Have you ever wondered what is the fascination of the Far East for the English? Noel Coward sang about it and Somerset Maugham rhapsodised about it in some of his short stories. Western men go to great lengths to meet Thai women, because they seem to exude a subtle magic which their own womankind cannot equal. How many movies and novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have featured a veranda on a rubber plantation in Malaya, a bunch of sweating English men smoking cigars and chatting into the night while the chirping, clicking orchestra of the jungle goes on in the darkness all around them? Sheer magic!
How do I know this? Because I'm sitting writing to you from Malaysia and it's the monsoon season. Short sunny mornings give way to grey, humid lunchtimes, followed by afternoons of torrential rain and violent thunder storms. Heavy humidity covers you in sweat and steam rises from the dripping foliage. It's as hot as a sauna and even sitting still is an exertion. So, you ask, where's the magic?
Let me try to explain. Picture rolling hills covered in emerald green rainforest, huge cumulus clouds piled up into a dazzling blue sky, slate grey at the base with a threat of rain. Picture lightly built, brown Malay people, graceful in their movements and bearing a smile which never seems to fade. The only seasons here are the wet and the dry. The temperature remains the same all year round, the sort of heat which will melt lead. The sun always rises at seven and always sets at seven, a permanent equinox, for the Equator is within spitting distance.
The capital city is Kuala Lumpur, a brash, bold statement in stainless steel and tinted glass, epitomised by the Petronas Twin Towers standing well over a thousand feet tall, the centre of a network of broad toll roads and motorways feeding the voracious appetite of the capital. New tin mines gouge great red scars in the forest and everywhere there are construction sites, chic new private airports and sports stadia.
This is a country with a sense of purpose. It's going somewhere very fast and for the West it will be the very devil to compete with.
And they no longer wear hats like plates.
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