THE blazing mid-morning heat in the heart of Petaling Street does nothing to dim the riot of colours inthispartofthecity. Chinatown, they said. We’ll meet at Chinatown. Narrowly dodging a chestnut seller, I’ve been circling the area twice already. “Flowers miss?” “Handbags... branded... murah!” Calls ring out. The roads are filling with people. Shoppers, tourists, families, youths walk leisurely around the area. It’s a work day, but there’s no sense of urgency in the air. It’s business as usual on a sunny Monday morning.
Jalan Sultan is at the heart of KL’s bustling Chinatown, just at the bottom of the chaotic Petaling street market. This is street food paradise with both pavements packed with hawkers cooking over blazing woks, cauldrons bubbling away, and hungry diners sitting on metal stools ordering different dishes from each stall.
But food is furthest from my mind at the moment. It’s already 11.30am — almost time for the lunch crowd to start thronging the busy street. And I’m still lost. Chinatown is slowly taking on a form of a strange treasure quest and I’m here in search of an artist, an activist and a mural that promises to take my breath away.
There’s something brewing at this side of the town, and it has nothing to do with food. Greenpeace Malaysia, in collaboration with award-winning artist Lee Hui Ling, has come up with a dazzling new mural at KL’s historic Chinatown district. The mural is part of a global art intervention entitled “Wings of Paradise” which marks the start of Greenpeace’s worldwide campaign to stop the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest for palm oil.
“We’re across the road, actually,” says Heng Kiah Chun, public engagement campaigner for Greenpeace Malaysia. He’s standing there just across the road waving at me, with mobile in hand. Quest completed. Activist found, artist waiting inside and mural is about to be discovered. “It’s not far from here,” reassures Heng. It’s little wonder I couldn’t find the place. The cafe is a little nondescript nook tucked away in a pre-war building sans signboard. “Thank you for coming,” says Heng solemnly and we walk in to greet the smiling Lee, seated at the far end of the cafe.
Greenpeace and art? I ask wryly. Heng merely smiles. He gets what I’m talking about. Greenpeace gets a lot of flak for its aggressive, embarrassing campaigns against corporations, but the simple truth is that they often work. But this is what Greenpeace is all about — talking the talk
and walking the walk.
It all started when a group of American and Canadian journalists and activists, inspired by the Quaker ideology of bearing witness to social problems, banded together and sailed a small vessel to protest the US government’s testing of nuclear weapons beneath the island of Amchitka off the coast of Alaska in 1971. Their coalition — then called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee — sparked the beginnings of Greenpeace, an organisation that years later has 40 offices internationally and takes on some of the world’s most powerful political and corporate entities in the name of protecting the planet.
Protesting everything from nuclear testing to ocean dumping of toxic and radioactive waste, to whaling, and the destruction of ancient forests has brought the organisation up against governments and corporations worldwide — one reason why Greenpeace doesn’t solicit corporate or political funding. “You don’t accept donations from corporations?” I ask again, aghast.
“No we don’t. We get our funding through public donations. Financial independence is core to our work and one of our greatest strengths. It gives us the freedom to take on environmental destruction wherever and whenever it occurs without conflict of interest,” says Heng.
For this global art intervention titled “Wings of Paradise”, Greenpeace has launched a worldwide campaign to stop the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest for palm oil. According to research conducted by Greenpeace, the palm oil industry has already destroyed large areas of rainforests in Indonesia and is now encroaching into the pristine tropical rainforest landscapes of Papua to expand its operations. If not stopped, this can lead to one of our planet’s most precious ecosystems being wiped out.
“The fact remains that environmental devastation has got everything to do with us, although the focus of the campaign is on Indonesia,” says Heng. We’re all affected, he points out, referring to the perennial haze issue that besets surrounding countries including Malaysia. Burning forests and land in Indonesia has become an annual phenomenon but the fires have created a dangerous haze over Singapore and Malaysia. Satellite imageries show that significant parts of the fires lie within palm