For the last few months, I have been using Kuala Lumpur as a base for Southeast Asian travel. As a city that is modern but affordable, bustling but not chaotic, and friendly but not overbearing, it makes for a perfect two- or three-week pit stop between month-long explorations of the disorganized joy of Indonesia or the Philippines.
For my last KL pit stop, I spent three weeks in an AirBnb in a slightly run-down condo in the Maluri area. Located just outside the center, it’s a relatively lower-end area – but, being that “low-end” is relative term in a prosperous and developed city like KL, it just ends up having a bit more local colour than some of the more posh areas of the city. The Chinese and Malay neighbourhoods nearby are ridiculously overstuffed with tasty (albeit sugar- and palm oil-laden) food options, and the whole area gives off a chilled-out, family-oriented, quasi-suburban vibe.
Underneath my condo complex there was a shopping mall that has seen better days, if indeed those better days ever existed. The inside of the mall is nearly deserted, with a few comparative glimmers of commercial life in the street-facing shopfronts. A Thai restaurant caters to the sizeable local community of Thais. But these are only small glimmers of hope in a mall that is mostly a hollowed-out shell, with the vast majority of the storefronts devoid of shops, or at least of customers.
And there, amidst it all, there was Zoe. Zoe – yes, the name is really just Zoe – was a shiny new clothing boutique that had opened in one of the slightly less doomed, street-facing storefronts of the derelict mall. The store opened recently with much pomp, the sidewalk in front of it lined with absolutely massive bouquets of flowers. Each bouquet had a card attached, seemingly wishing all the best to Ms. Zoe from her Malaysian-Chinese friends. I felt a bit squeamish right from the start, contemplating the likely outcome of such auspicious well-wishing for such an inauspiciously located shop. I vividly imagined the hope and passion and excitement that Ms. Zoe must have poured into her shop, and the uncertainty and squeamishness she must have felt over its future.
I walked by Zoe each day, occasionally peeking inside to see if I could detect any sign of customers. There was none. And still the ostentatious floral arrangements remained outside. Gradually, I noticed the flowers starting to wither and wilt – a little too on-the-nose as metaphors go – and still I never spotted a customer. I thought about how all of the good wishes from all the friends in the world couldn’t make it easier to compete with the gleaming new Sunway Velocity shopping mall a kilometre away, in a car-crazed country where people would rather drive to the mall than go to the trouble of riding the elevator downstairs to buy a new dress. And I thought about how Zoe must have felt with each passing day, paying rent and wages for a store without visible customers.
In the end, I checked out of my AirBnb and flew to Bangkok without ever knowing whether Zoe got to experience a turnaround. I’ll be back in KL in two weeks, but will once again be in a new AirBnb, and will probably just make myself at home in my new neighbourhood instead of returning to any of the old places that I so briefly called home in the KL area. Perhaps I’ll return to Maluri months or years from now to have my favourite breakfast of nasi lemak, and will discover that Zoe has reverted to its natural state as an empty storefront, or perhaps that it is still doggedly holding on to solvency, or even unexpectedly booming.
In the meantime, I am left to wonder why I care so very deeply. I’ve been saddened by my daily walks past so many empty cafes, restaurants and shops in so many of my AirBnb neighbourhoods around the world, and although I guess some degree of empathy is human and normal, I’m not sure why I would single out under-performing small businesses amidst all of the far more terrible forms of suffering that exist in this wretched world. Perhaps I should be more concerned about the trafficked child labourers mining the rare earth metals in my cell phone, and less concerned about the fate of a Malaysian clothing boutique.
Beyond that, there are good reasons why I specifically shouldn’t give a damn about what happens to any individual small business. Retail and restaurants are incredibly risky at the best of times, and anyone who opens a shop or restaurant should accept the very high probability that they’ll come out of it without the shirt on their backs. For people who aren’t natural born business geniuses or who don’t have an irrational degree of passion, opening a business isn’t really the best idea. So, I should probably accept that these individuals have willingly chosen to toss themselves in the off chance that the bloodthirsty God of Commerce might actually spare them the gruesome fate that is nearly a foregone conclusion.
And yet. Every time I walk by an empty shop during peak shopping hours or an unoccupied restaurant with waiting staff who gaze upon me with vaguely pleading eyes, I can’t help but feel pain in my heart. It’s fundamentally dumb, but perhaps I should just be grateful that my heart does at least beat a little bit for something, no matter how ludicrously arbitrarily it may seem. Or, it could just mean that my priorities and my moral compass are fundamentally messed up. Either way, good luck to you, Zoe, and to all of the Zoes of the world – Consider this my bouquet to you, one that will never wilt, with a 1,000-word card attached for good measure.