Cross Current Kuala Lumpur

Barp! Barp! Meepmeep! At the intersection of Jalan Tun Perak and Jalan Tun Lee the rush hour traffic is snarled. In the middle of the street a man is trying to restart his stalled scooter. The drivers behind him are impatient. Meepmeep! Barp! Barp! Above Jalan Tun Perak, unobstructed on its dedicated track, a packed monorail train of the Star Light Rapid Transit line accelerates smoothly from Masjid Temek Station in the direction of Sentul Timur. The man on the scooter is desperately turning his key but it is not working. Barpbarp! Meepmeep! Opportunistic pedestrians swirl around the scooter and cross the intersection. Ahead of the stalled scooter, a banner hanging from the Hotel Hollywood describes it as ‘The Cheapest in Town!!!” and offers rooms for twenty ringgits. The Reggae Mansion Hotel (its sign unfortunately missing the i) suggests Reggae Adventure Tours by means of a painted elephant and recommends a package promising The Seven Wonders of Kuala Lumpur. Beep! Beep! Marp! Marp! Marp! Beep! Beep! The man cannot get his scooter to start. He tears at the ignition key in panic. Behind him on the scooter, his wife raises her hands to her hijab and peers anxiously over his shoulder. Farther back, the driver of a green minivan cab shakes his head and smiles as his passengers try, unsuccessfully, to make him honk his horn. On Jalan Tun Lee, near the struggling man on the scooter, hang signs for Universal E-Remit, Mobile Prabayar, Agensi Pengliklanan. By the look of things the stranded man could use the help of all three. In the shadow of the overhead monorail track—clear evidence that the city is a city of signs—are counterposed advertisements for Jawatan Kising Advertising and Soon Leong Advertising. Ads advertising ads. Beside them, restaurants identify themselves by name. Restoran Killiney (Since 1919). Café Chatime. Café Happy Meal. And O-Bento Sushi, its final O containing the tiny red circle of a Japanese flag. Across from the restaurants, sixty feet from where the scooter is stalled, the Sridevi Gold Coverings Works pumps a manic Hindi breakbeat into the recesses of the covered sidewalk. Some pedestrians dance briefly to the beat as they shuffle past the shop. Above the jewelry store—a palimpsestic reminder of the city’s fast disappearing past—an earlier sign for the same location is still legible: KEDAI MUSIK DAN FILEM. Underneath the big letters, an obsolete description: Naaranayan Musical and Films. On a utility pole at the side of the road, as if captioning the peril of the stalled scooter, a sign reads BAHAYA!! and, beneath it, DANGER!! Between the two words forked lightning lines signify that the danger is electrical. A matter of current. The line of traffic behind the stalled scooter is lengthening. So are the sonic analogs of driverly frustration. Baaaaarrrrppp! Meeeeeeeeep! Meeeeeeeeep! Baaaaarrrrppp! On the pavement beside the scooter, a man waiting to cross looks down and reads the lettering on a concrete drainage grid: DBKL. He cocks his head from side to side as he deciphers the acronym. By the entrance to a nearby alleyway, scrawled in pencil handwriting on a crumbling stucco wall, a more desperate sign cries out for custom: Repair, Shoe. The frantic driver is still trying to start his scooter. His wife rolls her head back and looks at the sky as if seeking divine help. Beeeep! Beeeep! Maaaarp! Maaaarp! Stenciled onto the wall next to a crowd watching the stalled couple, a graffiti message proclaims that HOMELESSNESS IS NOT A CHOICE, the A circled into an anarchist symbol. Across from this message, on five consecutive pillars of the covered sidewalk in front of Sridevi’s, a poster for Rivali Productions showcases a new Rameesh Puncharatnam Film, the name of which appears in purple capitals with white borders: VICTORY. Across the top of the poster, surtitles in quotation marks announce their message in red letters thrown into relief by a gray banner background: “PAIN IS TEMPORARY. VICTORY IS FOREVER.” Dominating the poster, the star of the film, real-life karate champion Theeban, stands in profile, his hands in red gloves at his sides, head bowed, as though summoning resolution. Rivulets of blood from a tricep wound pour over the rippling muscles of his right arm. His chiseled torso is moist with sweat and flecked with scratches and cuts. His bearded face, looking down, seems to contemplate the thickly knotted black belt wrapped twice around his waist. One end of the belt highlights the second B in the film’s subtitle, printed in red caps with white borders: THE BATTLE BEGINS. Dingding! Meeep! Meeep! Baaarp! Baaarp! Beepbeep! In despair the scooter driver wipes his brow, casts a forlorn glance along Jalan Tun Perak, glimpses the heroic Klang Valley warrior on the movie posters, gets a wild look in his eyes, and starts furiously pounding his dashboard with his fists. His wife remonstrates with him, trying to restrain his arms. But—Anger be now your song!—he shakes himself free. A flurry of punches bounces off his scooter console. Meeeeeep! Meeeeeeeeep! Barpbarpbarp! Meep! One last time, the stranded man cranks his ignition key. The engine catches. The motor starts. The driver raises and shakes his hands in celebration before revving the bike and speeding across the intersection. His wife puffs out her cheeks with relief, straightens her hijab, and leans around him to check her appearance in a wing mirror. Traffic pours across the intersection after them. Meep! Meep! Barpbarp!