In the wee hours after the Busan show, we lug our gear back to the train station and sleep most of the 3½ hour journey to Seoul before taking an hour long van ride to Incheon airport to take a six hour flight to KL. Despite the fatiguing travel day, we arrive wide-eyed by Malaysia. The mix of fashion in the airport terminal alone is a beautiful summation of the country’s mix of ethnicities: head wraps, full burkas, gold bangles, sandalwood tilakas and sticker bindis, kohl eyes, keffiyeh hats, sequined saris, navy suits, cheongsam dresses and qipaos and bleached collared shirts tucked into loose sweat pants. It is like a flower market of varying human identities.
We cab to Sepang, a growing airport ghetto city boasting our night’s abode: The Empress Hotel. Dan and I share a theory: in Asia, the higher the titular royalty, the shadier the hotel. (In Europe, it’s a safe bet to subtract a star from whatever rating is advertised especially if you find yourself in Paris. Subtract two if you’re anywhere in Italy. In North America, it’s hard to tell whether you’re at a Super 8 or the hospital terminal ward. In Russia, there might be chandeliers in the lobby but it’s industrial soap for shampoo.) We are pleasantly surprised by our suite but happy we didn’t opt for Le Meridian King Francois in neighbouring Nilai.
We exchange some Korean won for Malaysian ringgit and traipse the streets. On most signs, four different languages compete for space. Signs for “Happy Fashion” and “Palm photo stats” remind me of the Caribbean and I immediately feel home in the rotten tropics. Banana plantations and palm fronds and red earth. Beaten concrete. Fusty mounds of garbage. Thickly fly-coverd mango skins and mangy dogs. We head down crazy “cat alley” which runs parallel to a drain ditch “park” and an older gentleman walks with me, pointing out the newest kittens and the Mama Cats. We eat fluorescent pink treats and continue roaming around in the nearby hills. As the sun descends, the streets feel seedier. We settle on a Chinese restaurant to sit and drink Tiger beers as the evening’s needed breeze struggles through the open walls.
Just as the Ramadan Call to Prayer airs beautifully from the city’s tinny speakers, tensions heat between a group of men outside. Slick-haired, gold-chained south Indian thugs arrive on motorbikes to further escalate the edginess. Shouting doesn’t wholly overtake the spiritual chanting but it overtakes the city corner and our festive mood. The situation becomes immediately terrifying when a gun is drawn. Everyone in the family-run restaurant creates a barricade amongst ourselves to keep safe in numbers. One man is thrown over a car and the biggest, slickest ruffian anchors his gun under his chin. The chef’s daughter plays with a deflated balloon but does not lighten the fit of pique. Our hearts are racing to find our quickest emergency routes. The yelling cannot get louder and, just when we are certain we are about to witness a murder, the toppled citizen is released from gunpoint. They force him to sit on the curb and empty his pockets. He hands over something a foot in length, wrapped in yellow cloth. As he is kept hostage to the sidewalk, one tough apologizes to the kitchen owner and we are allowed to scurry slowly out the side of the entrance. (I am still gripped with terror, writing this out! Ack! Haunted!) As we near our hotel, we hear the arrival of police sirens and the dispersion of the crowd. We sigh heavily, happy to be safe.
An hour later, headed down to the Empress restaurant (having been unable to eat at our chosen Chinese diner), we come face-to-face with the biggest gun-wielding dude of the fight as we exit the elevator. I gulp as he recognizes us (rather easily as the only foreigners having witnessed the scene) but attempt to smile in a way that confirms our blindness to blame. He allows our passing but for the rest of the night I am terrified to sleep. I keep feeling a pistol barrel against my throat. I keep wanting to shield Dan from stray bullets. I keep thinking of a little girl with a deflated balloon.