How does one map a city? Popular method might include suburbs, train lines, food trails and bike lanes. Now, what if we overlaid the map of a city with something more intangible and personal, perhaps using people’s memories, connection and even nostalgia? What insights would we get?
That was the basis of Curating KL, a project I was part of, in Kuala Lumpur (or KL as we called it). In 2013, we mounted a gigantic map of KL in a music festival and encouraged festival goers to pin a flag on the map with a personal note about that spot.
What we realised is, the strongest connection people have to KL is food, love and childhood memories. Many of the notes mentioned areas and laneways where one could find the best beef ball noddles, chicken satay or a range of popular Malaysian food. There is always some good natured competitiveness in this, as people like to believe only they know where to find the best food in the city. This is hardly surprising, in a country known for its strong food culture and where people sometimes greeted each other by saying “have you eaten” instead of “hello”.
The association with love is a bit more interesting. Many people highlighted places where they met the loves of lives and this ranged from schools to shopping malls and restaurants. There was a also a healthy dose of lust as people pinned spots where they kissed someone, had sex or witnessed other people making out.
“Met my soulmate in primary school when we were both 12”
“Did the walk of shame”
“Made out with a café girl when I was 16 at KLCC in the park and got fined by the cops. She paid. I was broke”
Comments like these are intriguing because relationships, sex and sexuality in Malaysia is seen as conservative. Even public displays of affection between couples are rare and could lead to being told off by the moral majority, but clearly not everyone adheres to that expected behaviour.
The most poignant aspect of the project is realising that for most people, nostalgia is their strongest connection to the city. Many of the notes pinned on the outer suburbs (30km from the CBD) are about carefree childhood days, schoolyard fights or experiencing different milestones while growing up.
“Bought my first bra here”
“This is where I went for my first rooftop gig”
In comparison, the notes pinned closed to the city centre have more current memories or expressions of being frustrated and confused
“I wasn’t here; I don’t know where I am”
“Got stranded with 5 other friends for hours because there was no taxi”
These comments really give a voice to the impact of urbanisation and the mass migration of young adults from their suburban family home to the city to study or to work. They might experience financial gain and career opportunities but there is often a feeling of disconnect from their new, concrete environment. Both the city and the people are constantly trying to adjust, and it will surface when you map the city with its inhabitants.
This project was our personal challenge to crowd source input that could help us look at Kuala Lumpur differently and we achieved it. Community engagement should be required in any new development or even established cities but it is a big leap to go from that to mapping a city entirely using emotions and human connections. Now, the Invisible City project in Parramatta is trying to do just that, so maybe it will be less of a novelty in the future.
Annie Hariharan is interested in people’s relationship with places and identities and is constantly finding better ways to narrate their stories. She has initiated, organised and volunteered in several community engagement programs in Kuala Lumpur, Bali, and now Melbourne. She does not have any formal training or education in this area; she identifies as a business consultant, pop culture nerd and occasional writer.