Lasting impression of Kuala Lumpur

My lasting impression from Kuala Lumpur came from our first visiting Jalan Alor. At the end of our first night in the city as we made our way back to the hotel from Chinatown, I couldn’t help but think about how special the night was. It was my first time in Asia and the farthest I had ever been away from home but there was more to it than that. The vibrance and liveliness on the street was like nothing I had ever experienced. Jalan Alor, the food street, was filled with thousands of people. The waiters standing outside of each restaurant swarm you and walk with you, holding up the menu’s to their restaurants hoping to get your business. The sidewalks are covered with outdoor seating that stretches in to the street from either side leaving just enough room for one lane of traffic. Throngs of men and women walk down the middle of the street as they try to decide which restaurant to choose from the hundreds of options. The cars that choose to drive down Jalan Alor must drive the length of the street at the pace of the pedestrians. Watching these cars made driving down Bigelow Boulevard between classes at Pitt look like the Audobon. Vendors with trinkets squeeze through the aisles in between tables and aggressively advertise their products and the workers of the restaurants leave them be. This would never fly in America. At home, if a homeless person approaches us asking for money, we walk away and complain about him for the next block. If a homeless person was walking through an outdoor seating area of a restaurant in the US someone would inform the manager immediately and he would be kicked out. If he returned, the manager would most likely call the police for trespassing and the customers would be pleased. Thinking about accusing one of the vendors walking through the aisles of the outdoor seating in Jalan Alor for trespassing seems comical. In America we place such a high value on our personal space and our privacy even when we are in public space. We would never allow a public space to be so inclusive, so permeable between public and semi-public space. Market Square, I’m my opinion, is one of Pittsburgh’s best public spaces. However, there are iron fences around each restaurants seating area, there are meters for parking, and one corner of the square is lined by a cold, unwelcoming, glass office building. During nice weather on the weekends Market Square can be pretty lively. However, we visited Jalan Alor around 8:30-9 PM on a Wednesday night and it was more crowded than I have ever seen Market Square. How is it that this public space is so well used, so lively? Is it that Americans as a culture love privacy and personal space so much that it deters us from using public space? We go to Market square on occasion to “get out for a change” and hang out in public. However we only enjoy the public if we can retain our privacy. Our public spaces are designed with aspects of exclusion like NO TRESPASSING and NO LOITERING signs, fences around outdoor seating for PATRONS ONLY, surveillance and enforcement to prevent begging and sleeping on benches. If our public spaces do not have these tools of exclusion then they become too public. Jalan Alor, in the eyes of an American, was too public. Walking down the street I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t feel unsafe at any time but I felt very foreign. As I walked down the street I was experiencing so much at once, the lights, the crowds, the vendors, the beggars, the plastic chairs in the middle of the streets, the restaurant hosts flagging us down… It was chaotic, it was overwhelming, but it was completely unique to any other night in my life.Image

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