Everytime we drive down Jalan Raja Laut, through Kuala Lumpur's historic city center, we see them: bewildered tourists, guidebook in hand, gazing at Merdeka Square and the majestic edifices that surround it, wondering, 'Where's the there here?'
I sympathize. This crop of dated, history-laden buidlings (there aren't that many of them left in KL, anymore) sits in a section of the city utterly devoid of human activity. There's the Tudor-style Selangor Club, windows blackened as if to shut out prying eyes, its green cricket pitch empty. And the concrete expanse of Merdeka Square, site of only of the rare promotional event (or National Day celebration, which must have been something to see before Malaysia's seat of government was moved to Putrajaya), otherwise bleakly vacant. KL's not much of a walking city to begin with; busy, five-lane Raja Laut and the lack of anyplace to stop for a bite or a beverage makes the area even less hospitable to visitors than usual.
I want to grab these disappointed folks - the ones who've made the effort to see something of KL other than its shopping malls - by the hand and walk them a couple of blocks north, and east, to Tun H.S. Lee, a street of old Chinese shophouses (many, unfortunately, now vacant or badly renovated and adorned with 'For Rent' signs). I want to sit them down in a plastic chair at an old formica-topped table at Hong Ngek, a typical Hokkien restaurant that's been in the same family, at the same spot, for over seventy years. I want to tell them that the yellowed, peeling paint on the ceiling and the cracked tile walls and the faded, magic-markered menu posted almost too high to read are real, living history, the history of just one of the many communities of immigrants who came to Kuala Lumpur long ago as imported labor and stayed to build their own small businesses - the kind of history that's getting harder and harder to find in Asian cities, the kind that is too often overlooked by travel writers.
I'd like to introduce them to Hong Ngek's brusque-yet-friendly proprietor and his daughter-in-law, who will inform them that the restaurant's well-loved sambal, a limey, fishy, surprisingly spicy puree of chiles, is still made according to the original owner's recipe. I'd encourage them to solicit his and her opinions about what's best to eat.
If my rescued tourists were lucky they'd end up with stir-fried dongfen (bean thread noodles) and sweet and sour pork (a rice dish and a noodle dish, 'for variety'). The dongfen would be smoky from the wok that's given birth to thousands and thousands of previous orders. Just kissed with oil, the noodles would be twined around that 'Chinese-tasting' combination of Napa cabbage, pork, shrimp, scallions, bean sprouts, egg, and soy. They'd be pleasantly toothsome and completely comforting.
Hong Ngek's sweet and sour pork would be a surprise, at least for anyone who's familiarity with this southern Chinese dish (Hokkien/Fujian is a province on China's southeast coast) extends only to the poorly executed versions standard at American-Chinese restaurants. The pork, deep-fried to a non-greasy crisp, would be in big, meaty, two-bite pieces, and the sauce, as tartly sour as sweet, would contain not a hint of gloppiness. The taste of the meat would hold sway over other elements in the dish and there'd be no fruit - no pineapple, no tomato - except on the side, as a garnish.
If my companions were adventurous, they'd take a stroll around the restaurant to see what other tables held. They might spy these delectable crab balls - a mixture of crab and pork, really, and slightly crunchy carrot and Chinese celery, the whole mix touched with a hint of nutmeg - wrapped in the thinnest tofu skin and deep-fried to golden. They'd be crazy not to place an order.
Sitting at their table near Hong Ngek's entrance, these tourists might be approached by a couple of sprightly ladies of a certain age heading out for a spot of shopping after their weekly lunch. They'd be surprised to learn that one of these women, who's probably someone's grandmother, plays football and cricket, and enjoys a good workout at the track. They'd welcome these seasoned regulars' advice to return to Hong Ngek soon for the 'wonderful' sweet and sour fish, soup on the side.
And, they might leave Hong Ngek with something that a roll of photos of Merdeka Square, the Selangor Club, the Industrial Court, and the sanitized Central Market could never offer - a sense of Kuala Lumpur as a city of neighborhoods, of anonymous lived lives and personal, rather than famous, histories. The most mundane, but interesting, histories - the kind the guide books rarely tell.
(Thanks to the reader who pointed us in the direction of Hong Ngek.)
Hong Ngek Restaurant, 50 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee (aka Jalan Bandar), steps from Jalan Tun Perak, Kuala Lumpur. Tel. 03-20787852. 1030am-7pm (5pm on Saturdays). Closed Sundays and public holidays.
UPDATE August 2013:
We're sad to learn that the days of Hong Ngek's crab balls are no more, according to reader Pete, who reports that "Hong Ngek today no longer offers Xinghua Hokkien food, but one-plate "dai chow " dishes which KL's office workers in that area look for."