There is a street in the heart of Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur called Jalan Petaling, home of the famous “Petaling Street Warriors”. A street of gangs and vendors and people from all different countries, arriving in the thriving underbelly of Malaysia to carve out their lives amongst the neon lights, souvenir booths, the deep fried food stalls and the pirate DVD vendors.
In the intersection of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Hang Lekir, with the Hello Kitty store nearby and the old restaurant that serves black noodles at night and a variety of porridges in the morning, is the home of a thirsty mouse. I have seen this mouse many times over the years as I pass through Kuala Lumpur on my way to or from places in South East Asia, as Air Asia is my gateway to the region and they always fly through KL, so when I stay, it is always in Petaling Street.
The mouse isn’t real. He’s a small stuffed toy. But he is still thirsty. The locals prop him up against a small can of soft drink in the dead centre of the mall late in the evening and stand back. They just watch people to see how attentive they are. How many people see the mouse, how many people stop to photograph the mouse, and how many people are not too busy running from store to stop collecting souvenirs and DVD’s to notice a tiny grey mouse drinking from a soft drink can in the middle of Petaling Street.
Many times they have to call “Tut tut tut TUT TUT !” to people as they walk through, oblivious to the tiny mouse on the road. Some get the hint and slow down to look around. Some barge right on through and kick the mouse and the can flying like a piece of trash. Someone nearby always gets up and walks over to pick up the mouse and reset him to his position, drinking whatever current flavour of disused soda they’ve finished through a thin, mouse-sized straw made out of a toothpick.
The mouse is a tiny part of KL’s Chinatown culture. He has come and he will no doubt go again, just like the many other travellers and trends that beset the city, much like the Gangnam Style t-shirts that stay for a few months or like the mass of Angry Birds merchandise that seem to pervade the area forever. I asked one of the DVD sellers named Roy that I was friends with if the mouse had a name. He said “I think he has many names. You can call him whatever you want”. I choose to call him Algernon.
After visiting Malaysia many times, I have always chosen to stay at the same hotel in Petaling Street. I always stay at Chinatown Inn #1. I hear #2 is just as good. But I always stay at #1 even though they’re not far apart. I remember the reason I first booked it. I read a negative review online where a guest complained “If you open the windows at night, the market street is so noisy until midnight that you cannot sleep”. Being a person who likes to be in the thick of things, I thought this sounded perfect for me. Unfortunately it wasn’t anywhere near as noisy as the complaint on Agoda made out, but I still always love this hotel.
Recently I was in Malaysia and it was two years since I had previously been to Petaling Street and seen the thirsty mouse and met up with my friends to hit up the reggae bars and shisha places. With the markets opening for the afternoon , I wandered down to the DVD shop where I had met Roy a couple of years earlier. I asked for him by name and of course, everyone knew him. “Oh Roy ? He’s on the corner now, outside the flower shop that opens at 4pm” someone told me. I thanked them and went and ate in the food court as usual, sampling some incredible Thai lemon chicken and later some of the best Indian curry I’d had in years, both for only 7 RM each. When evening fell, I went walking leisurely down the street. I found no flower shop, but a pirate DVD vendor ran out and tried to convince me to buy some terrible and overpriced DVD’s. I knew from experience that his shop was a dump and he basically had nothing but western movies and porn. He even whispered “I have some of the secret stuff too if you want”. I wasn’t sure what sort of stuff was so secret that it had to be so unmentionable, but despite my curiosity I had things to do and as much as I would have liked to know what that meant, I’m sure I didn’t want to buy whatever it was anyway, so I just asked about Roy.
“No, he’s not at the flower shop. He’s at one of the bag shops down the street further” the overly eager vendor named Akash told me after pressing a home-made and handwritten card into my hand. I thanked him and wandered down past the many bag stalls, picking up a lovely Hello Kitty shoulder bag similar to the one I’d bought at the same stall two years earlier. The guy named a fairly high price and I grinned and showed him my old one. I said “I bought this from you two years ago. How about you give me the real price”. He laughed and immediately dropped his price and I accepted it without further deliberation.
Wandering across the road I saw a somewhat familiar face and asked “Roy ? Is that you ?”, not quite recognising him with the thick, bushy beard. “David !” he cried out. “I remember you ! We went out together a couple of years ago and smoked shisha right ?” I was pleased his memory of me was as good as mine of him, especially considering the amount of people he must meet every day in the markets. We arranged to go and play pool and smoke at a rooftop bar after work since Roy himself didn’t drink alcohol due to being a devout Muslim.
When it came time to go out, I was a little bit distracted by my writing and I missed our deadline by a little. I grabbed a beer from a guy with a cart full of drinks and ice that he served to the locals after work and sat around waiting and watching all the market vendors laughing and unwinding with a few drinks as the street slowly packed up. Eventually when I decided I’d missed Roy because the crowd was thinning out and everyone was going home, I decided to go for a wander. I headed down the nearly empty street past Roy’s old DVD shop. There was a small group of Chinese and Indian Malaysians there drinking outside the shop. I stood for a moment and then nodded to them. I made a comment about the street being quiet or something.
A big burly guy toasted me and said “Hey, why don’t you come and sit down ?” I thanked him and took the offer and they made room for me. He explained that his name was Jack and showed me the tattoo on the back of his neck where it was written. I guess that made him easy to remember, as being a short, muscular Chinese guy with large earlobe rings and tattoos sort of made him stand out. Another guy introduced himself as Satsuke.
I chuckled and said “I knew you were half Japanese”. “How ?” he demanded to know.”The moustache,” I replied. “That short stubbly moustache on your upper lip is quite uniquely Japanese”. Satsuke laughed and banged his beer against mine with a big pearly smile.
A couple of guys wandered past, one begging and the other with a beer. They chased him out and told him to go home. I asked why he wasn’t welcome and Jack gave me a bit of advice I remember so clearly. He said “We all work very hard here until midnight every day. That guy doesn’t work. He would have bought that beer with money he was given. It’s not that we don’t like him, it’s just that we’re here to unwind after work. It’s a tough job and you don’t want to take that home to your wife. Keep your work troubles at work and drink them away before you go home so that you can go home with a clean mind and a happy heart to see your family”.
I nodded in appreciation and said “That is truly wise advice Jack. I like that a lot” and toasted him again with another beer I’d bought from the nearby 7/11. I turned to the small group and asked a question that had been on my mind ever since I landed back in KL. “You guys know the mouse right ? The toy one that used to drink from the soft drink can in the middle of the intersection at night. I haven’t seen it since I’ve been here”.
Satsuke looked me with a slightly bemused smile and said “You remember that huh ? That guy moved away. He lives in Ipoh now. He still has the mouse too. I can’t believe you remember that. That was a long time ago”. I nodded and said “The mouse was here every time I visited Chinatown. It was a really cool feature that I loved. I’m sad that it’s not here anymore but I’m happy to hear that you know where it went”. Another guy said “Yeah, go and visit Ipoh and you can see the mouse. The guy still puts it outside every night. He’s been doing it for years either here or somewhere else”.
I was pleased to learn that Algernon the thirsty mouse hadn’t been stomped on or thrown into a rubbish bin but in fact had traveled to another part of Malaysia to entertain other people. Maybe one day he’ll turn up in Penang or even some other country altogether. I guess some things do change, a little. But people always remember them, and the thirsty mouse was an iconic part of Chinatown for the market vendors for years so it’s great that he’s still getting around and entertaining people just by drinking out of a toothpick “straw” from a soft drink can on the street.
I thanked my new friends for their company and promised to drop back tomorrow to buy some DVD’s (which I did, and bought some fabulous Singaporean and Malay movies at “mate’s rates”) and then gave a final toast in honour of the departed mouse and went back to my hotel to dream about pretty Malay girls and mice and all the fun things I would do the next day.
I wondered if there was somewhere I could buy a toy mouse to take back to Saigon with me to set up in Bui Vien street. Maybe I’ll have to take a trip up to Ipoh next time I’m in Malaysia just to check on how Algernon is doing. I’m sure the thirsty mouse is still drinking soda somewhere in the country to this day.