Kings of Petaling Street (Fixi London, 2017) - Author's notes
Kings of Petaling Street, which started out as a novel called ‘Maut’, was written during the most stressful period of my undergraduate career in the winter of 2013/2014. It is my first published novel, not counting an ebook I put out a few years ago, or the books that I happily churned out by the dozens when I was a bored kid growing up in the suburbs of Petaling Jaya. I have a lot of things to say about it, and it’s much easier for me to describe each aspect of the story in turn.
Inspiration and Influences
The title of Eileen Lian’s short story, ‘My Father the Hero’, gave me the initial image that ‘Kings of Petaling Street’ ends on. I wrote a short piece inspired by the title for a Fixi Novo flash fiction competition in fall of 2013. I didn’t win anything but the image stuck with me. Later that year I wrote ‘Ah Beng’s Wedding’ for the short story collection KL Noir: Blue, which was edited by Eeleen Lee-who incidentally is one of the editors who worked on this book!
The vast, decades-spanning arc of this novel draws from the movie version of The Godfather I and II, with its epic blend of loyalty, family, and violence. The opening pages of Kings features a famous assassination in a restaurant in Cheras that actually happened not far from where I once lived, and when I fleshed out the book it became clear that the scene was one of the main lynchpins of the plot-similar to how Michael Corleone shoots both Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey in the movie. And of course there’s The Raid: Berandal, which features the father-son team of Bangun/Uco and Rama the conflicted policeman. Reading Fixi’s hardboiled noir collections provided the backdrop of a hard, uneasy city, and a recent string of assassinations in Kuala Lumpur provided the outrage needed to write an angry book about Malaysia without talking about politics and other sensitive issues.
As for my writing style, it is a mix of influences. There’s the detailed, flowing descriptions of Tash Aw’s novels (a couple of nods to his book ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ pop up in unusual places), the bleak, disturbing visions I read in JG Ballard’s ‘Empire of the Sun’, and for this book in particular I was inspired by the fatalistic assassin from ‘Man’s Fate’ by Andre Malraux.Lessons learned from creative writing classes at UBC paid off when it came to marshalling my own voice, even though my instructor Steven Galloway was eventually sacked after an unspecified controversy. I’d like to say JK Rowling since Harry Potter really kicked my reading and writing habits into high gear, but sadly not!
Truth and Fiction
The main dramatic arc of this book is based on the real-life exploits of the infamous gangster Botak Chin, who terrorised Kuala Lumpur in the 60s and 70s while being seen as a Robin Hood character who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and his rivalry with S. Kulasingam, the feared crime-buster of Kuala Lumpur, who eventually arrested him in a shootout on jalan Ipoh. Botak Chin was later executed and S Kualasingam passed away recently, years after retiring from the police force. In fact, the cover art, Wong Hoy Cheong’s Last Supper, taken from his ‘Chronicles of Crime’ series, is inspired by Botak Chin’s last days before facing the noose at the now-demolished Pudu Jail. Everything has been fictionalised in this novel, but if you know the stories behind these two men you can clearly see that I was heavily inspired by this story.
This book largely takes place in a Kuala Lumpur that I recalled from my trips down to the city. I had lived in Cheras for some time and various elements of the area found its way into my book, including the hillside near Leisure Mall that I used as a major setting for the story. Chinatown is based on the stories that my father told me, and I incorporated a very strong 1960s/1970s flavour into the story. Petaling Street and Jalan Sultan featured heavily in his stories and it was important to me that I included them into my book. Other miscellaneous locations were based on an overland journey that I made in the summer after my first year at the University of British Columbia, traveling through the hills of Johor and then up to the edge of northeastern Kelantan where borders became fluid, and finally Georgetown in Penang where I temporarily stayed with my granduncle in an old house next door to an opium den disguised as a Japanese restaurant.
Because all of this was written two years after my last visit to Malaysia it soon became clear that the real-life equivalents of the locations in my story were becoming indistinct and blurred in memory. Landmarks became hazy and some became more prominent, namely the Twin Towers which show up everywhere, watching over the city magnificently. On top of this I added the haze that shrouded the city, softening the outlines of buildings and keeping everything in murky gloom. The city is never clear in this book, it is a vast trap that stretches everywhere and in all directions with no clear end to it. It gives it a nice, noirish feel. By doing so Kuala Lumpur leaps from a real place into something almost imaginary, becoming almost a character in itself. It is a city on edge, presenting a gleaming modern front while still being ridden with insecurities from another time and place.
I went back to Petaling Street five years after I last saw it, and I was surprised by how many backpackers had showed up to claim it. But the seediness still remains-the surrounding area is a poor neighbourhood where recent immigrants live. It just goes to show how despite how outward appearances may differ, Kuala Lumpur still remains the same city.
Revisiting the book
The idea for this book started taking root in 2013, not long after I wrote my first published short story for Fixi Novo. It’s now been more than three years since the entire process started and I’m very happy with the end results-it’s beyond my wildest dreams. I began writing the story in Vancouver and ended the first draft after in the University of Alberta’s Rutherford Library several months later. That why, like almost all my other Fixi stories, Kings of Petaling Street contains small references to Canada, which you’ll see when you read it!
Amir first contacted me about potentially publishing the book at the end of 2014, but a combination of many things stopped us from going ahead with the launch until now. In the meantime I continued to write stories for Fixi. When editing the book began again, I realised just how much my writing style had changed in the year that had gone past when I ended it. It had been reshaped the year I spent wandering away from Vancouver to the prairies, the Okanagan Valley, and eventually Jiangsu Province in China, where I spent my evenings reading, writing, and writing.
The plot you see is largely the same as when I ended the book, but the language is very different now. It is sparser and more direct now-the first couple of drafts took away anywhere between 20 and 30 pages. In the end I’m happy with the edits, although I still personally prefer the original title :p
Someday I hope to return to the story of Maut and the Syndicate-I have a few ideas bouncing around my head right now because Malaysian news is always a good source of inspiration! But I have a few other projects that I’m interested in working on. There’s a slice-of-life book that I’d like to write about my studies in Vancouver, one about a Malayan Communist who arrives in a violent Shanghai in 1927, and finally one about a writer who travels to Toronto on the trail of Esca Brooke Daykin, the illegitimate son of the Rajah of Sarawak.
Publicity photo: Taken from Fixi London's website. Photographed by Danny Lim.