A Garden and a Mosh Pit in a Skyscraper’s Shadow

Mar 23, 2023 | | By Ancen

Photo: Ancen

Mou Tou, a small rooftop venue in Panggung Lane, Kuala Lumpur, its name meaning ‘headless’ | 3,000 words

Translated from Chinese by Jack Hargreaves

Another seriously sleepy afternoon, on a listless Friday like any other. One last needless online meeting done with, I retired my laptop to the drawer and decided to bring in the weekend early. I stretched out on the sofa, sparked up, and unlocked my phone. A series of faces of different skin tones glided across my vision. My standard move is to swipe right regardless of attraction and keep going until I reach the limit on likes for the day. No matches this time, though. 

I looked up distractedly from the screen then and spied my fixie bike—old reliable—lying there unassumingly in the living room. I remembered there was something important I still had to do—bike through downtown Kuala Lumpur. 

Time to call Raff, I thought. 

Raff was the first friend I made in KL with a different ethnic background to mine. We have the same type of bike and we both used to be bike messengers. The only thing that doesn’t match are our ends of the city.

This was during the half of the year I usually spend holed up somewhere in the Malay Peninsula, at the southernmost point of the Eurasian continental mainland. The other half I divide into stretches of various lengths loafing about in places abroad. There was a time during my exchange student days when I used to travel around hopping between odd jobs, delaying graduation as long as I could. Then the time I was working remotely and would skip out at the first chance to go explore somewhere new. 

We arranged to meet in front of Merdeka Square. After a few pleasantries, exchanging compliments about each other’s set-up the way bike people do, Raff switched to playing ‘mine host’ and touring me around his favorite spots, showing me a side of the city that most people don’t get to see.

Cycling in KL, the potholes aren’t much of an obstacle for me. The car-centric laws are the real problem. They put pedestrians and other road users in tight spots all the time, and it’s a rare moment when a driver is considerate enough to leave a safe space between you and them… 

We flew down the main roads as fast as we could, then slowed down when we turned onto one-way side streets with no traffic, taking it steady so Raff could share tidbits about the local bike culture and area. 

‘Critical Mass is next week. You coming?’ He dropped the suggestion then instantly put his head down and shot into a dark tunnel up ahead.  

I pedaled harder to catch up, blasting through the three hundred meters of straight tunnel. 

We took turns overtaking and chasing each other, sweat from the effort drenching our backs. My haziness from the weed was long gone by this point. A surge of adrenaline had replaced it, the oh-so familiar feeling of my feet driving against the pedals coming back to me.

Photos: Ancen

Hitting a crossroads fast, Raff noticed a luxury car up ahead was turning left without indicating and was about to cut us off. He skillfully stomped backwards on the pedal and sent his bike skidding around in a beautiful arc. I could smell the burned rubber. 

Still pissed after cussing the driver out and giving the middle finger, he slapped the car’s side-mirror into a crooked position. Either they knew they were in the wrong or an angry Raff looked too vicious to face off with, but the Chinese driver stayed fixed in their seat, holding their hands up to the rearview mirror in apology. 

‘Fuck you.’ Raff slapped the side of the car, and we carried on. 

This was my first time anywhere near downtown KL on a bike. The two Petronas Towers flickered in and out of view where they breached the horizon, as we passed between pockets of neighborhood yet to be redeveloped. Eventually, we stopped on Sultan Road. 

Raff headed into a general store run by Indians and came out a moment later with two Tiger beers in his hands. We drank them by the roadside. 

This is crazy, man. Thanks for the ride.’ I might be Malaysian, but my spoken Malay has never been any good. I prefer to struggle by with my crappy English when talking with non-Chinese people. 

‘I got friends coming’, said Raff. ‘We got a show tonight.’ 

‘What show?’

Raff shrugged. His face said he either didn’t know or didn’t care, keeping me in suspense. 

He gestured toward the guy standing kitty-corner from us and indicated for me to look at the tattoo on his hand. 

‘That’s a Nazi punk symbol. You see it, be careful.’ 

Nazi punk? But I missed my chance to ask. As Raff was stomping our beer cans flat, two guys rode up to us. One was on a BMX, and the other a stainless-steel road bike with an old-fashioned radio hanging from the handlebars. ‘Sugar Man’ by Rodriguez was blaring in our direction. 

I’ve seen my fair share of adventure in life, and I’m pretty comfortable with spontaneity by now. But nothing about the pair was giving away what sort of show they had in store for me. My best guess was some Woodstock revival like the young arty types are always going on about. 

I watched Raff’s friends through a space in the advertising posters on the storefront window pick out a bottle of whiskey. To be honest, I never buy anything from small stores like that one, not even toilet paper or condoms. I always think they look kind of dangerous. When the pair came out, we crossed the busy road, pushing our bikes between the traffic, and slipped down a dingy-looking alley. 

Panggung Lane in Chinese is Kwai Chai Hong, which means ‘ghost boy alley’ or maybe ‘little rascal alley’. Everybody seems to have their own theory about where it got its name. Some people say it’s what the local mums used to shout after their kids when they ran amok in the streets, especially when it rained. ‘You ghoul! Get home now!’ Over time, the idea wound its way into the place’s name. 

Whether above or below ground, by the margins or near the center, these singular spaces that exist at a remove from mainstream, capitalist trends are just waiting for the right person to stumble upon them.

We had been strolling down the alley and chatting when my new friend with the blue road bike launched into an enthusiastic guided tour. 

‘This neighborhood used to be residential. When they decided to redevelop it most of the people were pushed out. See the mural on that wall, in the corner over there? There used to be a stall right under it that sold the best cheung fan. It set on fire one day, nobody knows how. A little stall like that, do you believe it?’ 

‘Maybe someone started it?’ 

He didn’t answer. But right on cue the radio started playing ‘I Wonder’. 

‘Bro, where we go?’


This was the first thing the other of the pair, with the BMX and shoulder-length hair, had said. He pointed over my head. 


I followed his finger with my gaze. Other than Merdeka 118, which will be the world’s second-tallest building once it’s completed later this year, I couldn’t see anything else that could be described as a ‘rooftop’ spot. 

While I was still scanning our surroundings for where we might be headed, the others had input a keycode into a panel on the back-alley wall. The narrow door next to it responded by opening. 

In through the door and up the stairs, we stepped onto the second floor to find the walls plastered with posters from Tsai Ming-liang’s filmography. Why Tsai Ming-liang’s films, and why here? This turned out to be Aku Café, and the posters part of the café owner’s collection. Why he had so many from the same director is maybe a topic for another time. 

Turning away from Lee Kang-sheng’s gaze, I started up the next flight of stairs. A mishmash of graffiti, big and small, covered the walls, looking both like random squiggles and carefully-done art. But these squiggles weren’t just doodles for fun, a lot of them represented certain urban youth cultures in tone and style. 

The emergency stairwell was airtight and muggy, and bore marks from countless others who had taken the stairs before us. Here a graffitied message from someone, there a pile of equipment waiting for its owner to reclaim it. 

Overhead the beat of drums became clearer with every new floor, as if urging us onwards and upwards, giving us the confidence to explore further. 

We must have climbed five or six stories. I was the only one out of breath. When we finally reached the rooftop, the first thing that came into view was a wooden hut. On entry, the floorboards seemed to bow and threaten to break under my weight. I tried to soften my steps and at the same time etch the scene in front of me into my memory. 

My eyes came to rest on a picture on one wall: an erect penis gripped, vicelike, between a pair of hands and jammed through the space between the two Petronas towers. There was even what looked like semen shooting from the tip. I was fascinated. It took Raff shouting my name to drag me back to reality from the image of the humongous member. 

Raff gave a warm introduction to everyone he knew there, and I fist-bumped each of them in turn. One of them, probably at the sight of my shaved head, struck a kung fu pose and balled up their fists. There was no way I was going to remember all the new names, everything else was already so alien to me.

We crossed through the wooden hut and stepped outside into an open-air garden. There was still some time before the show, so I wandered around for a while on my own. Along two sides of the rooftop there was an array of different plants and flowers growing. In the more crowded areas I found myself almost instinctively searching out others with my skin tone and a common language to try and understand a little better what this place was all about. 

My tentativeness at being in this strange place for the first time wasn’t unfounded. The week before I’d taken a friend recently back from living in Paris to an underground party in the city center. We had barely left when my phone blew up with news of a police raid where we just were. We’d been smoking weed and dabbling in a few other treats while there. If they had caught us, we’d have had to cough up serious cash to get out of trouble. 

I went to sit on my own off to one side and smoke, spacing out as a procession of different faces passed by. Every now and then I caught snatches of Malay spoken too fast to make out. There was some French here and there too, which I couldn’t understand even if I heard it clearly, all spoken like it was part of some fierce debate. Then at last I heard the familiar sound of someone swearing in the Cantonese of Kuala Lumpur. I looked up and saw two older Chinese guys moving the sound equipment into the center of the balcony. 

‘Hey, quicker, hey. It’s heavy!’

‘Shiiiit! Lift it higher!’

Ending up in a place like this was not what I had expected. There was no server to welcome you at the door, no fan or AC positioned nearby, and there were only two or three kinds of beer available at the bar. Just as I was wrapping my head around this, Raff came over.  

‘Dude, you good?’ 


We touched cups, then he passed me another empty one and poured in pre-mixed whisky and coke.

‘We tong tong this whiskey. If you have extra money, you can pay him.’

‘Tong tong?’

‘Yes. We share the bills.’

‘Okay. How much?’

Raff touched his cup against mine again and made a gesture like ‘whatever’. Then he disappeared once more. 

This being my first time somewhere like this, all my reference points were useless. All I had was pure exploration to rely on, feeling it out, all judgment reserved.

I watched some people start to help move the speakers, Malay folks shuttling back and forth in front of me with hair down to their waists, wearing rainbow shorts and funky jackets. It looked like there would be more performers than people watching, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, everyone looked to be having a good time. I felt like I was watching performance art. 

I was getting tipsy now. I stood up and headed for the garden outside. More and more people were filing up the stairs from Panggung Lane and stopping to watch the setting sun over the platform at Pasar Seni Station dip ever lower in the sky. I laid with my back against the terrace wall and shut my eyes a while.

When I opened them again, it was already dark, and people thronged around me. The audience was over 99% Malays and dressed mostly in black, with band t-shirts, Vans skate shoes, mid-length locks and studded leather jackets everywhere you looked. 

I found Raff in the crowd. He had his bag slung over his shoulder. 

‘You leave?’ 

‘Hey man, I ciao first. Have fun.’

Ciao? If this was some Cantonese swear word, I had no idea what it meant. I was out of my depth.  

I still hadn’t been able to figure out what the show was going to be. I found the bar’s owner near the sound desk in the middle of inspecting the equipment and decided to ask in Chinese. 

‘Hey, boss, what’s the show tonight?’

‘Boss? I’m not your boss. It’s a punk show, can’t you tell?’


He shook his waist-length hair. 

The crowd was packing in tighter around me now, and the baying had reached a clamor. The throng of people somehow managed to jostle me to the front row, right in time for the night’s first band. 

The drummer kicked things off without prelude, with a full force thwack of his sticks against the set. The crowd’s roar almost burst my eardrums. This was the first time in my life I’d ever brushed shoulders, literally, with so many Malays. It was a special moment, for sure. While the lead singer tested the upper limits of how loud he could scream, the crowd parted like the ocean tide receding to leave a space in its center; then a beat later, it came crashing together again. People jumped and smashed against each other over and over. Taken off guard, I was almost knocked onto my ass from all the shoving. Luckily, someone caught me firmly from behind and pushed me back into the thick of it. 

Eventually I managed to escape the crush and drag myself battered and bruised to the bar for a break. The biker friends I met earlier were still sitting around just outside the wooden hut. The highlight of the night for me was still to come. 

It was the last group to take to the stage. I just couldn’t get over the sheer number of Chinese curses the singer used in his lyrics. Malay singers swear in Chinese too? I was desperate to learn more and eventually talked to someone in the crowd who said the singer was mixed race and came from Malaysian Borneo. The target of his anger was realities that left him ostracized in his own country. He had lived without an identity card since he was a kid, and to this day our government doesn’t recognize his citizenship. According to him, there are still many, many more people back in Malaysian Borneo in this very situation. As the emotion in his singing voice intensified, the din of the crowd grew ever louder. At the climactic moment, the drummer held off a half bar, then ended the song with one final crash. 

What kind of person doesn’t have proof of their identity? Who does that make them? The more I listened to the singer’s story, the more I struggled to make that person out. All I knew was that this punk community and the singer’s love for punk music had given him a chance at a new life. 

Everyone there reminded me of the typical ‘hippy’ you find in the Malay Peninsula. But beneath their getups and their posing, their ideals and stories were what really shone. 

With all the joints and cheap whiskey being passed through the crowd, you would think that by the third round everyone’s inhibitions would have gone out the window. But it turned out I was the only one there without self-control. 

Letting loose and getting wild are a way for some people to show off—class markers, almost, or privileges. But here, in this space, that wasn’t the case. The vibe was unlike anything I was accustomed to; blending in meant a different kind of socialization.

My eardrums were pounding by this point, more than I liked, so I decided to leave while they were still intact. 

‘Hey, baldie, what’s your name?’

The owner called to me unexpectedly on my way down the stairs. Before I had a chance to respond, he said:

‘There’s a DJ on here next week. Come if you’re free. Silent Keat’s playing.’


I wanted to ask for details, but a flow of people leaving was carrying me with it. 

Is there such a thing as an ideal city? One that fits the bill perfectly in every way? Everyone will have their own ideas about what would make it so, of course. Maybe it’s the climate, or the comprehensive public transport, or the rows of serried skyscrapers and the dramatic third-world skyline they create. Others will care more whether it exhibits any of the myriad of Western progressive values and if so, how many: if we’ve embraced diversity, legalized same-sex marriage and cannabis, abolished the death penalty….

But if we can hold off judgment, go in ‘headless’ like this bar’s name suggests, there’s plenty of diversity—and progress—to be found here. 

For me, a measure of a good city is the number of subcultures and alternative scenes it houses. Hidden away, out of reach of mainstream values, these spontaneous and self-sustaining communities have no interest in commercial profit. They are happy with their own nooks to exist in, where they can resonate the cultural pulse of the city. 

Photo: Ancen

The underground in Kuala Lumpur isn’t just for the urban middle class to flaunt their cool taste. It’s a quiet corner for tribes of people to live out and preserve their own practical ideals and build a network that will allow other people to do the same. One that welcomes nameless writers like me to join them in enjoying a beautiful moment together and maybe carve out a niche of our own.

I encountered pure spontaneity at Mou Tou, experienced a fresh and compelling way of imagining and building a neighborhood and community. Whether above or below ground, by the margins or near the center, these singular spaces that exist at a remove from mainstream, capitalist trends are just waiting for the right person to stumble upon them. 

So next time you find yourself on the platform of Pasar Seni Station and look up at the world’s second tallest building, maybe lower your gaze slightly, to a spot not too far from the foot of the skyscraper. You might discover a rooftop garden there, a place where none of the usual rules apply and you can do whatever you want. Where no one’s your boss, and there is no ‘head’ to speak of. Just lots of heart, and zero violence. 

© Ancen

English translation © Jack Hargreaves

Commissioning editor: Wong Kai Hui

About The Author


Ancen is from Malaysia. He enjoys writing short novels, drama series and movie scripts. You can find his scribbles at https://matters.news/@ancensuwfy and contact him by emailing ancensuwfy@gmail.com.

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