Every time I come back to KL, I visit a few places all of which are within a block or two of each other. First amongst these is my grandparent’s old colonial era terraced shop house in Campbell Road. My parents and I shared the small set of second floor rooms with my grandparents and my amah for the first four or five years of my life. It’s nothing much to look at now; the shopfront has been shut for a long time and i have no access to the inside but it’s enough for me to stand outside the shop for a couple of moments and remember its high ceilings, dark wooden floorboards and small cramped rooms.
Just a little further down the road is Yut Kee, an old style chinese coffee shop set in a similar but grander terrace with hawker stalls hidden in the back lane, formica tables inside and cracked stained china cups which every old coffee shop in South East Asia seem to have. Breakfast used to be and still is white toast made out of premise-baked bread cut in soldiers with crusts removed and served with butter, kaya (a coconut jam) and half boiled eggs. There were other things on the menu as well but that is the first item I remember eating outside of home. It was the family breakfast joint and even after we moved out, my father used to drive us down every Sunday for breakfast and then a visit to my grandparents.
I was surprised to see that a couple of other old shops still existed on that side of the road on the way to the coffee shop – they would easily be thirty years old now. There’s a specialist haemorrhoid clinic with suitably explicit and garish (but now thankfully faded) photos of afflicted areas and a tailor, Mr Chew, who I spotted sitting behind his desk looking somewhat morosely out on the street. His long solemn dignified face had not changed much at all. I did not go in. I doubted he would have remembered me.
The Odeon Cinema is the final stop. It’s long since been converted into a mishmash of shops and smaller cinemas but the art deco architecture and other details are still evident. I don’t actually remember watching any movies there but I remember its grand entrance and stairs and the excitement of walking in. It’s one of the reasons why I am fond of the Astor and the Westgarth cinema in Melbourne.
Odeon and Yut Kee formed the outer limits of late afternoon walks and various little ventures out of the shop house when I was little. Writing it down now, the area seems a little bare to return to each time especially when I have discarded so much else.
Last year, when I was still seeing my shrink, I told her about my grandparent’s home, my memories of the house and she said that it seemed to her that that was one of the very few periods of my childhood that I spoke of with much warmth. She said, “Being removed from that environment when you were three or four would have been very dislocating for you, very difficult.”
I thought she had a point even if I was suspicious of the Freudian emphasis on early childhood and we didn’t pursue it very much more.
Walking down the old street and talking to my cousin about it, I found myself surprisingly moved being back there again. I realised that I was happy there and that if there was any place in KL that I loved and still do, it would be that decaying row of shop-houses and cinema.