Kuala Lumpur in Literature Part 1: Fadli al-Akiti
LiteraCity, a book supported by the Think City Grants Programme, is a literary and cultural mapping project focusing on the area within a 5-kilometre radius of Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur. Speaking to writers, editors and critics, the project explores the literature of Kuala Lumpur from the 1970’s after the National Culture Policy was passed in 1969, and later, uncovering themes, cultural evolutions and historical milestones.
FADLI AL-AKITI, editor of the Dewan Sastera, novelist and film critic gives the LiteraCity team an overview of urban literature along with the view from his office at Menara Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
On historical artist hubs within a 5-km radius of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers.
The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) was definitely the place, especially in the 70s - the era of Keris Mas and Usman Awang, followed by their protegees such as Kemala, Sutung Umar RS and Baha Zain. The DBP drew in not only writers but also movie makers, actors, and painters. Back then, there was no place to hold exhibitions. Most were held here. There were two popular eateries before “Bucu” came along - a cafeteria and next to the exhibition area there was a small canteen. Writers would hang out there. The place was never void of writers.
In the old tower, on the topmost level was an empty hall where there were always events like gatherings and seminars. Interestingly, there would also be disco nights, jazz shows, night performances and sometimes ballet. At the time, there were only two places for activities like these - DBP and Universiti Malaya. DBP also became a place for dancing. Many writers and poets learned how to socialise there.
You can’t talk about the literary and artistic set without mentioning Anak Alam, a highly-regarded art collective founded by Latiff Mohidin and including many poets, performers and painters. They used to congregate at Rumah PENA. There was a cultural centre in Jalan Conlay, now known as Kompleks Kraftangan. In the 80s, many writers, painters and actors gathered there. MaTiC in Jalan Ampang was a place for theatre performances. There was a small hall for experimental theatre, a bigger hall for national theatre works.
There was also Mirama Hotel, across from the DBP. Sutung Umar RS held poetry discussions there. There also used to be poetry readings at DBP but because of a conflict, Sutung took it to the Mirama Hotel.
A performance held at Dewan Bahasa dan Perpustakaan in the 1960s. Image source: Archives of the Information Department
On prominent works across the decades beginning in the 70s (when migration to urban centres took root), and the 80s (when modernisation and urbanisation began).
The 70s saw little of stories set in KL. There were a lot of stories outside of the city, especially stories related to agriculture, as back then the spirit of Asas 50, a literary association comprising post-Independence writers, was still strong. ‘Seni Untuk Masyarakat’ (Art for the People) was very strong, socialism was strong.
Whatever happened to the proletariate, the marginalised, the ones without rights were always highlighted by artists from Asas 50. Take National Laureate Shahnon Ahmad, Azizi Hj Abdullah and many more writers who began their careers writing from the rural side. Even Anwar Ridhwan had many stories about the rural life.
The one who wrote about city life was Usman Awang. I remember ‘Tamu di Bukit Kenny’ (A Guest in Kenny Hill), a theatre script, really well. Kenny Hill was the place for VIPs and the bourgeois. At that time, many 70s and 80s movies reflected city life as something dirty - a life mired with materialism and consumerism. Usman Awang presented it in a gentler light compared to Shaharom Husain who wrote ‘Lawyer Dahlan’, about a civil servant who would get drunk and go home at three in the morning. That was the kind of typical Malay story at the time, portraying victims of city life.
For those who came to KL, the place was Stesen Kereta Api Kuala Lumpur. There are poems that talk about train stations as meeting places, waiting points, and crossroads. Pudu Raya (a major bus interchange) began in the 80s, but before that there was only the train station.
There were no poems or stories about the parliament that stand out. I’m not sure about Central Market, and there were probably some about Chow Kit, because it was closer to the writers back then. Traditionally in the 40s and 50s, Batu Road was a drinking place for British officials in colonial times, so that explains why the Coliseum Cafe is oft-mentioned. Malays would eat at the mamak stalls and at Majid’s satay place. They would buy clothes and things that were unavailable other than in KL. There were also a lot of hotels there and many Malays from every part of the world would congregate there.
In the Sultan Abdul Samad building area, one would find many transvestites, according to popular literature of the 70s. And of course, there would be prostitutes. These were all typical things when the city was discussed in the 70s.
The 80s I feel was a transition period. There were still writers whose styles still had traces of Asas 50, which placed importance on agricultural themes. However, Petaling Jaya began to emerge as the backdrop of stories written in the 80s. Abdullah Hussain’s ‘Masuk ke Dalam Cahaya’ was set in PJ, and he himself was a resident there. Within PJ was also Kampung Tunku where the Malay intellectuals lived such as Usman Awang and Keris Mas.
On significant works that embodied the aesthetics, spirit of the time and essence of Kuala Lumpur in the storytelling.
For me, ‘Tamu di Bukit Kenny’ is one of them. Honestly speaking I don’t think many existing works address Kuala Lumpur as a subject. One work about KL that I’ve read is the graphic novel ‘Mat Som’, by Datuk Lat. There’s one poem by Usman Awang titled ‘Kambing Hitam’ (Black Sheep). It was about the May 13th racial riots. It was interesting because he was the only one not to blame the Chinese, which is what the term ‘black sheep’ alluded to.
Usman Awang also had a poem called ‘Surat Burung Kepada Datuk Bandar’ (A Bird’s Letter to the Mayor) and ‘Balada Terbunuhnya Beringin Tua di Pinggir Sebuah Bandaraya’ (Ballad of the Murder of an Old Banyan Tree at the Edge of a City), which may have been about a tree in DBKL. Azizi Hj Abdullah wrote ‘Seorang Tua di Kaki Gunung’ (An Old Man at the Foot of a Mountain). The background was rural and the city was a hateful thing to him, having taken away his children.
I also enjoyed reading comics in ‘Gila Gila’ magazine; the content had many city related skits. Pak Sako had a special column in the magazine called ‘Pepatah Petitih’.
On LiteraCity’s plan to build an open source website for the public, where readers can make their own markings on an online map.
It would be interesting to find old works from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Works from the 2000s would definitely have many writings about Kuala Lumpur.
You should also include the ‘Keranda 152’ (Coffin 152) poem which marked a protest. The Asas 50 group and the socialists Usman Awang and his comrades marched with a coffin from the DBP to the parliament protesting the death of the Malay language when the Malaysian government did not fulfill its promise to make Malay the language of instruction and in the field of judiciary. There were also other poems written by these socialist poets between the years 1966-1967 which discussed language.
On more significant works from the 90s.
The 90s was the time of writers such as S.M. Zakir, Zainal Rashid Ahmad and Saifullizan Yahaya. A transition period. Writers like S.M. Zakir came from the world of his father. His strength was in short stories. Before S.M. Zakir made it, Hizairi Othman was the superstar. He told a lot of stories about Universiti Malaya.
Keris Mas had ‘Saudagar Besar di Kuala Lumpur’ (Big Merchant in Kuala Lumpur). He wrote that after his retirement. Khairudin Ayip, a teacher at Sekolah Sri Petaling was the Enid Blyton of our time.
MPR (Minggu Penulis Remaja/Teen Writers’ Weekly) began in 1984 or 85. Faisal Tehrani found his beginnings there. His works ‘Cinta Hari-Hari Rusuhan’ (Love in the Days of Riot) had KL as its backdrop. ‘Perempuan Kritikus Melayu’ (Malay Female Critic), the short story ‘KL di Atas Bantal’ (KL Upon a Pillow) were definitely iconic for me.
Karim Raslan who writes in English, wrote a number of short stories which were translated into Bahasa. One of them, ‘The Mistress’ about a kept woman in an apartment was quite a popular short story of the late 80s or early 90s.
Ahadiat Akashah wrote about Lot 10, Starhill, Bukit Bintang. He was very popular in the 90s. He wanted to capture the vibe of KL-ites, in particular the youth. We didn’t refer to them as ‘urban youth’ back then but rather ‘budak KL’ - KL youngsters who would wear their caps backwards and say ‘Yo!”. He successfully captured this in his novels and a friend of mine, a big fan of his, said that Ahadiat had built something significant in that era.
You can see from the literature coming out of the 90s that it was a time for the new Malay and the rise of the middle class Malay. In 1991, there was a work by Zakaria Ali called ‘Empangan’ (The Dam) but again, it was about progress and development arriving at his village. It’s hard to find a novel about Kuala Lumpur. As mentioned, many laureates wrote about life outside KL.
However, there were writers published by Creative Enterprise who wrote about the city. There were romances and also a lot of crime stories.
On literary writers in the 2000s using the city as a set.
Kassim Ahmad wrote about the conflict between country and city in his poetry. Abdul Talib Hassan and Abdul Rahim Awang did write about the city, but they were not prolific enough. Noordin Hassan was a popular writer in the 90s. His dramas were very abstract and urban but not particularly set in KL.
There was a script written by Ismail Kassim, a winner of the SEA Write Award entitled ‘Dejavu Seorang Perempuan’ (Dejavu of a Woman), which is more about immigrant life. Othman Hj Zainudin wrote ‘Lorong’, (The Alley), about a boy who lives in an alley in the streets of KL. Anuar Nor Arai wrote a script about the sex workers in Lorong Haji Taib. Many people wrote about the sex workers in the outskirts of the city because maybe they thought of sex workers as a marginalised group.
‘Imam’ (Religious Leader) by Abdullah Hussain had a suburban background, about a town that had developed into something else. His following novel, ‘Dan Malam, Apabila Ia Berlalu’ (And the Night When it Passes) set in Bukit Bintang, was a tale of total hedonism, decimating loafing youths.
There is a poem by Baha Zain set in Bukit Bintang about body massage. He captured Kuala Lumpur with each stanza mentioning Chow Kit, Bukit Bintang.
There are a lot of works capturing stories of the Mat Rempits and their lifestyles. You can find them from the editors of Tunas Cipta. The Mat Rempit movement began in 2000. In the 80s we had Mat Kilang and Minah Karen. These were factory-workers in the daytime who would rock out at night. In the 90s we had Mat Moto, an earlier variation of the Mat Rempit with their bohjan and bohsia culture.
Ahadiat Akashah captured this culture the best and therefore it was a good move for having him at the MASTERA gatherings. However, it became a huge issue among those who considered themselves serious writers because they regarded Ahadiat’s work as pulp fiction. The literati were up in arms and still are. Now, they have set their sights on indie writing.
Before the same literati gained popularity, in the 60s and 70s, they themselves wrote stories about sex. This changed after the year 1979, when the 80s marked the beginning of the search for Islamic novels.
On whether the Dasar Kebudayaan Kebangsaan (DKK, National Culture Policy) in 1969 had an impact on literary work.
Yes it did. The impact would have been strong because the DBP and the DKK partnered up. At the time I believe the editors were asked to align with the DKK’s guidelines. Even though it was said to have been a natural progression, many writers of the time left their socialist leanings. That said, I should add that the writers were not even aware that it was socialism. They were just sheep, following the herd. This all changed in the 80s.
On other prominent contemporary works referencing the city.
‘Amerika’ by Ridhwan Saidi. He captured Pudu well. ‘Kasino’ by Saifullizan Yahaya. You can also consider Saharil Hasrin Sanin but the problem is his works are rather vague. However, his short story, ‘Anak Bumi Tercinta’ (Child of the Beloved Earth) is very urban. Lufti Ishak also had two short stories entitled ‘Musang’ (Civet Cat) and ‘Biawak’ (Lizard) revolving around urban characters facing prejudice in kampung settings. Mawar Safei now keeps writing about cafes. Since the end of the 90s, there have been lots of stories about cafes because it was the dawn of the Starbucks era. There would be characters writing in cafes, sipping lattes. Roslan Jomel wrote urban tales set in apartments. In the year 2000 there was Ruhaini Matdarin, and coming after the time of Mawar Safei was Nisah Haron.
For science fiction, you can consider Rahmat Haroun. His work ‘Di.Ar.Ti’ used Universiti Malaya as a backdrop. ‘Sentuhan Oedipus’ was set in PJ and ‘Panggil Aku Melayu’, a fantasy space opera, was set in KL. Sri Rahayu’s 'Zombijaya' references KLCC, which was also the setting of many short stories published in Dewan Sastera.
On prominent publishing houses.
Pustaka Antara, Dewan Bahasa, Creative Enterprise are the most significant ones. If you were rejected by Dewan Sastera, you could submit your work to Fantasi magazine, published by Creative Enterprise, or Watan, published by Karangkraf. Utusan Malaysia used to have Mastika but it died in the 90s because they had circulation problems.
This interview was formerly published in 'LiteraCity: Kuala Lumpur Literary Fragments' (2016), and has been edited for the Think City Channel.