Writing and the City (Week 3 & 4): Pasar Borong Selayang, a world of its own

This is part of a series of jottings from UnRepresented: KL (UnR), a homegrown writing program focused on unearthing less-heard and less “represented” narratives in the city. Featured image by Stanley Oh.

After running three instalments of UnR walkabouts in the city centre, this year we decided to go to the city limits and experience a community that we often see and hear about, but know very little of. We contacted Jules Rahman Ong, a freelance journalist and documentary maker, to take us into the heart of the Rohingya and Burmese community in Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur, situated in Selayang Baru. “This is a community of 20,000 Burmese migrants, many of them refugees, who have traveled all the way here. Many of them only know that there is a place called ‘Selayang’, which they have heard from friends, when they set out on their dangerous journey from Myanmar to Malaysia.”   

This is not the first time we have invited Jules to UnR. During the 2nd UnR, we had introduced Jules to our cohort then as the documentarian who made an insightful video about gangsterism in Malaysia. In the past two years, we heard that Jules has set up a school for Rohingya and Burmese children in Selayang Baru called Sekolah Pelangi Kasih, and is actively involved with Pertubuhan Miwho, an NGO which provides charity and medical aid to the Rohingya community in Selayang. Who better to guide us at Pasar Borong than a man who knows the ins-and-outs of the area?

When we got to the Pasar Borong at 2.45pm on a Sunday afternoon, we were surprised to find that even though half of the stalls had already close for the day, there were still bustling trade at the fruit and vegetable stalls. The shoppers were not your usual housewives; at that odd mid-afternoon hour, small business owners were buying boxes of ginger and garlic, and workers were busy wheeling fresh produce off the lorries at the loading bays, criss-crossing in an orderly chaos, pushing the weight of their livelihoods cheerfully to the stalls of their employment. Half the lights were switched on under the giant roof of the pasar borong, casting a bluish pallor over the serious faces of the towkays tallying up orders, and throwing shadows under some tired eyebags of the workers who had finished their duties and were buying sirih from a Rohingya petty trader. Some spotted us, which made them stop and look at this bunch of non-Pasar Borong people, wondering what we were doing there.  

“Your assignment is to go and talk to the people in the market,” said Jules loudly, trying to make himself heard over the steady murmur of the busy market. “They are very friendly and kind, just approach them and tell them the truth. That you are a writer who wants to know more about them: where are they from? How long have they been in Malaysia? How long have they been working here? Ask them about their lives here. Are they married? Do they have family here? How do they find their lives in Malaysia? Don’t just get to know them, offer up information about yourself. Let’s meet back here in 45 minutes?” And off they went, walking around in groups of twos and threes to speak to anyone who they were able to make eye contact, either traders or migrant workers.

After the walkabout, and clearly energized and intrigued by the conversations they have had with total strangers, the group reconvened at a nearby kopitiam operated by a Rohingya owner. The writers excitedly swapped stories on who they spoke to and what was said. There were people who were reticent at first, and warmed up later; there were also local traders who told them of the fake calm that pervades the pasar borong, that a body turns up every week, unexplained and undocumented. With each of them enlightened by the people they spoke to, and after sampling some Burmese snacks, they went home and wrote their stories.

What was not surprising, was the emotional tone that was prevalent in many of the stories.  From Hui Lin, she writes about the hardship that the community faces: “It is common knowledge, of course, that dire realities lie behind the daily routines. The Rohingya are technically not allowed to work in Malaysia. They have minimal access to hospitals and schools, and instead rely on charitable organisations or their own – midwives, medicine men and self-started schools like the Madrasah Hashimiah. Crime like murder, robberies, assault and rape, whether among their own or by other communities, go unreported and unaddressed. They live in constant watchfulness and fear; the windows of their apartments are painted black, so nobody can see inside. The Malaysian authorities, however, know very well that they are here. Raids occur once or twice a month at the Pasar Borong. The only warning is the abrupt cry of “Operasi!” – a signal for all Rohingya to run as fast as they can. Before it was converted into a park, the lake that the condominium now overlooks was once a hiding spot; bodies of fleeing Rohingyas have been found at the bottom of the lake.”

Some writers also expressed their own fear of going to Pasar Borong, Jey writes.

“When I was asked to meet at Pasar Borong Selayang as part of our writing assignment under the UnRepresented KL programme, I cringed. Many thoughts entered my head, heat for one, are we not registering 36 to 38 degrees daily, thanks to the equinox phenomena? Why would we want to visit a pasar borong, its dingy I am sure, plus the smell is enough to put one off (and that’s putting it mildly). Thoughts of this nature gushed through my head.”

But after the visit, a chance conversation with a bearded Bangladeshi man, gave Jey a different insight into life as a migrant.

“His expression turned somewhat nostalgic as he narrated how he left his home in Bangladesh 20 years ago as a young lad, seeking greener pastures. He loves Malaysia, his sense of gratitude to this country came out strong in that 10 minutes I spent with him. But judging from the sombre expression on his face when he spoke of home, I could tell that he missed his family greatly, his tired eyes almost welled up. He picked himself up quickly whenever he was choked with emotions and was quick to point out that although the long hours which starts in the wee hours of the morning and the tedious work without a rest day wears him out but he was contented. He is able to feed his family back home and sleep peacefully at night knowing they are taken care of. He also knows that he had the trust of his ‘towkay Cheng’, because he is allowed to be the cashier in his absence. “Life has not been easy but it goes on” he continued, “as long as I have the strength to work and fend for my family, I will continue here” he said placidly. I smiled at him with an encouraging nod, patted him on his arm and gently told him to hang in there, thanked him and moved on.”

Some writers were struck by Jules’ recounting of a Rohingya pregnant woman’s plight who had difficulty seeking medical attention at a government hospital. Inspired by true life, Su Ling imagines a harrowing first-person narrative amid the community.

“In this land of milk and honey, my sisters can’t afford to even give birth so we do it on our own. We crowd in a room that we’ve emptied and cleaned as best as we can. We lay her in the centre on a table so we can get to work. We wipe her forehead down with wet towels while another holds her hand and another sits at the edge of the table to prepare for the arrival of the baby. Most days, the baby comes and we celebrate that night itself but there are some births that are complicated. Sometimes the baby is upside down or the cord is stuck around its neck. This is when we pray for her soul. Even if our sister lays in death, there is no one help to turn to… but don’t weep for us. For this land may not be that of milk and honey but it is good. It is good enough to be able to wake up every day and to be able to solat without fear, to be able to visit the mosque and pray with our brothers and sisters as one, to be able to say subhanallah and not get our tongues cut; so life is good. This may not be the land of milk and honey or Jannah on earth but Mashallah he has provided and for us it is good enough.”

Another first-person account from Aizuddin, spoke of an urgent desire to find work in a foreign land, and a first time encounter with the market.

“All the able-bodied men and women flocked to the Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur, an imposing wholesale market behind our row of shop lots that was cordoned off by walls the color of dried blood and adorned with barbed wires like a prison complex. There was a hole in the wall, a portal for people to come and go, a permeable barrier between our dwelling and our temple where we would toil for our pittance. The symbolism was not lost on me. I can remember vividly the first time I ventured out into the market in search for a job, Thanakha paste encrusted on my cheeks and forehead as a tribal identifier. I naively hoped this cosmetic adornment would facilitate my entry into the vocation… I affirmed my intention of looking for a job, and he left me promptly to speak to the Chinese man who I assumed to be the manager (I later found out people refer to him as Taukeh), conversing in a language that I would eventually pick up after months spent here in the market. I owe Ismail my life for helping me land a job. The Taukeh told me through Ismail about what was expected of me, the first of which was to wipe the dust off my face and to grab a pushcart and start loading the trucks with the boxes of orders.”

Though these stories, a veil had seemingly been lifted, giving us a fleeting glimpse into a microcosm of society that is working hard to survive, right in KL’s backyard. Our writer Shamma, touched by the people she saw in the market and reflecting on her own life as a foreigner here, wrote a piece about how the things we take for granted is privilege to some.

“Have you checked your privilege today? If you are reading this right now; you are privileged. It means you are literate. You had access to the education system. If you have an I.D card or passport; you are privileged. It means you are recognized as a citizen of a country. You have rights and access to the legal system. If you have health insurance; you are privileged. It means you are protected against exorbitant hospital fees. You have access to the health care system. If you have running water, electricity and adequate housing; you are privileged. It means you have the basic amenities for a comfortable life. You have access to basic needs that all human beings should theoretically possess.”

Veronica Liew co-organises UnRepresented: KL. For more information on the writing program, check out Facebook!

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