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Life In An Urban Village Of Kuala Lumpur

“Soon, this place, everything you see here, will be no more.”

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- “You just missed it. There were judges here who came to judge our flags for the contest. They just left,” the man in the orange shirt who waved me over to sit with him and a group of other guys told me.

“What contest?” I asked, having no idea what he was talking about.

“The contest for the flags on the gate. Everywhere does it.”

He saw me photographing the flags that were rather obsessively posted all over the archway that lead into the village. The were put up there for Malaysia Day — a day that’s kind of like an independence day … but different. From what I could tell, all of the villages throughout Malaysia compete to find out who can put the most flags up on their archway.

The entire village was covered in the red, white, and blue flags of Malaysia — which are basically U.S. flags with a yellow Islamic crescent in the upper left hand corner rather than rows of stars.

I had meandered over into this village from the other side of an expressway with my eight-year-old daughter, Petra. This month we are staying out in the liminal zone of Kuala Lumpur — the odd development zone in between the built-up city and the countryside. It is an area packed with recently built expressways which wrap around recently built mid and high-rises amid the ever-dwindling patches of the old villages that were here before. For some reason I am drawn to these urban fringes.

The guy in the orange shirt invited us to come and sit down at the plastic lawn table that they had set up in a little concrete pavilion that was erected next to the community’s arch and offered us some of the water and the remainder of the snacks that were left over from the judges’ visit. There were three or four other guys assembled, and Petra and I hunkered down in the hospitality.

Right next to us, right before the gate was a roaring expressway, cutting off the village from anything to the west. This expressway had compliments to the east and south as well. The little community was surrounded by the advance guard of modernity on all sides — a classic example of what is called an urban village.

The village itself was officially founded in 1972 when the government came in and decided to organize the quasi-squatters who had been moving in and building homes. They laid a few streets, divided up the housing plots, and gave it a name: Malaysia Raya.

For a couple of decades the place functioned as a village. There was a green buffer separating it from Kuala Lumpur, and people could easily come and go.

Then around twenty years ago the city began building expressways through here, linking in the rapidly expanding core of the city with the airport, Putrajaya — the new capital — and Cyberjaya to the south.

“That highway used to be a two lane road, a small road. Now it is a big highway,” a guy wearing a nice batik shirt told me when I asked about the six-lane thoroughfare that passed within a hundred meters from where we were sitting.

“How did all of these highways change your village?”

“Everything is different but the money is the same,” the man in the orange shirt responded with a laugh.

“Before, every morning you used to wake up and see the fog and the water all over everything, but now that doesn’t happen because of the pollution,” the guy in the batik explained. “Before, it was very quiet here but now it is so loud because of the highway. All the time you hear the highway.”

It was clear that what I was seeing of Malaysia Raya was only a small portion of the original village, with pieces being lobbed off here and there in various development pursuits — including what looks like a project for a giant housing complex that was going to our right.

I asked what happened to the people who once lived in the recently developed areas, and I was told that they were booted out and sent to live in a low-income apartment complex on the other side of an expressway.

“We’re the people angry that they had to move and the government took their homes?”

“Yes, very angry.”

“Has the government came in to make an offer or asked to buy your houses yet?” I asked.

“The government, they don’t come here and ask,” the man in the orange shirt said with a hearty laugh. “They just make a budget and come here and tell us how much they will pay us. Then they take what they want. They don’t ask us, because they know that we will tell them too much money!”

When Asian cities expand they don’t ask permission — sometimes they often don’t even do any public outreach. One day there is a somewhat removed, self-contained village; the next day a survey crew shows up and starts shooting transects down the center of it.

“Do you think the government will one day come in and demolish the entire village to make something else?” I asked.

“It is only a matter of time,” the guy in the batik replied solemnly. “Someday, all of the first generation of people in Malaysia Raya are going to be gone. The only people who will be here will be their kids and other people who buy the houses who don’t really care. They will sell all of the houses and the government will come in and the place will be no more.”

He then paused for effect:

“Soon, this place, everything you see here, will be no more.”

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Filed under: Cities and Urban Development, Malaysia, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3212 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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