Wednesday, January 23, 1991

The Coliseum Bar, Kuala Lumpur

Written in 1991 for G.Q.; published a decade later by National Geographic Traveler

"East? They wouldn’t know the bloody East if they saw it. Not if you was to hand it to them on a plate would they know it was the East. That’s where the East is, there." He waved his hand wildly into the black night. . . .

With this drunken outburst begins Anthony Burgess’ classic Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, set in the dusk of the British Empire. Three decades later, on any night of the week, no such accusation of ignorance can be levelled at the sprawling, half-cocked, half-crocked denizens of the Coliseum Bar in Kuala Lumpur ("Kuala L’Impure" to its friends), here in the capital of the Federation of Malaysia. These poor sods all know the East—top to bedraggled bottom, they are the bloody East.

This seedy establishment, officially the Coliseum Cafe and Hotel (it lets out a few bare rooms upstairs), has been going steadily downhill throughout the seven decades of its prosperous existence. Somerset Maugham, looking for stories, frequented and loved the place in better years. Today it has little in common with other former haunts of his—toity, posh K.L. clubs like the exclusive Selangor with its gentlemen, crickets, horses, and sultans’ sons. The Coliseum remains a watering hole for loyal and traitorous sons of the Empire alike, no matter what their creed, color, or disinheritance. It is one of the most democratic bars in Southeast Asia.

It inhabits a colonially-columned, tottering building fronting at 98-100 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Every Saturday evening a boisterous local market throngs the street with vibrant Malay spicesand uproar. Inside the warm, wormy, smoky recesses of the Coliseum, however, all is fog, drink, and decay.

You push your way in through creaking, saloon-style swinging doors. At the far end, barely visible through the haze, past the Victorian coat rack, at an ancient, chest-high bar several old-timers, a silent ex-planter (one of the last) among them, are hanging on for dear life. They have been here since before lunchtime. The air is fumed with fresh tobacco and stale Tiger beer, churned lethargically by a wide-bladed overhead fan. A newcomer remarks on the grueling December heat; a sweating veteran with effort lifts his chin off the scarred bar, exhales one "Godormighty," and crashes his head down again. The talk, as always in such rare vestiges of an empire long gone, is of Getting Away.

A bottle of cold Tiger is bought for the newcomer by a still-upright Malay who speaks good English. In a low voice he takes a turn around the room:

"I know most of ’em. I’m not here all the time, you understand. Upcountry part of every week. You might say I’m a regular irregular. Now, the unconscious feller we’re a little worried about. Hasn’t changed his clothes since yesterday, which means he hasn’t been home. He’s a musician, some of the time. Now, they—"A group huddled in a corner, their skins ranging from pale white to dark teak. "Two of those are civil servants. Don’t know the others. Up to no good, plotting something, I imagine. The old bugger with the Nehru cap owns this place—bought it off a Chinese family years ago. Place is a bloody gold mine, if you ask me. About to cave in, probably, but there you are. . . Now this bloke here says he’s from Perth— aren’t you, Alf? He’s been out here donkey’s years. In timber. Originally from Calcutta, no matter what he says. Anglo-Indian: English, but born out East. When you going back to Calcutta, Alf?"

"Not bloody soon. You used to be able to cross the bloody street in Calcutta. Nowadays it’s bad as London. Why, the last time—"

Above the bar a sign assures the clientele that, for their benefit, only non-hygienic water is used to dilute the drinks.

In the restaurant adjoining, a waiter conscientiously knots an enormous bib around a customer's neck to protect him from clouds of hissing smoke when a steak is brought in, sizzling on a metal platter. As the evening declines toward the ten o’clock last call—for drinks begin early and end early in the East—the irregular regulars, most of whom are here every night, stagger into the restaurant for fortification against a humid, insect-ridden sleep.

For these weary men (not a woman to be seen among them), with their easy mingling of race with race and religion with religion, their doglike affection for each other, their heart attacks coming as surely as the holidays—for these men, will always be of Getting Away. But in these final dim outposts of a life long waned and gone, there is no Away, only the prospect. Meanwhile, the Coliseum—and "the bloody East"—will have to do.