03 June 2009

Sodom and Gomorrha

Musha (having lived two years in MY): “Oh, you definitely have to go clubbing!”
Heidi: “Can you actually go clubbing in Malaysia?”
Musha: “OF COURSE you can!”

Right, as an anthropologist one believes oneself to be fairly immune to prejudices like the above. What I saw when I went out last weekend with a couple of friends in KL's entertainment district Bukit Bintang however was like being hit by a (very fast) train called “reverse culture shock”:

In short, we started out in a Swiss beer place, then nearly infiltrated a gay club and finally ended up crashing a posh MTV trance party. I was not the only one wondering, “Am I really in Malaysia?!?”

Let's roll things up from the beginning. The Swiss beer place Gypsy Bar is actually a semi-gay place. Cocktails go for RM 30 (!) ice tea for RM 20 and water for sth ridiculous like RM 15 (in 7/11 it usually costs RM 1.50 for the small bottle, ice-tea RM 2.80 and for RM 30 you can already eat out as a family of three). Cheap is the beer, too bad I don't drink any. The waitress is Filipina. The owner looks like a gay hippie. Half of us arrived later, we decide not to order anything as this was just the run up for the gay club Frangipani next door. A short while later the owner shows his true colours and rudely ushers us to squeeze together (maybe 10 people) to make space for a group of five fancy-dressed Asian people (girls mostly) who ordered two bottles of Whisky served with a silver pot of ice and half a dozen cans of soft drinks. I don't even want to know how much the Whisky costs. Among the crows, I see gay people hanging out there, a woman with a VERY LOW-CUT dress and big boobs, of the locals all are Chinese, the other half are expats. I am told by my gay friend to take the [fake engagement] ring off, open a button and hit the crowd while he already preps my “sirene hair” and ties it up from after-works style to Madonna 1990!

I, still in shock from all the alcohol and scantily-clad Asian girls tell him that I would have loved to pick a more hip if not too sexy outfit but if I left the house like that in Chinatown, it would be an invitation for trouble!

We eventually move on to famous Frangipani. Fancy polished cars parking outside choc-a-bloc on the ad-hoc parking lot (I love the word ad-hoc these days!). I, still in shock from all the alcohol and scantily-clad Asian girls see with my very own eyes that there in fact exists a gay club in KL. There is a YouTube clip that is called, “The non-existent huge gay community in KL”. I couldn't describe the situation better. While homosexuality is officially denied, the truth is that there seems to be a large underground scene and that as of now, "we only see the tip of the ice-berg" or so I read here.

The entry is RM 30, some of us wait outside while people go find an ATM. I observe a lot of local girls (unlikely of the Muslim Malay community) with such skirts and pencil heels I wouldn't even let my teenage daughter out with them in London – and I consider myself a very liberal person! They basically look like sex workers.

One of these girls turns up at our group, introduces herself politely with a big smile to everyone, including an older European guy I don't know very well from our group. After she finished, he takes her around the waist and kisses her in a very naughty way in the middle of the street behind an electricity meter box but still quite visible. I blink. I later hear she is his girlfriend even though he does not like calling her that because he claims to be eccentric and does not like the term so he just calls her “friend” instead. From the first moment on I don't believe a word of it. The other guys finally come back and are finally ready to go in. Some of us don't want to pay that much so we had decided earlier to go to the new club diagonally opposite which is free. The said European guy suggests he brings his woman to her car and will dump his bag at the hotel nearby and is going to be back “in approximately 12 minutes”.

Meanwhile, two other girls and me venture to the new club which is yet another shock for me for I had been living in London for so long that I had totally forgotten that other countries haven't banned smoking indoors yet. Or maybe this one just doesn't care. So many people who smoke, men and women alike – and so quickly too. It's as if they have to use the opportunity to smoke as much as possible before they have to get back to everyday life and the public sphere (maybe they do smoke as much at work or at home). I was not the only one who was trying to blink the acid out of the eyes all the time. There's a percussion band on a dance floor that changes colours and a long white bar with all the spirits and toold of the well-equipped professional barista. The people are dressed a bit more posh and the first (and only) seats around the dance floor are designer lounge chairs occupied by huge men who look like pimps/bouncers and sitting in an aggressively male position, their two bottles of whisky next to them. Two girls stand on the elevated guest area behind the band and show off their navels while swinging their hips with their arms up while enthusiastically throwing their heads from side to side, smiling widely. Triangle-shaped standeeds suggest that it's a MTV party. Eventually, after an eternity (30min maybe), the guy from before has returned from his hotel, sans (girl)friend, a bit ruffled. He gets teased that it took him way longer than he said. People dance, nobody wants to dance on the colourfully lit dancefloor which stays empty for an hour or more until a DJ starts to move the crowd. The guy who had been ignoring me for the two hours and who I had been ignoring too, suddenly turns to me, openly bored with a lame line like, “Is this not the kind of music you like?” with a hand on my waist!!! I think he was mistaking me for a naïve Asian girl the kind of he probably just shagged and was testing how far he could go. I give him a menacing stare and utter under my breath, “Obviously NOT” and his next question just proves he's a jerk. He asks me if I prefer sth “more chilled-out” in a voice which suggested a) that he had expected me to be a bore or b) that he wanted to go back to his hotel. Well, screw him! I shuffle to the side and ignore him, he gets quickly distracted by a friend. I decide it's time to go home for I neither enjoy music, location nor company, so I ring my cab-mate Julie who lives around the corner and is over in the other place.

When I was about to say my good-byes to the people who I leave behind, another guy from work enters the club; while I wait opposite Frangipani, yet another guy from work walks down the street. I watch a woman waiting at the corner of a dark alley, also showing off a lot of skin, decollete and stomach, as well as legs. She has a red shawl around her and keeps ruffling through her long hair, drawing attention. After a while a guy appears, takes her hand and quickly walks away with her, wearing sunglasses at 2am in the morning. It looks as if they know each other but I believe they just both pretend quite well for prostitution is illegal in Malaysia.*

I see Julie on the balcony of Frangipani doing a pirouette at what must have been an incredibly hilarious remark and decide to give her some time to round off before we leave by walking to 7/11 down to the end of the block. Off the well-lit bars on one side of the road, the usual sexual harassment comments come from South Asian guys lurking in the shadows – Taxi drivers waiting for bait (customers to rip off or a woman to insult). I ignore them, as usual and am looking forward to the days when I can just dress like myself, perhaps after I move to my new area and insist on elderly Chinese or Malay drivers.

The evening was a definitely eye-opening experience – in more ways than one...!

*Prostitution is punishable with a fine or five years in prison (depending how often you get caught). There actually are very tough penalties on human trafficking (which seems to be an issue), especially for trafficking children. Read an interesting country report by the John Hopkins University here (original in MS Word format).

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