KLue, Issue 101, March 2007
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
If the soul of Malaysia resides in the bellies of its citizens, then the heart of KL must be its wet markets. After all, it's these old-style places of culinary commerce that have, over the years, stocked the kitchens and pantries of the city's hawker's and restaurateurs, wives and mothers, grandmas and aunties, dads and grandfathers who've fed us.
Despite its willy-nilly redevelopment KL still boasts a few of these traditional alternatives to the grocery store, from Petaling Street's petite Chinese market to Pudu's open-air sprawl. But one pasar better than any other reflects the diversity, changing fortunes, and essence of the city: Chow Kit.
'Maaaaaaaaaaaaaari mari mari!' ('Come, come, come on!')
In a dim workroom off a narrow alley, a shirtless man lowers a wood-handled wire strainer as big as a motorcycle tire and lifts a batch of taufu pok from a wok of sputtering oil. On a wooden tray beside him battalions of snow-white tofu cubes await their turn in the boiling liquid. Just outside, a gent with a kerchief tied tight over his bald pate grunts with the effort of lifting twenty bags of the finished product into a milk crate fastened to the back of a delivery bike bound for kedai in KL and PJ.
'Ayam! Ayam! Ayaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!' ('Chicken! Chicken! Here's chicken!')
A stone's throw away peanuts roast in a metal drum out the back of a busy shop. Nearby, a stooped granny perched on a low stool peels onions as her daughter combines scoops of ground ginger, turmeric, garlic, and shallots for a bulk order of curry paste. The whir of metal grinders churning out cili mesin drowns out the click-clack of abacus beads drifting from a storeroom around the corner.
Chopped peanuts for legions of popiah, freshly made mee destined for thousands of bowls of curry, chickpea flour ground for an incalculable number of bhaji, coconut milk to enrich countless pots of masak lemak - all are prepared everyday in the bowels of Pasar Chow Kit. Here, a narrow aisle lined on both sides with Malay and Indonesian vendors displaying turmeric leaves, paku, budu, and jering on low wooden tables. There, from a row of shop houses in various states of disrepair, staples of the Indian kitchen are sold in bulk from burlap bags.
Beyond that, past the kambing stalls and behind the live poultry section, hide a row of modish, curve-roofed cement structures housing a Chinese herbal medicine purveyor, a kitchen supplies and ceramic pots dealer, and a few coffee shops. At tables out front customers and employees slurp noodles and rice porridge while chatting in a cacophony of Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, and Mandarin.
Older than Malaysia itself, Chow Kit has, like KL, seen good times and bad. When it was opened in 1955 by the seventh sultan of Selangor, the market anchored one of the city's prime shopping and entertainment districts. Forty years later the area was known more for its illicit activities than for its haberdashers and wet market. In 1997 City Hall announced its intention to raze the market and replace it with an eleven-story multi-purpose building, a plan put on hold indefinitely when the Asian financial crisis hit. Malaysia's economic misfortune saved Chow Kit, but business at the market has never returned to pre-crisis levels.
'Eight or so years ago, if you came to Chow Kit on a Sunday you couldn't even walk, it was so crowded,' recalls Asraf, an Indian shop owner whose family has been in business at the market for sixteen years. He attributes the market's decline to KL-ites' love affair with the hypermarket.
'How can a small shop owner like me compete?' Asraf laments.
While the market's wholesale stalls haven't suffered as much as its small retailers, sellers of super-sized bags of banana chips and Pokemon candies in bulk just don't draw the crowds of yesteryear.
Other sellers say changing lifestyles are the root of Chow Kit's malaise. 'Young people don't like wet, dirty markets,' observes Miss Lin, a Chow Kit resident from birth. Selling lucky bamboo and ceramic pots from a stall in the Chinese section for fifteen years now, she sees sales spike only around Chinese New Year and Hari Raya.
'Besides, who has time to drive to Chow Kit, park their car, and walk around buying vegetables here, meat there, eggs somewhere else?' she asks. Supermarkets offer what KL's wettest wet market cannot - cleanliness and convenience.
'Lima ringgit! Lima ringgit! Lima ringgit! Jambuuuuuuu!' ('Five ringgit, five ringgit! Rose apples!')
Yet, despite its unruliness Chow Kit has its hard-core fans, even among the not-so-old. Thirtyish KL native Angela hits the market's claustrophobic covered walkways first thing every Sunday morning. For her, face-to-face connections - the ability to buy from vendors she knows and trusts - trump hygiene and convenience any day. Ready access to nearly every Malaysian ingredient imaginable sweetens the pot. It's the old market's trump card.
'You can get everything at Chow Kit!'