also aplenty, ranging from those on Buddhism to languages (English and Malay) and education (car engines, Windows XP, etc) and fiction.
The proprietor of Kham Myint is U Tin Myint. He set up shop six years ago and imports his stocks from Yangon. His two young daughters attend a Chinese medium primary school here and he speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Then, there is Tway Tway Tun Latt, who arrived here in 1999. She and her husband own a mini market, the Theid Di Win restaurant and a hair salon, which they set up a year ago in Lot 11 along Jalan Silang.
The restaurant serves traditional Myanmar cuisine including mohinga (fish broth noodles) which is Myanmar’s national dish. During the two visits we made to the shop — between 10.15am and 11am — we found it packed with Burmese enjoying their lunch.
"Our prices are cheap; only RM4 for a meal because the workers can’t afford much," said Tway. That RM4 fetches a handsome meal of one meat dish (pork, mutton, fish or chicken), rice, soup, vegetable (boiled angle beans and cucumber slices with sambal dip) and free Chinese tea.
Burmese cuisine is a curious blend of Chinese, Malay and Indian food. The pork dish we sampled tasted like pork in soya sauce stew (tau eu bak) and the vegetable was just like ulam.
On the top floor of the same building is the hair salon where hair-cuts go for a surprisingly steep RM10 for men and RM12 for women. Despite this, customers stream in especially on Sundays and public holidays.
Tway explained why: "Here, they are comfortable. They can speak Burmese."
Apart from these shops, there is also a medical clinic, a dental clinic and a supermarket catering to this community in the nearby Bangunan Cahaya Suria.
Most shops owned by these immigrants are situated on the first, second and third floors with the exception of Kham Myint. Rent is RM6,000 for the ground floor and upwards of RM1,500 for the rest.
An observer mentioned that come Sundays, thousands of foreign workers throng Jalan Silang. They congregate to catch up with friends.
Entertainment in malls can be expensive; sitting along the five-foot way is free. They take photographs, buy budget IDD cards to place telephone calls home, and buy cheap clothes at her shop.
"Just before they return to their home country, the Burmese buy blankets. They also come here to buy nice clothes as gifts."
Most Burmese nationals reside in the Imbi area. A spokesperson from the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar estimates that there are 40,000 legally employed Burmese in Malaysia.
When Nepali Jhamsay Gurung came to Malaysia as a foreign worker last year, he suffered from homesickness.
Without a single clue on how to get around the city, the 28-year-old learned two words which brought him "closer" to home: Jalan Silang. After all, this is where several Nepali grocery stores and restaurants are located.
Here at "Little Nepal", Gurung can get a taste of home-cooked food and buy sundry goods specially imported by his countrymen, who have set up shop in the city. Not many people who live and work in Kuala Lumpur realise that some of these Nepali shops have been around for as long as three years.
The influx of more than 80,000 Nepali workers into Malaysia was seen as an opportunity by local traders here who have formed an alliance with their Nepali counterparts to import some essential goods into the country.
Gurung, a line operator in an electronics factory in Puchong, makes regular trips to Jalan Silang every weekend to meet up with fellow Nepalis and catch up with the latest developments back home via newsletters and magazines flown in by the traders.
"Ini saja ada, makan pun bagus, barang juga beli," he said in broken Malay. (Only available here, the food is good and there are things to buy.)
Needless to say, the whole area feels very foreign. When you walk into Himalaya Restaurant, which is on the first floor of a multi-storey building on Jalan Silang, the Nepali customers will look up in surprise. Their looks seem to say, "Are you lost? What are you doing here?"
On weekends, the place is packed but weekdays also seem to attract a steady crowd of Nepali customers.
Highly recommended, according to a waiter there, is the mutton-bhat or Nepali-style meat curry with rice. A basic serving of rice and mutton, chicken or pork costs about RM6.
The waiter, a young Gurkha from the Himalayan foothills, said mutton was the favourite choice followed by pork. And no meal was complete without a serving of fried momo, a popular pastry in Nepal as well as Tibet.
Besides food, the customers here are also treated to Nepali music videos shown on a large-screen television. This, said the Gurkha youth, made most of the diners feel at home.
Across the street from the restaurant is a Nepali general store called Bhijaya Export. It’s located on the first floor and this is where Gurung and his fellow Nepalis get their groceries and other personal grooming items.
Here, you will find toothpaste, soap and shampoo, which have been imported directly from the homeland. Prices range from RM2 to RM10 for these essentials.
"A packet of instant noodles costs as much as 15 rupees (RM1.20) in Nepal. We price it slightly higher here because of the exchange rate," said a worker.
There is a curious little pocket off Jalan Bukit Bintang; a concrete arch next to Finnegan’s Irish pub that beckons with the words Ain Arabia.
The literal translation is Eye Arab (the grammatically correct version should read al Ain Arabiya which would translate to "The Eye of Arabia").
Since Ala H. Salih set up the Sahara Tent restaurant at the Fortuna Hotel five years ago, tourists, embassy officials and students have been making a beeline to al Mantaga al Arabiya or "the Arabian area".
Hotel manager A. Selvarajah acknowledged the draw of the restaurant may be due to the 20 per cent increase in tourist arrivals from the Middle East between the third week of June and September.
"This is the school holiday season. Incidentally, it is also the mega-sale period here. Half of these arrivals are from Saudi Arabia; others are from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt," he said.
According to Selvarajah, the guests are mostly families who stay five to 10 days.
Ala’s plan was to provide for the needs of Arabs. "I wanted to give them service in one place," explained the mustachioed Iraqi.
He brought in fellow countryman Mahmood Mahdi to cut hair the way Arab men liked it.
"Not many barbers here are good at trimming beards. We have many styles — and some men need to have their facial hair removed by threading. For some, this has to be done every three days," said Ala, who acted as a translator for Mahmood.
Apart from the hair salon, the other four shops adjacent to the Fortuna Hotel are a mini market, a travel agency, two souvenir shops and the Hay-al Arab Restaurant, which serves Yemeni cuisine.
Naab’s mini market stocks products like canned tomatoes, bottled olives, Lebanese bread, a variety of cheeses and dates.
The Jet Connections travel agency’s clientele is 90 per cent Arab. They opt for local tours to Penang, Langkawi and Genting Highlands.
The al-Khaima souvenir shop stocks Arabic music CDs, VCDs, shisha pipes, tobacco, perfume oils and incense wood chips.
Fronting Hotel Fortuna and Sahara Tent is a small plot of land, dotted with concrete benches, stalls (not yet operational) and monuments, popular in the evenings with Malaysians and Middle Easterners.
Be mindful that an excursion to Jalan Berangan should take place after noon. The shops and restaurants operate from 12pm till 1am.
"When Malaysia sleeps, the Arabs wake up," Ala said.