Salvaging lives amidst the ruins of a pandemic
FEATURE | When the borders closed, Mami Cyndi fell out of work as a tour guide.
She had been given tours around Kuala Lumpur, and also Genting Highlands, for many years and was particularly familiar with the Petaling Street area.
"I know all the store owners and they know me.
"There was one day, I was walking with my daughter, and I was at this famous kopitiam and I asked for a drink. I told them I only had this RM20 left. I don’t have work now, and I also have no EPF (Employees' Provident Fund). Can I please just have a drink for free?”
“I never thought I could be treated like this. There is no kindness when you have no money. So then I thought - I know this good-hearted uncle and he has a kopitiam too. And I asked him if we can partner to feed the homeless here.”
“Here” was Onn Loke 安乐 Kopitiam.
Onn Loke Kopitiam is a tiny two-storey lot nestled in the wet market of Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur operated by Uncle Lee. Onn Loke - meaning peace and happiness - is a one-uncle operation selling kopitiam staples like roti bakar (toast) and sock-filtered coffee.
It also had significantly reduced income during the pandemic shutdown.
Left to fend for themselves
Now as a 70 plus-year-old tax-paying, risk-taking entrepreneur, Uncle Lee was not entitled to the majority of government pandemic welfare (mostly structured through the EPF).
Neither was Mami Cyndi - our tax paying, risk-taking, freelance, single mother tour guide - for that matter. The people giveth, and the state-market Malaysia Inc. logic of governance taketh away.
I understand that there isn’t a perfect system where no one falls through the cracks, but there is a striking pattern for those who are caught by safety nets and those who are not. Mami Cyndi worked in the free-falling travel industry, and it feels inevitable that the fallout would hit hard on all people in the industry like her. But does it?
I wonder how this broken travel industry breaks into halves of business class flights to nowhere supported by parachute investments and mass retrenchment, while travel industry service workers like Mami Cyndi or Uncle Lee who maintain the everyday logistics, cultural appeal, and functional possibility of travel are left to fend for themselves.
These criticisms are structured by my own feelings of cynicism, but Mami Cyndi and Uncle Lee hardly bat an eye. Their outlook is structured by survival.
And perhaps this is why I wax cynical here, while - over the short two months that we were there - Mami Cyndi and Uncle Lee started to feed, house, and clothe themselves alongside people such as Peter.
Peter dreams of housing
When the bank branches closed, Peter fell out of work as a bank security guard. Peter’s job included shooing away homeless people from sleeping around the bank.
But now, unemployed and without an EPF, Peter became homeless. Luckily, now that all the guards had been fired, Peter was able to sleep on the marble steps outside the bank.
When I first met Peter, I was struck by his optimism. He seemed to always have the next step.
He always had a friend who was supposed to come back with a job next week. Or an uncle he could visit and get some money. Or knew a missionary who was about to come back soon and teach Peter to write. Or maybe Peter was just finishing a book, and once he read it, he would progress out of homelessness.
Or perhaps his father would finally divorce his abusive stepmom, and he could go home. It was only over months that I realised that nothing ever turned out the way he hoped.
His energetic conviction in each possibility - his hope - was an emotional structure for survival in a hopeless condition.
Peter and I would go on walks. Our job was to inform the networks of homeless people in the area about the Onn Loke shelter. Peter was a different sort of tour guide from Mami Cyndi.
On these walks, he offered a different interpretation of life in the city.
“I used to be able to sleep over there too. Now they have made it so pretty, I no longer dare to go near.”
Peter was referring to ThinkCity’s River of Life developments. A heritage project that aims to beautify, conserve, and rejuvenate social and economic activity in the city.
The politics of heritage-making is complex, and questions of whose history and whose economic opportunity is being rejuvenated will arise.
The material landscape of our ever-changing city is the site where these various individuals’ hopes, memories, and dreams are manifested, absorbed, flattened, diverted, and resisted.
For Peter, aside from his grandiose dreams of making drawings, becoming a fisherman, getting a job at McDonald's, or just being able to go home, he also dreamt of housing by the River of Life.
“If it is really possible, I would like to rent a shop lot here with Mami Cyndi. Downstairs, we would have a free restaurant - you pay as much as you want.
“For the second floor, we will do a nice cafe for the tourists and young people taking photos. Here, we can make a little bit of money.
"On the third floor, I will do a hostel so that I can let all my friends have a place to sleep.”
If Man during Modernism makes the world in our own images, then I can only lament that Peter was precisely the type of human whose images the world does not want to see. The many dreams I heard on Petaling Street were always too (im)pure, too pagan, too ugly, too unproductive, and too dirty for the aesthetics of development.
The home of the dirty
I spent any time I could find down at Petaling Street. I had spent time with many other food aid organisations in Kuala Lumpur too, but nothing quite resonated with my sensibilities like Onn Loke.
For other groups, the most common form of food aid was packed meals. We would cook food at a separate site, drive up in a car, and have the homeless lined up.
We hand over the food, then tell them they were not allowed to eat nearby and not allowed to eat together. We feared the homeless would be messy and be an eyesore to “the public”.
Onn Loke was no utopia, but everyone could sit at a table and eat together. You washed your own dishes, and you came and went as you pleased. You were not dirty or messy or a sore sight for the public.
In fact, you were the public.
The space was created for you. This small shop in Petaling Street became a home where dirty people suddenly became clean.
Dirtiness is both material and social.
If dirt is a “matter out of place”, then dirty people are humans we perceive to have no function in our society. Of course, function is in the eye of the beholder.
And for those who enforce the city, fears of contamination subtly spillover between prejudice and pandemic. The disorders of dirty humans threaten.
I would come home and mention a day. And eyes would perk up as if an unrelated thought suddenly occurred.
“Make sure you wash up quickly.”
Was I physically dirty, or do I just think dirty and express dirty? If we all have different sensibilities and dreams about the order we try to create in this world, then perhaps we can only collectively find peace when we can tolerate disorder within this order.
Unfortunately, the dirty disorder was the logic that eventually got us evicted.
A poor man’s history
“They complain to DBKL that I am bringing all the dirty homeless people here. I tell them, ‘Hallo! Petaling Street is the street of all of us dirty unemployed, homeless, prostitutes, criminals. This is what it has always been’," said Mami Cyndi.
A final blow was dealt in January 2021. We were evicted. Up until then, there were small squabbles and annoyances from neighbouring stalls.
Neighbours would put tables to block our access to Onn Loke, or draw harder boundaries on their properties, or utilise public health rationales to complain about us congregating.
I must emphasise that the “bad guys” are not the neighbouring wet market stall owners.
But rather, the same logic that left Mami Cyndi, Uncle Lee, and Peter with no safety net, that increased Petaling Street homelessness by firing factory day labourers with no notice or compensation, that “beautifies” a restoration project without creating livelihood alternatives for the homeless people who are displaced by it.
Ultimately, this same prejudiced logic evicted us - a hopeful rearrangement of leftover assets, labour, and ideas into a shelter for people striving to survive in the ruins of a pandemic.
When the dust settles around a crisis, and rebuilding commences, what is left behind? A Petaling Street cleansed of its “dirty” populations, “dirty” histories, and “dirty” dreams of survival?
Yesterday, I went down again looking for signs of hope. What survives in ruins of the ruins of a pandemic?
Not much. Maybe just this text.
You may reach out to the author TEOH JIA CHERN at 012-2256184 should you wish to contribute to the work of the Petaling Street Community Care.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.