Ghost town

Most of what used to be the old Indian and Malay kampung and slums around the area known as Kampung Pandan have gone, disappeared. Removed and demolished by the real estate property developers keen on kick-starting their massive new condominium and high-rise apartment projects. Some of these massive new constructions have already been completed or near-completion. Tall, imposing, and almost overwhelming tower blocks that absolutely dominate the immediate skyline, blocking out the views of the mountain ranges in the distance and even closer landmarks that dot the KL skyline such as the KL Tower and the Twin Towers.  These tower blocks were built on the ruins of slums that used to be the homes of hundreds of very poor, working class Indian and Malay families, many of whom relied upon and worked in the informal sectors that used to drive local small businesses and economies, from crafts and food to scrap metal and recycling. I grew up around these parts, my family home located right next to one of the major slums, where I would often bike and walk around with friends, playing soccer or other games that kids used to play around here.

Not all of the slums have been eradicated or demolished, those that remain were too far away from the construction sites that they were left to be. Except no one who used to live there remained. These ghost slums now host a different population of precarious denizens – migrants. Workers – men, mostly – who were the primary labor force fueling the rapid construction and development of these new hyper-buildings mushrooming all over KL. The slums that used to be called Kampung Melayu and Kampung India, now bear a different name – that of the kongsi. These are little different from labor camps for the migrant workforce – pockmark reminders of the (in)human cost of hyper-modernization and ‘growth’ in Malaysia. Blink, or look away, and you’ll never be able to find these ghost camps again, so well are they hidden and pushed away into the margins of the city, conveniently situated out of view by sheet metal barriers and fences that block out construction zones and neighboring buildings.

When I try and recall memories of the slums of Kampung India, back from when I was a child, I remember a cacophonous, chaotic and lively community of people who spent most of their time outdoors, either working, socializing or playing. Perhaps, in my childish immaturity, I remember people who were happy and smiling for the most part, or gossiping animatedly with their neighbors, talking about politics and sports and food. I remember a liveliness to the community, in spite of the clearly impoverished conditions people lived in. For a long time, this was a community that was left alone in the margins of KL’s urban core, irrelevant to policy-makers and city planners due to their abject peripherality and the greater emphasis to developing new suburbs away from the center of the city itself. That all changed in the space of only half a decade, when a return to the urban center precipitated efforts to revitalize and modernize the heart of KL, thus heralding the mass eradication and removal of older slums and village communities to be replaced by constructions that were more becoming of a global city such as Kuala Lumpur. Similar projects took root in areas such as Pantai Dalam (now called Bangsar South), Cheras, and Puchong.

The life that used to characterize the slums no longer exist, but the old beat-up dirt paths and the occasional shack, hut or Hindu shrine serve as haunting reminders of what, and who, used to be here. This was one of the communities that became home for the ‘tragic orphans’ Belle (2014) talks about – the marginalized, disenfranchised descendants of indentured laborers and slaves left behind and forgotten by history. It does feel like this ruins itself are a fittingly tragic marker of the ghosts of our colonial past that we are still trying desperately to shake off. But the past has a way of returning in ways that are least expected, and in this case, through a renewal of the colonial tragedy of indenture and bondage through the pseudo-modern projects of globalization and modernization. Here, in the ruins of the slums past, reside the groups of ghost people tasked with building our city.

***

Mohamad Rashyed, or Syed, as he introduced himself, offered to have some teh tarik  with me on evening, at a small street-side food stall just outside the kongsi where he lived with his fellow construction workers. Syed was in his thirties, lean, wiry and deceptively strong, like many of his colleagues. They have to be, considering the nature of their work which involves spending hours each day under the hot sun performing heavy construction work. Syed spoke English a bit better than most of his compatriots – I had met him while walking through the kongsi earlier in the day, and attempting to speak with people before he had eventually overheard and come over to introduce himself.

Syed’s story is one that I hear echoed repeatedly among so many Bengali, Nepali and Indian migrants to Malaysia. He had come here having borrowed a lot of money from an agent who had promised that he would be able to find well-paying work and opportunities in Malaysia, only to discover upon arrival that he had been involuntarily recruited to become a construction worker under the employ of a sub-contracting agency in KL. Syed, like those he works with, had his passport and documents withheld, and was prohibited from leaving the premises of the site or the kongsi. He was also subject to strict curfews, though recently, he tells me that many of these restrictions have been ‘loosened’ thanks to the recent elections and the new government coming into power in Malaysia, which has left a lot of local firms and employers cautious about their labor practices.

“Last time (before the elections), you can never come outside of the site during work hours. They would have the whole zone closed off, and locked, except for when the lorries and tractors need to come through. We would be expected to keep working, have our meals together at the site, where they have a small kitchen and food tent, and then continue working. Even after work, we were supposed to go back to the kongsi and not be outside. That’s changed, since the elections. We have a bit more freedom to move around, after work hours. We don’t have the thugs that guard the kongsi anymore, but the supervisor still holds all our documents so we can’t really afford to disobey them, if they tell us to remain inside.”

From where we were seated I could see one of the shared living spaces inside the labor camp, where a few workers were sitting on the ground or on cement blocks watching a small tv, which apparently one of them had scavenged from a scrap dealer recently. Most of the place looked like it had been scavenged from bits and pieces of what used to be the homes of families – pillows and old mattresses, torn sheets, plastic tables, broken shelves and other furniture, lamps, buckets, old radios and generators, even utensils and dishes. It looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic setting – a Mad Max meets Slumdog Millionaire aesthetic. At a stretch, this reminded me of many of the descriptions of urban chaos and deprivation that Mike Davis described in Planet of Slums,  and one can easily fall into that line of thinking just by looking at the space of the kongsi.

Returning to Syed, who does not speak much but provided fairly succinct answers when he did, I tried to see if he would be able to provide some insight into daily life in the kongsi.

“How much time per day do you think you spend in the kongsi, as opposed to at the construction site?”

“We all work at least 12 hours each day at the site, from 6 am to 6 pm. It is normally 7 am to 7 pm, but the scheduled was moved to accommodate fasting month. Since we have start fasting normally around 5.40 am, we would be awake and head to work at 6, then we can come back in time to break our fast, usually around 7.15 in the evening.” Syed, like most Bengali migrants, is Muslim.

“Do you break your fast with together?”

“Yes, of course… we can hear the prayer call because there is a nearby mosque, so we are usually ready by that time, and prepared the food, so we gather and break our fast together. It’s a good time of day, for me, and for the others too. We get to observe our faith without interruption, so for that we’re thankful.”

“If it’s not too wrong, may I ask how you manage the long work hours while fasting? In the heat, without any water?”

Syed smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “That’s what it is, sir… what else can we do? Sometimes we have to manage by drinking because it’s too intolerable. Some of us try to handle it, but not all of us can. We’ve also been warned by the management that we should be careful to avoid exhaustion and dehydration during fasting month, but their work is still the same. If you’re smart, you need to know when to take a break and slow down, so you don’t strain yourself too much. My work involves carrying and lifting things, usually cement pails, bricks, and so on, so it’s very draining work. I get thirsty all the time, sometimes I have to drink my own sweat.”

“Has anyone been hurt or suffered from heat stroke?”

“We’re always having one or two of the workers who would collapse or faint during the day, and we would have to carry them to the shade and leave the to recover. That’s when the supervisor comes and scolds us for not drinking or taking water in while we’re working. He’s Chinese, he doesn’t care about our fasting, and told us a few times that if we’re smart we’d be more concerned about our health than our faith. But after a few more workers kept fainting, they are a bit better to us, especially because they are afraid of something bad happening or someone complaining outside.”

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