musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Malaysia’

The Migrant Worker’s Plight

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A friend of mine from Texas was visiting Bangkok last month and one night we met for dinner at a Korean restaurant near his hotel. Imagine my surprise — and delight — to discover that all of the waiters at this restaurant were from Myanmar! The food was decent enough but the service from these waiters was outstanding. Of course that fact that I can speak some Burmese no doubt helped to endear me to the staff. Once they discovered that I knew some Myanmar zaga, they became MUCH more conversational. My friend and I were so impressed by the service that we went back the following week, and I’ve returned with other friends on two more occasions. Needless to say, the crew recognizes me now and instead of the usual greeting in Thai, I’ve earned a mingaglaba and lengthy conversations.

The young men (and at least one woman in the kitchen!) at this restaurant are among the millions of citizens from Myanmar who are working overseas, most of them in nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Migrant workers from Myanmar have been in the news again recently, in a very negative way, with wire service reports claiming that workers at some seafood factories in Thailand have to endure slave-like conditions, working 16-hour days with no holiday time off and for paltry wages.

That’s obviously the darkest of the dark side of the migrant worker situation in this part of the world. While there is no denying that some migrant workers have to suffer through horrible working conditions, most of the foreign workers (from countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos) in Thailand are fairly content with their situation. Their salaries are usually lower than what a Thai worker would receive for the same minimum wage job, and they often are not eligible for health care benefits or holiday overtime wages, and yet compared to what they would make at a similar job — if they could find one — in their native country the employment situation in Thailand is much, much better.

One of my best friends, Chiet, is from Cambodia and he has been working as a welder at various construction projects in the greater Bangkok area for the past three years. I always ask him if he plans on going back to Cambodia and his answer is always the same: “No, I want to stay here. I can make more money and life is easier.”

Sure, he misses his friends and family, but life is difficult for young people in Cambodia, especially those like him that don’t have much education. And the same goes for people in Myanmar. Despite the great strides in “opening up” the country and holding elections and making cell phones affordable for the masses, the economy is still sputtering, the cost of living is rising, and the wages for basic jobs are very, very low. Thus, many Burmese people like the waiters I know at this Korean restaurant continue to seek employment in Thailand and other countries.

Another friend, Yan Naing Soe, called me earlier tonight. I first met him at a teashop in Mandalay many years ago but he’s been working for a landscaping company in Malaysia for the past two years. A few months ago he moved back to Myanmar and is now working in the town of Muse, on the border with China. Although most people have never heard of Muse, it is a bustling trade center and the country’s main gateway to China (near Yunnan Province). For young men like Yan Naing Soe, if there are job opportunities in places like Muse or Malaysia, that’s what you do and where you go.

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One aspect of the migrant workers that gets mentioned frequently is the so-called problem of underage workers in factories. Frankly, I think that’s something that the authorities should be much more lenient about. The reality of the situation is that many young people in poor Southeast countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos — and even in “wealthy” Thailand — stop going to school in their early to mid teens. Are you telling me that you are going to forbid a 15-year old who is trying to earn money to help support their family from working? What are their options? I mean, let’s be realistic. Sure, in an ideal world they would stay in school until they are 18 years-old, but we don’t live in such an ideal world, and even the definition of what is ideal or proper is not the same in every country or culture. This insistence on employing only those who are 18 or older is sheer nonsense.

When I was in Mandalay last month a friend took me to his father’s shoe shop, a little neighborhood place where they make handmade sandals for men and women. There were several “underage” children working in this shop, but the conditions were not “slave-like” or abysmal whatsoever. Granted, this was a tiny business and most of these kids were either relatives or neighborhood friends who wanted to work, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare their situation to that of a factory worker in Thailand. And yet there are parallels. People need work, they want to work, and they should be able to do that.

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Meanwhile my Cambodian friend Chiet is looking for another job in Thailand. His last employer docked his wages for missing a week of work and he’s not happy about that. But it’s not like Chiet was goofing off or had gone back home without authorization. His leg became infected from some pieces of cut glass at the work site and he had to go to a hospital in Bangkok to get treated. And who paid for this treatment? Me of course! I shudder to think what would have happened to his leg if he had not promptly received proper medical care.

So yeah, the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand and elsewhere could still be a lot, lot better. But don’t forget that for the majority of those working in Thailand, like the waiters at the Korean restaurant, having a job enables them to earn enough money for themselves and to send funds back to their families.

Keeping the Music Alive and the Pages Turning in KL

I returned from a four-day trip to Kuala Lumpur earlier this week. KL has become one of my favorite quick getaway destinations in recent years. I don’t much, if any, sightseeing at this stage of my visits, however. I have a clear agenda upon arrival: buy CDs, buy books, buy more CDs, and eat lots of good meals.

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Unlike Bangkok, where retail CD shops have become very scarce, Kuala Lumpur still does have several good shops that sell new CDs, both domestic and imports. Rock Corner sports the best selection and has several branches in the greater KL area, as does the Victoria Music Center, and there is even a branch of Tower Records still open! I had thought that Tower had finally bit the dust (as they have in the US) after their one large store downsized and moved into the corner of an electronics department in KL’s Times Square two years ago. But I accidentally stumbled upon their new location in the Gardens, adjacent to the Mid Valley Megamall, on the same floor at the Rock Corner branch. The stock at Tower is greatly reduced from their glory years, but it appears that Classical music takes up about half of the stock and those sales are keeping the shop alive. Tower also has a pretty good selection of Jazz and World Music, but their pop and rock offerings are pitiful at this point.

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Meanwhile, Rock Corner, despite having the largest selection and most interesting assortment of CDs and DVDs, appears as if they are struggling to stay open. Last year they closed their branch in the Mid Valley Megamall, as well as the one in the 1 Utama shopping center, and this year I was dismayed to find that they had also shuttered their original shop in KLCC. The manager at one shop told me that spiraling rents were to blame. But they still have four very well-stocked shops still operating in Bangsar Village, Subang Parade in Subang Jaya, the Curve, and the Gardens. My bulging bags coming back to Bangkok are evidence that they still have plenty of good titles.

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The Amcorp Mall also holds a few treasures for music lovers, especially on weekends. The Victoria Music Center branch there has a decent selection of CDs and the employees are very knowledgeable. On weekends the mall has an indoor flea market with several dealers selling secondhand CDs and vinyl records. A little browsing leads to a lot! A further lure at Amcorp Mall is the giant BookXcess store. They sell remainders — all new books at greatly reduced prices — in many categories, and you get a further discount if you have a member card. Speaking of books, the long-running Junk Book Store on Jalan Tun H.S. Lee is still around too. They sell only secondhand books and the prices are a bit cheap for the quality of the stuff they are selling, but it’s a fun place to browse. I am always amazed at the old treasures they have in stock. Any shop that has multiple titles by the likes of Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, and Ross Thomas is alright in my book! Needless to say, I usually find something to buy there, even if the book is overpriced and finding what you want is challenging. With its narrow aisles, low ceiling and baffling way of grouping books together, good luck finding what you are looking for. The books are neatly stacked, and most wrapped in plastic, but if they are organized in any manner at all, I have yet to figure out their system!

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Quirky or not, it’s still a pleasure to shop in places like the Junk Book Store and CD shops like Rock Corner, Tower Records, and Victoria Music, all of which are managing to stay in business and cater to “old school” customers like me who appreciate a well-stocked shop that is run by people who are passionate about what they are doing. Hey, all of this online crap is fun and shiny and oh-so-easy, but don’t forget about the brick and mortar shops that remain the foundation of the music and book business. They need your support now more than ever!

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KL Quickie

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Not much to say today, just posting a few photos that I took during my trip to Kuala Lumpur in January, just before the start of the annual Lunar New Year. As usual, I made multiple trips to buy CDs at various branches of Rock Corner and Victoria Music, bought a bunch of bargain books at Book Xcess in the Amcorp Mall (and couldn’t resist browsing the selection of used CDs at their weekend flea market), and had many great meals at places such as the historic Coliseum Café.

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On another food note, over in the Dang Wagi neighborhood, the legendary Yut Kee has moved! But regular customers need not worry too much; the revered kopitiam has only moved around the corner, to spacious new multi-floor digs. Unfortunately, I was unable to eat at the new location. I showed up on a Monday, the one day of the week they are closed!

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Batu Caves & Police Stops

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Earlier this year, in late January, I went to Kuala Lumpur for a few days, making my usual rounds of CD stores, bookshops, and local restaurants. While I was in town I met up with my friend Yan Naing Soe a couple of times. He’s from Myanmar (I first met him many years ago in Mandalay), but has been living in the KL area for the past two years, working for a landscaping company.

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On a Sunday when he didn’t have to work he invited me to go with him and one of his Burmese friends to the famous Batu Caves, located on the outskirts of KL. In all the times I’ve been to KL I’d never visited these caves, so I was more than happy to accept the offer. To get to the cave, we decided to take the train, both for the convenience and the price. There is a station right next to the caves, plus the ticket price per person is ridiculously cheap: only 2 ringgit, which is about 20 Thai baht, or less than 1 US dollar (around 70 US cents).

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On the way to the train station, however, a couple of Malaysian police officers were stopping pedestrians at random, asking to see their ID cards. It became quickly obvious to me that they were stopping anyone who looked like a “foreigner”, or more specifically migrant workers, as Yan Naing Soe and his friend were. As my friends obligingly took out their ID cards, one of the cops looked over and motioned to me that I didn’t need to stop. But I told him that I was with these two guys from Myanmar. As soon as I said that, the police officers abruptly curtailed their ID check and apologized to me for detaining my friends. A nice gesture, but I wonder how much hassle Yan Naing Soe and his friend would have had to put up with if I hadn’t been with them. Just goes to remind you of the shabby treatment and shakedowns that migrant workers must put up with in other countries. My Cambodian friend Chiet reports similar “detentions” when he is working in Thailand.

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Anyway, we finally made it to the caves and I was pleasantly surprised that there was no admission charge at all. What a concept! In Thailand, just by being a foreigner, you’d be hit up for some sort of fee. Free of not, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Batu Caves. From what I saw of the area, they are more craggy rock formations than actual caves. Worthy of a few photos, but not exactly an awesome natural attraction.

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In any case, this site is considered to be of great religious importance to Hindus. In fact, while we were there, several groups of Hindu devotees were making their pilgrimage to the caves. Seeing these people walking around all powdered, shaved, and dressed in colorful costumes was far more entertaining than seeing the actual caves. Of course the hordes of monkeys that prowl the stairways also had some entertainment value, but it’s not a destination that I’d be rushing back to see again real soon. If nothing else, though, the trip to Batu Caves is an inexpensive train ride and makes for a pleasant way to kill an afternoon.

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Kuala Lumpur Again and Again

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My first trip to Kuala Lumpur came about five or six years ago, and it was almost by accident. KL wasn’t really a city high on my list of places to visit, but needing to make a visa run to renew my non-immigrant visa for Thailand that year, it made for a convenient destination. I ended up enjoying my time in the city so much that I’ve gone back to visit every year since then.

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I engaged in a bit of the typical tourist sightseeing stuff the first trip or two, but there are only so many times you can marvel at the Petronas Twin Towers, so since those first few trips I have concentrated on three main activities: sampling the city’s delicious restaurants and street food; buying CDs from well-stocked local chains such as Rock Corner and Victoria Music; and buying books, both secondhand and new, at small shops and the giant Book Xcess store at the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya.

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And, like I do in any place I visit, I bring my camera along end up taking lots of photos too. Here are a few shots that I took around Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya on my last trip.

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Victoria Music in Kuala Lumpur

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During my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur I spent a lot of time browsing the CD shops in town. Unlike in Bangkok, where it’s become nearly impossible to find good back catalog or anything other than mainstream new releases, there are several shops in Kuala Lumpur offering a very good selection of CDs and even some vinyl records. I may be one of a vanishing breed, but I vastly prefer shopping for real CDs, as opposed to downloading songs or buying stuff online. Okay, I’ve worked in retail since the late 1970s, so I’m biased, but I still think that nothing compares to the experience and ambience of shopping in a well-stocked store, and thankfully in Kuala Lumpur they have those in abundance!

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I think it’s safe to say that the Rock Corner chain of stores have the best selection of CDs in the KL area. I went to their branches in KLCC (next to the famous Petronas Twin Towers), Mid Valley Megamall, 1 Utama, The Curve, Subang Parade, and Bangsar Village, the latter branch having my favorite mix of new releases and older titles, plus the employees are all very nice, and the in-store music that they play is always interesting too. In some shops you invariably encounter a metalhead, hip-hop fanatic, or even someone who still worships Kenny G, but the employees at the Rock Corner Bangsar branch have much better taste in music!

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Another good chain in town is Victoria Music. I always visit their branches at the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya and in Sungai Wang Plaza in the Bukit Bintang area. I stumbled upon both stores by accident initially, but I now go out of my way to visit them, finding that, like the Rock Corner stores, they have a good mix of new releases and back catalog. The young woman who works at the Amcorp Mall branch is always very friendly and invariably recommends something I had not thought of or had overlooked during my bin browsing. She is one of those retail wizards who know exactly what they have in stock.

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Both Victoria Music and Rock Corner also have a good selection of these new mini-boxed sets of CDs that WEA and Sony have been putting out the past couple of years. These sets include 4 or 5 entire albums by a single artist (dozens of popular names, such as Hall & Oates, Bill Withers, Fleetwood Mac, Foghat, Young Rascals, X, Chicago, George Duke, George Benson, and many, many more) all housed in cardboard sleeves and packaged inside a sturdy box. But the best thing is that they are priced not much more than what it would cost you to buy a single disc, so they are great bargains indeed. For some reason I never see any of these special CD sets at the shops in Bangkok and if check online at sites like Amazon they are quite expensive. But not in KL!

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During my shopping spree I found a ton of new music from the likes of Broken Bells, Robert Cray, Blood Orange, Bombay Bicycle Club, Capital Cities, Mazzy Star, Tory Y Moi, Paul Heaton, Low, Temper Trap, White Denim, Eddi Reader, and My Morning Jacket. And I bought plenty of older goodies from The Hollies, The Turtles, Peter Green, Crown Heights Affair, Solomon Burke, Husker Du, Willie Nile, Robin Trower, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and The Troggs, Gordon Lightfoot, oodles of cool compilations, and many more than I want to list!

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Another cool thing about the Amcorp Mall, in addition to Victoria Music and the giant Book Xcess store, is their weekend “Flea Market”. This indoor market features several dealers that sell affordable secondhand CDs, DVDs, and vinyl records. Some dealers even have Star Wars memorabilia and other collectible items. Something for everyone!

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Reconstructing Kuala Lumpur

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One of the most noticeable things I saw when walking around Kuala Lumpur last month was all the construction taking place around the city. Buildings being torn down or renovated, new monstrosities under construction, plus some streets closed to accommodate the cranes and jackhammers. “Watch your step” was good advice!

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In the area around Pasar Seni (Central Market) there was a still a lot of digging going on and some of the sidewalks were either torn up or being resurfaced, along with some landscaping work, looking like they are attempting to beautify the area. One of the employees at my hotel told me that they were planning on banning vehicles from at least one of the streets and making it a pedestrian thoroughfare. On nearby Lebu Pudu Street, which boasts many shops and restaurants catering to Myanmar/Burmese workers, many places appeared to be closed while the construction work was ongoing.

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This construction chaos was not confined to that area, though, not by a long shot. The Bukit Bintang area was also a mess of barriers and obstacles, plus even over in Petaling Jaya I noticed several new building projects going up. Perhaps all of this construction isn’t unusual in a city as large and sprawling as Kuala Lumpur, but I’ve never seen so much of it as I did during this visit.

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