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Anarchy in Kuala Lumpur

Excerpted from Banana Punk Rawk Trails: A Euro-Fool’s Metal Punk Journeys in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia by Marco Ferrarese © 2016. All rights reserved.

Rumah Api is an institution. Every passing self-respecting hardcore punk touring band, local or Asian or international, has performed here when in Malaysia. The main problem that hangs like the sword of Damocles over the heads of Kuala Lumpur’s punks is the announcement of the construction of a new highway, which would run straight over Rumah Api’s lot of shophouses. In the typically Malaysian we-don’t-give-a-damn-until-it’s-too-late run for the Vision 2020 development, this means that when construction gets underway the people living in the affected areas will be forced to move elsewhere. However, this doom has been pending for a few years now, and it seems that the project has been halted, at least for the moment.

The wall next to the gig room’s door lists a series of negations that would make the boring punks at Profane Existence, HeartattaCk and Maximum Rock’n’Roll happy and proud fathers. It’s all about saying no to racism, sexism, homophobia, drugs, alcohol and violence. It’s perfectly in line with the positive depiction of skinheads and punks shaking hands, sharing a space and an ideology pictured on the outside wall. However, me being me—a European with a history of love-hate with the anarcho-punk scene and an upbringing that has been more favourably influenced by the garage punk scene of the 1990s and 2000s, GG Allin and the Confederacy of Scum—I feel that there’s a bit too much of a chastising ‘punk by the book’ attitude radiating here. To me, it’s a bit like going to church and seeing too many pictures of Jesus hanging everywhere.

Whatever one’s idea of punk could be, that of Rumah Api’s punks is clearly leaning towards the precepts dictated by DIY punk culture worldwide, which has been embodied by the stances of the fanzines I already mentioned – with the clear difference that in Malaysia the idea of the punk sound has become a one-way street that funnels and incorporates only the fastest, most obnoxious and screechy subgenres of its parents’ world. In other words, hardcore, crust, d-beat, powerviolence, ultracore, sludgecore and God only knows what else.

An anarcho-punk and a skinhead shake hands on the wall next to Rumah Api’s living quarters entrance.

Thinking back to the past, otai bands from the 1990s such as Carburetor Dung, the Pilgrims, Spunky Funggy and the Bollocks were, indeed, playing at least what I would consider to be the more traditional sound of punk music. But today, the Malaysian punk scene seems to have forgotten all the changes that punk rock went through after ol’ Kurt blew his brains out, putting a full stop to Nirvana in the mid 1990s. I’m referring to the new currents of garage punk promoted by Crypt Records, and the Pacific Northwest’s sounds of Kill Rock Stars, Amphetamine Reptile and Sub Pop to cite just three influential labels.

That’s possibly a reason why Rumah Api’s entrance is ‘tattooed’ with the menacing principles of the anarcho-punk game. They warn the visitors to follow the house rules directly on the doorstep and literally write their influences over the punk house’s sleeves. However, I might also be terribly wrong, because thinking back through the troubled history of Malaysian extreme music and its hiccups with the authorities in the early 2000s, you could say that the punks used these mom and pop slogans to protect themselves, showing that their establishment is a clean place, and please cops, back off. After all, the cop shop is just across the road. Or, to put it more simply, Rumah Api’s punks want to be punks, and as such love to show their affiliation with global anarchic-punk culture more than anything else. After all, I also used to hang all sorts of things that were offensive to my parents back at my mother’s house, just for the sake of showing my musical influences … don’t get me started on that GG Allin’s ‘Expose yourself to kids’ T-shirt, where a cartoon caricature of good ol’ GG with his junk in hand jizzed in … all right, let’s forget about that.

Rumah Api has two storeys: on the first floor, a few resident couples live in a shared apartment centred around a common living room, kitchen and bathroom area. Plumbing is only provided in the bathroom, where people shower, attend to their needs and wash dishes – crusty punk style. The resident punks and Man Beranak live in the side of the building which faces the main road. At the opposite side, after a small kitchen tucked into a corner of the living room, there’s a wide backroom that serves as shared library and bedroom for guests, who are always plentiful and quite colourful, too. I have been particularly surprised to find quite a number of Westerners setting up camp here. Most of them are Europeans, especially French travellers on their way from/to China or Australia by way of Southeast Asia.

International travel is indeed my bread and butter and I didn’t really expect to find Kuala Lumpur punks mingling with a subculture of global travellers who, when asked, explained they knew about Rumah Api from Australian punk rocker friends who’d visited Kuala Lumpur before them. Some of these travellers are long-term residents and use Rumah Api as an extended crash pad. One Austrian punk guy in his mid-twenties has been staying there for several months, on and off, for about a year. Every 90 days, he hops across the Thai border for a visa run when his tourist visa expires, and scrapes a living by busking in Bukit Bintang in the city centre, playing an accordion.

Two other French travellers lounge on the dilapidated sofas, munching on some fried rice and tea they just cooked and eagerly shared among the other residents. They have both been lazing at Rumah Api for the past couple weeks. They tell me that they are cyclists: one has already criss-crossed Europe into Asia, lived and worked in Australia, and now plans to go back to France by selling his bicycle in northern Thailand, taking a train to Beijing, and ultimately jumping on the Trans-Siberian train back to Moscow and then on to Europe.

“I’m tired of travelling,” he says. “I couldn’t make it back home by land again.”

The other guy has spent two years working in Australia on a working holiday visa, and is resolute in spending the same amount of time doing what the other guy has done before: cycling from Asia to France.

“I have enough money to take it easy for a couple more years, exploring this part of the world… Then, back to France, let’s see…”

I totally understand them, since I’ve pretty much done the same, sans bicycle. These days, although the majority of middle-class snobs would think otherwise, the world’s become an easier place to know because of the information we can find on the internet. Faraway countries are not that scary anymore when you browse a few blogs and read that people who are less fit, less adventurous and probably less cool than you have been there and done that before you. The internet, coupled with increasingly easy to obtain visas on arrival that help developing nations cash in and secure a constant flow of travellers, brings juice to their once-wretched economies. Malaysia, far from being a wreck of a country, gives a 90-day free social pass visa to most Western nationalities, becoming an easy target for many of the dwellers in the dream life’s waiting room. These travellers are probably not people an Asian family would wish their son or daughter to marry, for their idea of taking some ‘sweet time’ from life’s rat race is inconceivable in the expectations of most Asian minds. That’s probably why some of them find a refuge at Rumah Api, another place that, by all means, eschews such conformism.

On the other hand, I believe that by coming to Southeast Asia, these fleeting foreigners can also positively impact on youths. Never before in Malaysia, nor Asia at large, has there been such a crossroads of cultures and travel routes. Now, Malaysians have the chance to meet, know and mingle with the exponents of cultures that they once could only observe in their globalised television shows and magazines, without having any great chance to directly exchange with. In this perspective, I hope that they might also interact with the higher thinkers and not just with the runaways of the crumbling societies of the West.

Probably these crossroads have already created much more. I meet a mixed Indonesian-American couple who’ve been overnighting here for the past few days. She’s from Peoria, Illinois and I surprised her by asking her if she knows Bloody Mess and the Skabs.

“Oh yes,” she says, bemused that anyone outside of her home state knows anything about both the band and the tiny town she comes from. I’m not at all surprised to know that she ended up in Bali after her life’s journey across the Atlantic pond and a pilgrimage through some of the world’s most alluring Asian nations. She has more tattoos than you would like to see on a woman’s body, nose rings and dozens of earrings dangling from the sides of her face.

“I’m here to renew my Indonesian visa. We just went to the consulate today; I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

“We” refers to her boyfriend, an Indonesian dreadlocked djembe drummer and flautist who sits next to her smoking incessantly. Curved pieces of wood in the shape of a boar’s tusks come out of his earlobes and black tattoos fight to contrast with the intense brownness of his skin. His head is shaved at the sides, with a mix of a mohawk and a quiff sprouting from the top of his skull as if it were a blackened broccoli head.

The last character and one of the local residents is a Malay woman with an anarcho-punk feminist flavour. She wears a loose, sleeveless T-shirt without a bra, which leaves not much to imagine about the shape of her breasts. One side of her head is shaved, while flowing long hair reaches down to her neck on the other. She lives in one of the quarters built with a few plywood planks out of the common library area and is quite chatty with everyone. She spends most of her time smoking cigarettes, talking, and later preparing a huge vegetarian dinner that she will share with some of the latecomers’ girlfriends.

Everybody spends time chatting, smoking and drinking in the living room. The punk occupants, and especially their girlfriends, shuttle scantily dressed from their rooms to the bathroom without caring about the male guests. One of the resident couples, a mixed Malay and Chinese couple from Terengganu and Penang respectively are more social and spend time sitting on the communal room’s sofas, talking and smoking. I quickly discover than she is originally from the Kulim area, close to Penang, and that we have many common friends.

“Awesome! So you know my friends, right?” she asks.

“Of course… I hang out with them at Soundmaker very often.”

“Nice. That’s where I used to go see most of the shows… But there weren’t that many.”

“What? They have shows every week,” I tell her.

“Punk shows I mean. I don’t like the other music he passes there… Post-rock, Chinese rock… Here in KL there’s so much more,” she complains.

Basically, she laments the lack of gigs, and the unfocused musical offerings at Soundmaker, but as I said to her, she is referring to the situation about five years ago.

“It’s changed a lot. There’s much more now; at times there are two events per week,” I tell her, seeing surprise enlarge her eyes.

“I’ll have to come back and visit then,” she says. “After all, there may be less music, but life up north is so much better than here.”

When I go to sleep on my anarcho-punk crusty mattress, leaving the others to continue the conversation, play acoustic guitars and draw portraits of each other as they empty their cups, I think of what the girl and I have just discussed: the situation of live music spaces in Malaysia. It has, indeed, improved over time. In my short experience, I can say with confidence that since I started visiting shows in 2010, the quality and quantity of extreme music on offer has increased drastically. As I drift off to sleep, I think that part of this improvement came about thanks to the existence of Rumah Api. As a receptacle of local and foreign routes, and a space where Malaysian punks have had chances to learn by doing ‘punk’ together with like-minded foreigners, this tiny but important punk space in the capital has taught a lot about resilience and dedication to most other venues and scenes around the country. Let anarcho-punk continue to doom Kuala Lumpur’s cityscapes.

Excerpted from Banana Punk Rawk Trails: A Euro-Fool’s Metal Punk Journeys in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia by Marco Ferrarese © 2016. All rights reserved.

Marco Ferrarese
Marco Ferrarese is the author of subcultural noir NAZI GORENG and a freelance travel and culture writer based in Southeast Asia, and metalpunk guitar slinger. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, met Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truckdrivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.
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