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Saturday, January 16, 2010

MALAYSIA..IN THE EYES OF THE WORLD...


KL recently made it to New York Times’ list of 31 places to visit in 2010. Americans know more about Malaysia these days – thanks to the growing Malaysian community there.

WHEN it comes to promoting Malaysia in the US, no one does it better than our own compatriots.

Whether they are personalities who have made it big, students, professionals, businessmen or migrant workers, these Malaysians have to some extent, helped raise the level of awareness of the country among Americans.

The mention of Malaysia these days no longer draws blank looks, although the country is still less known than Thailand or Singapore.

Remarks like “It’s near Singapore/Bangkok/Jakarta, isn’t it?” still crop up but it is refreshing to hear New Yorkers and other Americans also talking about our Twin Towers, modern airport and humongous shopping malls.

The more inquisitive would ask about political developments, religious freedom, race relations and how the people are tackling the recession.

Most times, the topic veers towards Malaysian food, which has become a popular cuisine in New York, thanks to the Penang and Nyonya eatery chains that have sprung up over the last two decades and the newer Laut restaurant that has been pulling in the crowds in the yuppy Flatiron neighbourhood.

Last week, the New York Times (NYT) featured KL as one of 31 places to visit in 2010. Top spot went to Sri Lanka while other Asian destinations were Seoul, Mysore, Koh Samui, Shanghai, Mumbai and Shenzen.

Travel writer Naomi Lindt wrote that “while Phuket and Angkor Wat are tourism anchors in South-East Asia, jetsetters in the region are heading these days to Kuala Lumpur ... that’s quietly evolved into one of the area’s coolest and friendliest cities”.

Never mind that KL occupied the second last spot; it still made the list – Singapore didn’t, and for Malay-sians here, that is something to gloat about.

New York-based fashion designer Zang Toi was elated when he read the news.

“That was a fantastic spot in the NYT. Let’s hope, together, we can help our country move into the top 10 in the near future,” said the ever optimistic Zang, one of Malaysia’s most famous exports to the Empire State.

In his 20 years in NYC, Zang has emerged as one of the better known designers in the world’s leading fashion city, with a celebrity-packed clientele that includes Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, Desperate Housewifes star Eva Longoria and actress Sharon Stone.

Fame has not spoilt this humble “anak Malaysia” who is full of zest when talking about home.

“I often encourage my clients and friends to skip Phuket and Bali and head to our uniquely beautiful and friendly country instead. And we do have the most delicious cuisine of all South-East Asian countries,” he enthused.

“I would also encourage them to venture out of KL to Kelantan, my home state, for the most authentic and delicious Malay food, Penang for the hawker fare and Malacca for Nyonya cuisine.

“Our local arts and crafts like the batik, sarong fabrics and intricately crafted silver are fantastic as well.”

He observed that New Yorkers and Americans in general were definitely much more aware of Malaysia than 20 years ago.

“Bangkok and Bali were the hotspots then and I personally think Malaysia has a good opportunity to claim it if only we can persuade our Government to bring back the Malaysia Airline NYC-KL route – that’s key to the branding of Malaysia to New Yorkers!”

Zang’s remark has certainly hit the mark. Our very own national carrier stopped flying to New York in October.

The NYT article had named several carriers like Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Qatar Airways that connect KL and New York with stopovers in Hong Kong, Seoul or Doha.

The fashion maestro also felt Malaysia should try to retain its unique identity.

“We must encourage our local businesses to keep our cuisine and arts and crafts authentically Malaysian, instead of modifying them to suit Western tastes!”

Student representative Mohd Farhan Hasan said that when he started his first year at Stevens Institute, New Jersey, three years ago, none of his American fellow coursemates had heard of Malaysia.

To enlighten them, Malaysian students adopted the role of little ambassadors, highlighting the country’s attractions and correcting misconceptions.

“In Stevens, Malaysia Night is a major event every year. It is our way of presenting Malaysian food, culture and tourism attractions to ‘outsiders’,” Farhan elaborated.

Students would put up Tourism Malaysia posters of the country’s attractions and showcase KL’s modern infrastructure – which the American students found awesome.

“They couldn’t believe we built the Petronas Twin Towers and KLCC. A civil engineering student had a lot of questions to ask about our impressive towers!” he added. Farhan, who hails from Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor, agreed that another attraction was Malaysian food.

Malaccan husband and wife team Michael and Kathy Wong never knew just how much New Yorkers enjoyed spicy cuisine until they opened Laut two years ago.

Customers have been flocking to the restaurant for its panggang ikan pari, char koay teow, roti canai, pasembur and curries, drawn there by word of mouth and via online reviews.

According to Michael, many customers would ask about the origin of the food served, and both he and Kathy were always ready to share stories about Malaysia.

The couple often end up telling their customers how to get there.

By LIM AI LEE

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