On a happiness-per-hour basis, the nicest place my family has lived was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for two years in the late 1980s. There were many reasons, but among them was our house.
It was a two-story colonial style bungalow from the 1920s: whitewashed walls, red-tiled roof, iron grates over the windows but no glass. Birds flew straight through the house in the day time – fat blue kingfishers, mynas, some neon-yellow species – on their way from the mango tree in the front yard to the papaya tree on the side. Sometimes bats flew through at night. Our young kids raised rabbits in the back yard. The cobra also somewhere in the back, finally trapped by the city’s Jabatan Snake, or Snake Department, didn’t bother the bunnies or us. The civet cat that nested in our eaves was a more serious challenge, because of its incredible stench.
After two years, we all had memorized the prayer calls from the nearby mosque. We slept under mosquito nets, and on weekends we watched race horses thunder round a bend in the large, turf race course in the center of the city. Our house was separated from the track only by a privet hedge, and as they rounded the bend during a race the horses were so close their sweat nearly hit us when it flew off.
By the 1990s that race course had become the site of what were then the tallest buildings in the world, the twin Petronas Towers. That whole huge oval area is now the site of a vast modern development – condos, restaurants, department stores more elegant than any I have seen in Shanghai, a lake with fountains plus a new rubberized running path.
Yet miraculously, our house remained. Most of its front yard became a 8-lane freeway into a parking lot. When I visited two years ago, I was foolishly pleased to see that what was originally a rubber-planter's bungalow, and was for two years our house, had become the Malaysian Writers Union HQ. A few days ago, before a quick trip to Kuala Lumpur, I checked Google Earth again – and it was still there!
The first Google Earth image is a close up of our former yard and environs:
(In this first picture: our house is the red roof just below the yellow pin. The first seven lanes of the eight-line road below constituted our back yard, where the cobra and the rabbits lived. The last lane was, literally, the lane we lived on, Lorong Kuda – “Horse Lane.” The filled parking lot now to the left of our house was the far bend of the race course. The low-rise buildings above our house, around a pool, used to be the stables where more than a hundred horses lived. Boy, did they attract mosquitoes!
Two more pictures follow: a wider-angle view of the area, and then a panorama toward the Petronas Towers (flattened out in this view, but you can guess what's going on by the shadows):
(Lat/Long of these scenes on Google Earth is 3° 9'22.40"N, 101°43'6.50"E
While I was in Malaysia last week, I couldn't help myself: I went to see our house.
This was a mistake. Finally, inevitably, the lot where it stood, and the lot just to the right in these images (where New Zealand diplomats lived in our era) has been bulldozed and turned into the site of twin 41-store condo towers. Muscle-men told me I couldn't take a picture of the actual construction site, but the fence all around it shows pictures of what is coming, with "The Oval" apartment complex. The Petronas towers are on the left of the picture. The towers on the right are the new Oval complex, with the left-hand Oval tower sitting where our rabbits, our cobra, our mango and papaya trees, and until recently our house itself had stood. The other tower is over the New Zealanders' house.
Google Earth, don't be in any hurry to refresh your satellite shots of Kuala Lumpur! Yes, this happens everywhere -- I see houses knocked down every single day in China. I'm just empathizing.
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