Large food courts are really popular hangout and leisure spaces in Malaysia. These are usually filled with local fares and cuisines, mostly Chinese but often also with a mix of Indian, Malay, Indonesian and other hybrid fairs. Hawkers stalls would line the edges, with the center court filled with tables and chairs, with a large screen television or projector in the center. Football (soccer) season is a boon to these vendors at the food court- customers would throng to watch live matches late in the evening and into the early hours of the morning, snacking on food, drinking and enjoying the games with family and friends. For the workers at the stalls, this usually meant a lot of additional hard work, staying well past midnight to prepare, serve and clean.
I met the young couple of migrant workers at the food court in Cheras almost by accident, after spending an evening watching a live televised World Cup game with some friends. One thing that had been pointed out by one of my friends was the ubiquity of migrants who worked at the food court – traditionally a space that is supposed to be very ‘Malaysian’, with local Malaysian vendors, usually Chinese, Malay or Indian. My friend asked me to pay attention to the workers who were preparing food and taking orders at the various food and drink stands – especially those that were for specifically Chinese or Malay cuisines. It took me a while to notice but many of the ‘traditional Chinese Malay’ food – Char Kuey Teow, Claypot Rice, satay Kajang, otak-otak, prawn mee, and many others – were being prepared by workers from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Indonesia. There were even a small number of Pakistani men working to take orders from tables and serving drinks. My friend, who was a local Malaysian of Chinese descent, commented that the food court had been losing its clientele due to the increased presence of foreigners working there, with some who would say that the food was no longer being cooked by the ‘right hands’ (a common Chinese expression).
Indonesian migrant workers at these types of open-air food courts were not a new phenomenon – in fact, as far as I could recall we’ve always had a large number of men and women from our southern neighbor who would work as staff and servers at the kiosks and stalls, even when I was very young and frequented the food courts with family and friends. Seeing so many Myanmarese, and especially Rohingya, migrants in this space did catch me by surprise, as I had presumed they would not be many of them working at a food-court that was predominantly catering to a Chinese and Indian non-halal clientele. I presumed wrong, clearly. Among these workers, a young Rohingya man, who was sharply dressed and well-spoken (Malay), worked alone at a sotong kangkung stall, preparing and serving a popular local Malay cuttlefish and Chinese watercress dish. Having spent more than three hours, and three orders of cuttlefish later, I introduced myself to him, and he very happily introduced himself as Md. Adam.
Md. Adam and his young partner, Siti, both worked at the food court, at separate stalls. While Adam worked alone at the sotong kangkung stall, Siti and another Indonesian woman operated a satay Kajang stall. Md. Adam had very enthusiastically agreed to meet with me the next afternoon for a conversation with the both of them, after I had mentioned to him the book I was working on and my work with the Rohingya and other migrant groups in Malaysia. Adam had volunteered himself and Siti for the interview – without actually asking her first, which was both a bit discomforting but also clearly something he did not see as problematic. Thankfully, when I met Siti the next day, she was just as cheerful and excited about the interview, and as way of introduction actually showed me a newspaper clipping with a picture of herself and other Indonesian women protesting domestic worker abuse in front of the Indonesian consulate in KL. She had the clipping but did not indicate the newspaper itself, which was a pity. It was a wonderful moment, as it immediately became clear that the two of them were an incredibly energetic and positive couple and were more than happy to share their stories.
Which is a wonder considering how hectic and busy their daily routines were working at the food court. Both Adam and Siti were there each day from 11 am till 4 or 5 am in the morning. Their workdays start with arriving in the late morning to prepare the stalls for the day. This involves being there before their employers – the couple who owned the stalls – arrived with fresh supplies in the mornings, usually from the market. They would bring fresh uncooked satay meat, cuttlefish, and sayur (vegetables), among other things. Siti and Adam, along with another Indonesian worker who helped Siti with the satay stall, would help prepare the stalls for the lunch period and then the longer, busier evenings.
Being World Cup season, the work hours were particularly long for the both of them, and the other people who worked at the food court. Because of the live televised games on the big screen and multiple smaller tv screens around the food court, the food court receives a regular stream of customers most of the time between 7pm and 4 am, due to the quirks of the time zone difference (Russia and Malaysia) as well as the ways in which the live matches are scheduled – three games each day with almost back-to-back live broadcasts). For the workers like Adam and Siti, this means being ready to take orders, prepare dishes, serve and clean for more than 8 or nine hours straight. The crowds usually start streaming in after 7pm, and depending on the popularity of teams that were playing, the late night/early morning matches can often draw really large crowds.
“Every time England, Germany or Brazil play, that’s the busiest. When England had their first game (on Monday at 2am) the whole food court was packed and noisy. But we had already been ready for it! We knew there was the England game, so most of us working here had planned to open the stalls a bit later than usual, and made sure we all rested a bit more in the afternoon (after the lunch period which was usually not very busy). Oh, when England plays this whole place goes crazy. Malaysian’s really love that country, but they also love Brazil and Germany. But, luckily so far those are earlier games so by 2 am things become less crowded. It’s when these teams play the late slot (2 am) that we have to be ready to work really hard for longer. Sometimes groups will come to watch 2 games in a row, and they would be ordering food and drinks continuously – especially younger people like students from college. They can eat and eat and eat.” Adam laughs as he describes, “sometimes I have to tutup kedai (close shop) early because the sotong (cuttlefish) runs out.”
Siti pouts playfully when Adam says this. “It’s okay for you, abang (term of endearment for husband), we usually have big supply for the satay, so never runs out. So we have to work until everyone leaves.”
Satay Kajang is a variant of the incredibly popular and famous dish of slices of meat grilled and served on a stick, with peanut sauce as dipping. Kajang refers to a town about an hour outside of KL, famous for being the ‘home’ of satay, as well as a major supplier of the specifically prepared satay meat to vendors all over the West Coast and beyond. It’ s one of the most ordered and sought-after dishes in places such as the local food-courts, and one of a handful of food items that are halal even in Chinese-centric restaurants and food courts such as this one. It’s ‘bad business’ for satay vendors to not always maintain a strong supply of satay. I could understand Siti’s argument. Sotong kangkung, while also quite popular, is far more of an acquired taste even among Malaysians, and more expensive due to the seafood involved.
“Well, don’t say that, sayang… abang always comes to help you every time I close the stall, don’t I?” Adam replies, smiling at her.
For the sake of professionalism and academic respectability, I refrain from giving them a tight hug and telling them how awesomely adorable they were as a couple. I restrained myself to just offering to treat them for lunch, which Adam took as a signal that I should absolutely have a dish of fried chilli kerang (cockels), and proceeded to order a large dish of it.
Adam is not new to Malaysia, that much became clear very early on. He spoke Malay fluently, and with an accent that was markedly urban Malaysian. He had been in Malaysia for over eight years, having moved her for work and family reasons (his sister’s family were living in Cheras since the late 1990s). Adam had always been working for the same employer, initially as a helper at the stall while his bapak (‘father’ – but in this case used to refer to a boss) handled the food and orders at the same food court. Two years ago, Adam’s employer decided to open a new stall at another food court not too far away, and had asked Adam to be in charge of this one, having grown to trust the young man ‘sebagai anak sendiri’ (as his own son), according to Adam.
“I feel very loyal to them (the older couple who employed both Adam and Siti). They’ve been very good to both of us, even though we’re both foreigners. I’ve always made sure to be honest and loyal to them, because it’s that trust that is important, yes? Otherwise, there’s of course no reason for a local family to trust a foreigner. This is something we understand… it’s not easy to trust I foreigners, especially since we always hear of stories about foreigners who steal, bring drugs into the country, commit crimes… so, of course locals get angry and scared of us foreigners. To me, the trust is very important, so it’s why we have to always do things right to our employers. Then, good things will happen, definitely.”
Siti listens to Adam, thoughtfully, then adds,
“I agree with abang, but I also need to say that it has to be timbal balik (reciprocal). Our employer now is very good to us, but sometimes there are also very bad employers who do very bad things to their foreign workers. I experienced this myself when I first came to Malaysia, just 16. I was working as pembantu rumah (maid) in KL for a Chinese family. The ma’am was memang jahat (truly evil), she would scold me, insult me and hit me very often. Calling me all types of bad names, and spread lies saying I was jalang (loose) and have many boyfriends. The truth was I could never leave the house and rarely saw anyone outside except for the other maids who worked next door. So I decided to run away after a year because I couldn’t take it anymore. I did the smart thing and went straight to Indonesian consulate, where they took my report in case the family tried to send a police complaint or report to immigration about me.”
“Did anything happen after that?”
“No, thankfully, I never heard from that family ever. By the time, I met abang while looking for work (around the food court), and we started dating after that.”
Adam offers, “when I first met Siti, it was like a Bollywood movie,” he laughs loudly, as his wife slaps him playfully on his elbow. “I even sang a romantic Malay song to her, while making sotong for her.”
“abang, don’t buat cerita (don’t make up stories)” she scolds him.
“Oh it’s okay, we’ve having our story written, it should be romantic, no? jangan marahlah, sayang (don’t be mad)”
“why, isn’t our story already romantic?”
“I think you’re story is very romantic!” I interjected. They both laughed.
The cockels arrived, a whole large dish of it that looked more like it was meant to serve six people rather than three. Adam urged me to try it – I did like cockles cooked in chillies. It was another one of those things that evoked a strangely specific memory for me, of my childhood in the northern state of Perak, in a small former mining town called Taiping. I used to live with an uncle and aunt, him a retired prison warden who was famous for being an executioner at the old Pudu National Prison in KL. My uncle used to love kerang (cockels) and would buy them in large quantities, to be shared with the family (but mostly for himself). The smell of fried cockles reminded me of late afternoons in that old house in Taiping. The cockles were deliciously hot and flavorful. Adam and Siti are as well – it was clearly a meal they both loved. We also drank from three (very) large glasses of fresh watermelon juice, which, typical of Malaysian tastes, was mixed with a hearty and generous helping of cane sugar.
Siti was two years younger than Adam, at 22. She left Jakarta when she was 16, and after leaving her first employer having been a domestic helper, she eventually began working for Adam’s employers, after he had introduced her to them. Initially, they had asked Siti to work as a helper at home, but upon discovering that Siti was an impressive cook and knew how to season and grill satay to perfection, decided to start another stall in the food court selling satay, and hired another Indonesian migrant workers to assist her. Business took off really well, according to Siti, which meant she was always very busy and running around a lot more than Adam.
“Both me and (my co-workers) have to run around taking the satay to tables almost non-stop. Abang mostly gets to stand and wait because he gets fewer orders, most of the time he is looking at all the sexy Chinese girls who come here, wearing really tight shorts and mini-skirts.” Siti complains, to a look of disbelief from her husband. “Oh, I can see you all the time, abang,” Siti laughs at his discomfort. “tengok-tengok saja, asal jangan cuba apa-apa, ya?” she instruct him. “you can look, as long as you don’t try anything.”
“I have you, sayang, why would I try anything else?” Adam replies.
Md. Adam and Siti, despite their relatively young age, strike me as possessing a sense of perspective and wisdom of a much older couple. This fits, I suppose, with the experiences that they’ve both been through, separately and together. In spite of troubled histories and experiences in the past, they both carry themselves with such lightness and evident affection for one another. A playfulness that was impossible to feel drawn into, and a love for life (and food, in Adam’s case) that was hard not to be enamored with. The rare moments when Adam’s mood darkens included the part of his story when life in Burma came up. There was sadness and more than a little sense of bitterness in his tone and voice.
He told me his own story, growing up in a small town in Arakan (Rakhine), to a relatively comfortable family.
“My family wasn’t rich or anything. No one over there is rich, but we were doing decently well, and had a good home. We occasionally received some money from my sister, who moved to KL a long time ago and has been working here with her family. This was before things got really bad there. I already left before things became really terrible. My sister had suggested that I come to KL, since there would be better chance for me to find work here, make money, and help take care of family. There was always news of (tensions between) the soldiers (military junta) and some of the villages, but it never came to where we were. I know it happens, though, but I didn’t think it would become like this.”
“We sometimes see all the photos and videos of the people who have to leave and they go to Bangladesh. Some of them walking across the land, falling on the side, covered in mud, children and old people. Every time I see it… of course sakit hati (heart hurts). I may not know them but they are my people also. Rohingya. Everyone now calls us refugee… pelarian. I think I’m lucky, my family is safe, but I also have friends and relatives who I don’t know much about, even if they are okay and safe. My parents are in Bangladesh now, they had enough money to go to the city, and not stay in the camps. Insya Allah, I can call them and talk to them at any time. But it’s very hard for me to think about all the unfortunate ones. I don’t understand how, why, they are so cruel, even to children. This is the other reason our bapak and ibu here (in reference to employers) are so good, they are always keeping us informed of the news, they’re always telling us how cruel the Myanmar government is being to the Muslims there, and assuring us that we always have a home here as long as we need.”
Siti, who had been silent the whole time the conversation turned to the Rohingya, decided to change the topic of the conversation, perhaps unhappy at her husband’s discomfort.
“This is another reason why we need to think of the future, right, abang? Actually, we’ve both been talking about how we want to plan for next few years, so we can start our own family. The truth is we’re not officially married yet, because we can’t be married in Malaysia, since I ran away from my employer and abang only has a (UNHCR) card. But we want to find a way to go back to Indonesia, where we can get married and abang can come legally as my husband. This is not easy, and it will take us a few years to save up enough money to do that.”
“How long do you think it will take before you can travel to Indonesia?” I ask.
“I hope, less than four years, we should have enough. Because it’s not just the flight ticket. We need to have enough money to go back and survive for at least a few months, in case we don’t have an income. I also have family back home that I try to help (financially) so that’s another reason we have to wait. Once we are ready to go back, I am hoping we’re able to buy our own house, and have enough money to start our own business, maybe selling satay and sotong. To buy a house there, we need to save at least RM 20,000, which is slow but possible. I want us to have small house, but with at least three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room, so we can have family visit. If we can’t start our own business, then we can use some of our savings to survive while we look for work there. Otherwise, I might have to come back to Malaysia and work as a maid again, to send money back. Abang can take care of the home and children, feed them sotong all the time.”