What do you want to change about your city? In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a group of citizens started the #betterKL movement, an initiative to crowd-source constructive ways to improve the city they live in. The grassroots movement sought to move the focus from quotidian gripes about urban life to ideas about how to make the city better. “Don’t just live in the city, live for the city,” the BetterCities manifesto urges.
The above image is probably not what the average traveler to Malaysia anticipates. While it is known as a moderate Muslim nation, Malaysia is still a place where the less conservative among us should err on the side of caution. Sex scenes in movies are heavily censored, risque performers like Lady Gaga are banned from our stages and yes, homosexuality can earn you a hefty fine or imprisonment. This is why I assured a gay friend who was visiting that there were “no gay bars in KL”. I still cringe at the memory.
Fortunately, Lorenzo had done his research. He insisted on dragging me to Changkat, Kuala Lumpur’s bustling neon-lit nightlife hub.
This had not always been the case. While Changkat is located in the lively Bukit Bintang area near the city center, it had been little more than a dark quiet street while I was growing up. So one can imagine my shock when I discovered it was now a garishly lit thoroughfare crawling with backpackers staying at the plethora of cheap inns nearby. Far more crowded and rowdier than most relatively laid-back nightlife scenes in KL, Changkat made me feel, for lack of a better term, foreign. Too disoriented to do much more than gape, I allowed my tourist friend to lead me through the strange warrens of my own hometown.
Our first stop was the oldest and most well-established gay bar in KL, Blue Boy. However, its location in a seedy, unlit alleyway off Jalan Tun Ismail made it feel rather more clandestine than I’d expected. When we finally entered, I felt no less out of my element. The atmosphere was illumined entirely in indigo light, which made the place feel mysterious and underwater. In the oceanic gloom, I couldn’t make out much beyond the gyrating silhouettes of local rent boys and the dull gleam against the muscles of their Caucasian partners. I could, however, tell that they were observing me in turn, their stares ranging from neutral to borderline hostile. As the only female patron in sight, I was seen as a gawker, an interloper. I had thought to take some pictures, but instead huddled miserably over my beer for the remainder of our time there.
However, Frangipani was a different beast altogether. As both an acclaimed restaurant and the hottest nightlife venue in the city, the club’s motto is “Come one, come all!” The facade alone was designed to impress.
Right by the doorway, the sign floated serenely over a flooded semi-courtyard, in the midst of which blossomed an actual frangipani tree.
The club upstairs lived up to the promise of the entrance, with a plush interior with comfy sofas, iridescent friezes and sparkling disco lights.
As it was gay night, I was still the only woman, but no one seemed bothered by me. Many men were cheerfully making out in plain sight right next to the bathrooms, unperturbed by my curiosity. In fact, we were approached by several clubbers, some of whom wanted to show off stylish duds and others who were just inquisitive about us as we were about them.
I’m quite glad to be proved wrong for once. On my night at the not-so-secret gay bars of KL, I discovered that my country has its own unexpected wild side. However, it was not always the lighthearted affair it generally is in Western climes. As the tension at Blue Boy showed, homosexuality is still a touchy enough subject that my mere presence was enough to make them feel a spectacle. At least Frangipani made it clear that there were still enough people who are perfectly happy to be themselves, whatever cultural stigmas might dictate.