Kuala Lumpur Day 7: Malaysia – a mistake?

I had been increasingly worried about Kuala Lumpur as a destination to research spitting. When setting up the research I had had some information that suggested it was a betel chewing nation. However, after the plane had been booked and the itinerary set, it began to emerge that similar to Singapore, Malaysia/KL was now a ‘clean’ country. Indeed my academic contact, Dr Rosila Bee in the Sociology Department at the University of Malaya and Liew, a first year undergraduate student who volunteered to be my guide (all guides were paid) both told me that they didn’t think I would have anything to study.

A bit reticent that I would be wasting two days and a whole country I set off with Liew to see what we could see. I was also very tired having flown through the night and grabbed only four hours sleep. We took the monorail to some market areas with Chinese and Indian populations/stalls that Liew had thought was our best bet, disembarked the monorail, and within yards I said to Liew ‘that’s a paan spitting mark’. He was sceptical and so was I (if I am honest) – spitting didn’t happen in KL/Malaysia. We continued – walked around a bunch of areas, but then in an area called Jalan Hang Kasturi I saw the paan stains, then some more in Jalan Petaling (Chinatown) and nearby in Kota Raya. Most stains were near shops run by Indians (from India).

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Liew was shocked but believed me. In the end we traced some processed Gutka and chewing tobacco in Leboh Pudu. Gutka is essentially pre-made (processed ‘paan’ dried and put into packets – see image).

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We asked around (we asked Indians) and were pointed towards an actual paan vendor similar to those encountered all over Mumbai.

There we chatted to the two Indian sellers who told us that Nepalese were their main buyers but also Indians, Chinese and Malays. Liew was again shocked as he had assumed any involvement would not involve Malays. Both paan (in Malaysia it is called sirih but I will call it paan for ease and to avoid confusion) sellers were chewing and had red gums and teeth as did one of their clients who gave us permission to use his image.

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The sellers believed and related that chewing betel was good for you and strengthened the gums.

Visible and invisible

The paan stains were visible in all of these areas (which were contiguous with each other) in some places they were extensive and reminiscent of Mumbai but mostly here they were into drains and only a familiar eye would know what they were looking at. The real point to be made here is that those that did not know what the stains were simply didn’t notice them. The practice appears not to be sufficient to draw much/any notice and also the regularly washed pavements retained little evidence of it.

As Liew remarked after a while, ‘spitting is common’ when previously he thought it was entirely absent.

We also noticed (and then counted) – without any effort – 10 people spitting spittle/phlegm, whilst we walked. One of these was a Malay women and again Liew was shocked. The others were all men,: 2 Chinese and 7 Indians (we have no idea whether these are recent migrants, first/second or longer generation).

Spitting is not prevalent in KL as we found on the first day but it certainly does exist, could not be said to be rare and was nuanced in some interesting ways. For example, when we visited ‘Little India’ a more tourist orientated (see pic) specifically styled Indian area we found almost no paan stains and little gutka for sale, despite a heavily populated area of Indians. Here is Liew with Little India behind him.

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It seems that most paan chewing and spitting is undertaken by (probably fairly recent) migrants populating the areas previously mentioned. Where Indians were more fully integrated (as in and around ‘Little India’) less chewing and spitting (but not none) was evident, even in the back streets (although I could still notice a faded paan stain around every few metres indicating some modest activity that gets washed away by the rainfall).

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