Saturday, April 23, 2005

Top That

I haven't quite made it to the sea yet as I have spent the past few days in Kota Bharu, capital of Malaysia's north-eastern Kelantan state. This area is recognised as being the most "Malay" in Malaysia; and it is true that if you only spent your time on the west coast, in KL and Melaka, then you would be excused for thinking that most Malaysians are of Chinese descent. But pop over to the east coast and it's a different story. During British colonial rule the east was neglected (it wasn't important from a trading point of view and it had no mineral resources) and so immigration was minimal, therefore the faces you find here are definitely Malay, and sharia rules. Well, when I say sharia rules it would be more correct to call it "sharia lite". Hijab is still very much the norm, but the younger generation does the bare minimum with only a token headscarf coupled with tight jeans and T-shirts; and beer is taboo for Malays, but that doesn't stop the Chinese from selling it.

Anyway, Kota Bharu is renowned as a bastion of Malay culture and so I decided to check it out. My favourite traditional Malay activity (it would be hard to call it either an art or a sport) is that of top spinning. The spinners have to launch these monster tops, each weighing in excess of 5kg, with the aid of a long cord onto a small platform, from where the successfully spinning tops are transferred to special holders. The winner of the contest is the one whose top spins the longest (which can be over 2 hours). Now this may sound easy (and I thought it was) but just attempting to lift one of these deceptively heavy tops makes you realise that a lot of skill is involved in just making the blighters spin.

Other arts include selat, the local martial art, although it is more like an intricate dance, especially as it is always performed to music; and of course music, which is usually heavily percussion based and, to my mind, rather monotonous. Traditional crafts include kite making and batik - a method of creating patterns on cloth using wax - which are both very pretty in a frilly sort of way. Still, it's important to get a bit of cultcha every now and again.

One thing that has amused me immensely over here has been the supermarkets. In them you can find all the classic Western merchandise (L'Oreal cosmetics, Kellog's cereals, Nescafe and so on) as well as products with a local flavour (durian cakes, dried cuttlefish and other delicacies). The really fun thing about them though is that they are incredibly overstaffed (something I'm sure my brother, the management consultant, would recommend the supermarket look at to maximise productivity). This morning when I went to buy a new deodorant (because after 7 months on the road even I couldn't kid myself any more) the staff outnumbered the customers by about 2 to 1, and as soon as you so much as looked at anything a lady would immediately rush up to you and try and help you in your deliberations. Personally I find it rather annoying as I like to mull over any purchases thoroughly and don't like feeling pressured, so I had to quickly grab the deodorant and make a mad dash for the checkout before the helpful ladies knew what was happening.

No comments: