Chinatown through the eyes of an Angel

Thor Kah Hoong

Angel Ng, 32, is one of the new generation and young chinese entrepreneurs in Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. - The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, June 29, 2017.

Once a rebellious teen, Angel Ng is one of the young entrepreneurs in Chinatown who are not only giving themselves a new lease of life, but also the area.

TO look for an angel in Chinatown, one must first locate the bar PS150. It is below the Merchant’s Lane restaurant.

During the day, the main tenant, a stationery shop, looks to be in dire need of customers while PS150 hides behind a metal shutter.

At dusk, the shutter goes up and reveals a dimly lit toy shop with a glass cabinet displaying dolls, Transformers and Ultraman among other things.

The door leads to a narrow, dark corridor, which is lined with small metal cells occupied by couples chatting softly.

An open space follows, with one wall covered by an age-old multi-rooted tree which reaches for the sky through the restaurant above.

Through yet another door, you will be met with bright lights reminiscent of The Bund in 1920s Shanghai. The only thing missing is a lady in a red cheongsam smoking a cigarette with a long filter.

The operations manager of PS150, Angel Ng, designed the multiple sections one has to go through on the way to the bar as a reflection of our lives.

Ng, a petite, tattooed 32-year-old, said the old toy shop outside represents our childhood, the long dark corridor the dark side of adolescence reaching out to maturity, the courtyard adulthood, and the bar our subsequent efforts to have a good life.

If any part of the journey formed Angel as she is today, it is that dark corridor. She was born in Malaysia, but then spent the next 25 years in Singapore.

Her individualistic yin could not meld with the regimented yang of Singapore. She did the usual teen rebellion trip until she realised the immature pointlessness of it all.

She couldn’t escape the pressure to conform. “I studied because my parents asked me to study.” She was groomed to move into the family business and handle marketing and advertising.

“It wasn’t me. At one point I envied those who were blinkered because they didn’t see the negativity, but the toll is high, many crash,” says Angel.

Angel did. In fragile mental health, Angel decided to quit and do a traditional back-packing tour of Southeast Asia. Since she knew little of her mother’s land, though she had a Malaysian passport, she stopped in Chinatown… and found life there. She took, as Nelson Algren wrote, a walk on the wild side.

Some of the workers at PS150 bar at Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur. - The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, June 29, 2017.

Angel says: “The immigrants, the whore houses, the gangsters, the gambling dens – it is what makes Chinatown. Chinatown was a revelation. The colourful confusion. There was a lot of passion. It’s beautiful because it is still raw. I found Bangsar and Bukit Bintang sterile. No soul.

“I adore the gangsters here. They are so sweet. Only one guy catcalled me. I stared at him. He said sorry. You are awed and scared and fascinated all at the same time.

“Then I toured the country till I was broke, and returned to Chinatown.”

Angel says two things saved her – a spell with Antares, Malaysia’s Brangelina of lost waifs, in the jungly peace of Kuala Kubu Baru, and a month isolated in her room in Chinatown, surviving on two cup-noodles a day and wrestling with thoughts of her penury in her late 20s while her friends were married and had careers.

She came out of that dark hole, taught herself how to mix drinks, entered competitions.

Angel: “I had a couple of offers to open a bar before this, but I wasn’t interested till the third offer came with the magic word ‘Chinatown,’ and when I saw the place… It took thick skin and a lot of determination to climb up again, but I did it.”

Angel flitted off at 11pm to go to the supermarket to buy ingredients to make rasam, determined that she could make a palatable cocktail, but first the rasam must pass her discerning palate, and her previous efforts didn’t.

By virtue of his 20 years rooting in Chinatown as a partner of The Old China Café group, including the three-year-old Aku Café in Jalan Panggung, Leonard Tee, 45, hometown Alor Star, can be said to be the “uncle “ of the group, and able to narrate the history of this part of Chinatown for the past two decades.

Leonard: “From 1997 when we set up Old China Cafe to about 2004, 2005, it was a lively place with pubs, music, shows, even a 24-hour bookstore (till they moved after it was robbed).

“Then the place started slowly decaying until about three to four years ago. Businesses were closing.

“There were a lot of small accessories, hairband, clip shops – they were killed by the Internet.

“Buying patterns were changing. The same things could be found in malls. Malaysians were travelling overseas.

“Now you can feel the energy is coming back. It’s very encouraging to see the multiracial young people in these new cafes. Besides Merchant’s and Cho Cha, there’s also Coffee Amo, Leaf, etc.

“There is a rooftop garden here, above Lostgens. (The Malaysian Insight met Leonard in Aku Café.) There is an art collective on another rooftop. Young Malays.

“So Chinatown is no longer just Chinese. Malaysia has always been a mix of different races and religions.

“I see myself as Malaysian, not Chinese. Yes, I speak Hokkien, Cantonese, it’s my roots. But I speak Bahasa for much of the day too with my friends. Hence, my naming this Aku Café. It’s me, I. I am not a visitor. I belong here.

“We have been approached to expand, but we don’t want to be in a mall. It wouldn’t feel right.” – June 29, 2017.

The energy is coming back to cafes like Old China Cafe in Chinatown. - The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, June 29, 2017.

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