Off topic: Khai Liew
Off Topic and on the record, as we let South Australian identities talk about whatever they want… as long as it’s not their day job. This month designer Khai Liew talks about his colourful childhood in Kuala Lumpur.
“I’ve come to realise that I always had an independent spirit about me,” Liew begins. “My father visited Tokyo in the mid 60s and was so inspired he decided to build himself a Japanese-style house in the middle of the tropics. While he was doing so I lived with my family in flat above our traditional late 19th century Chinese shop-house, with a central courtyard on the ground floor and a rooftop garden overlooking High Street. It was in the middle of town and in close proximity to ‘Little India’.
“The walk to school was long with a designated route – down the street and way up a hill. Unbeknown to my parents I would save myself a lot of time and sweat by taking a shorter path, weaving my way through an opium den hidden behind a ‘shop’ down the street. The rooms in the den were dark and hazy, laden with languor and the sweet smell of opium smoke. It was the local hangout for the mainly Chinese smokers who lay on their sides on low wooden platforms and, becalmed with the drug, would generally view my intrusion with bemusement. Other mornings I would make my way through a low priced Indian restaurant which served Southern Indian curries on banana leaves to the Tamil workers. The food was delicious but the real action happened in the illicit drinking area behind the restaurant, reserved for the consumption of toddy, a fermented coconut alcoholic drink.”
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur was exciting for Liew due to the smells, the multitude of languages spoken, the mix of cultures and the lingering sense of lawlessness.
“The air was pungent with the smell of curries and other cooking. From the rooftop garden we would observe elaborate Chinese funeral processions or Hindu parades with their wildly painted and costumed revelers dancing past with spears through their tongues and cheeks or weighted hooks through their earlobes, eyes often bloodshot from one intoxication or another. I would venture into the street and watch as they worked themselves into a trance. It was electrifying and this was everyday life in the middle of town.
“It was a nice mix. We lived harmoniously and celebrated each race’s religious beliefs. The divide was less pronounced than today.”
The Liews then moved into the Japanese-inspired house designed by Khai’s father, which overlooked Kuala Lumpur.
“It was a Japanese-cum-LA modernist house situated on a hill with a large balcony overlooking the city and the Malay village below. It had Shoji screens, sliding doors and an indoor garden with a fishpond. By Kuala Lumpur standards, it was a substantial land holding and we called it our farm. Our extended family built their properties there as well. Life was good.”
But this wild and lively upbringing would end in traumatic fashion.
“On a fateful Tuesday evening in May 1969 smoke billowed from every corner of the city, soon filling the air. It was a scary sight, taken in from our vantage. It signaled the start of the May 13 race riots sparked by Malay resentment of Chinese and Indian mercantile dominance of the economy. This event was to have dramatic and significant consequences for our family.
“Machine gun fire soon punctuated the air and helicopters hovered overhead. Cries for mercy rose above the yelling and screaming. Hundreds, perhaps many more were killed that night. Our extended family escaped the carnage by hiding in a rubber plantation adjacent to our property. I remember the bravery of my older sister running with my youngest sister on her back. Throughout the night we heard continuous screams and gunfire and cries for mercy in many languages. Death and destruction was all around. We came out of hiding after negotiations brokered by one of our employees, a ‘Haji’, with the village elders and we were escorted to a refugee camp at the main football stadium.
“It was traumatic. Military personnel rounded us up and we watched as they looted our houses. Soon after they were burnt to the ground. There were thousands just like us seeking refuge in the stadium. We slept there for three weeks on the bleachers. These days I can sleep anywhere.”
Liew spent another year in Kuala Lumpur to finish his schooling while his parents moved to Hong Kong.
“Life changed and the family soon dispersed. My brother Cheong (Liew, the Chef) was in Ballarat while all of my sisters were in England. After finishing school, I bought a passage from Singapore to Hong Kong. This voyage was marked by a typhoon three days out of harbour.
“After those two tough years, the vision in a pamphlet of a boarding school by the sea with lawn tennis courts and beautiful palms seemed like heaven and that was how I spent my first year in Adelaide. In peace and amongst new friends.”