There was once upon a time, when Sungei Wang was the first and newest shopping center in all of Kuala Lumpur. The terrazzo tiles were shiny white and the air-conditioning blew vigorously, sometimes accompanied by white streamers flapping out of the vents with manic gaiety. I don’t remember very well, but it seemed like five levels all looking down into a central, square area – connected by many escalators. Everywhere the tapping of feet tramping up and down these five levels echoed endlessly and blended in with the Chinese pop songs, or Malay ballads or Lionel Ritchie coming out of the cassette tape vendors on every floor. Clean neon signs blinked without any dust or grime, yet…from the humid, traffic laden air outside.
What do people do on the weekend? Whole families come and stroll in the cool clean breeze and bright lights. They come from all over, from the suburbs, from outlying villages – Cheras, Kampar, Klang, Kajang. They tramp all over industriously window shopping, looking for a shrewd bargain.
I looked over from the dismal choice at the bookshelves in front of me and there was a Bad Man talking to my little sister. He was dressed like an office worker in a white shirt and smart slacks. He was a very confident Bad Man, smooth and sweet like a barracuda gleaming in between the humanity passing around us. My parents had left us there and gone to do an errand, assuming a bookshop would be a fairly safe place. There was no one else near us, the place seemed deserted as I craned my neck to see if they had returned. Yinmei was only four years old but she had a mulish expression on her face, she was a smart kid. She wasn’t buying any of this chat from the Bad Man, he was offering to buy her a book. He was in between us. I was twelve and hypersensitive, I knew he was dangerous with his smooth eyes and his smooth words and I felt like a little fish in front of this barracuda. I knew that Bad Men who lose face or felt like you threatened them would retaliate in ways I could never imagine. I may have been twelve but I already knew that, the boys in my town got angry if I wouldn’t speak to them. They threw invisible stones at your back.
I blurted out chattily, “That’s my little sister!” I had to buy some time till my parents came back. He turned his cold barracuda eyes on me, face softening as he judged my youth, the ribbon in my hair, my deliberately innocent face. My sister looked at me in a puzzled manner, how often had we heard the old adage, “Never talk to strangers!” I felt in my bones I had to keep talking, babbling brightly and innocently, and not in any challenging manner. What if he picked up my light little sister and ran away with her? His legs looked very long. I felt sick, I kept talking like an idiot twelve year old who didn’t know about Bad Men. “Do you like books? I like books very much!”
He was edging us closer and closer to where the shop turned into the walkway. There wasn’t an entrance to the bookstore, it was open along its entire frontage. I don’t think people shoplifted books a lot. I tried to get round to the same side as my little sister. He was cajoling, “Come, let me buy you some books or some toyslah!” “We not allowedlah, supposed to look only,” I whined. He held his hand out to my sister. She looked at me. I looked round carefully to see if my parents were in sight. The crowds milled around us, walking past ceaselessly. Could I tell someone? If I stopped to try to tell someone, would he disappear with Yinmei? “Let’s walk around the bookstore!” I said, like I wasn’t sure if I should accept such a treat. “My parents might be coming back in a little while.” We walked around the shelves. I had nodded to my sister to take his hand, I walked alongside, close as a limpet, and as frightened. I could tell he wanted us to leave the shop. He was losing his patience, he knew they would come back for us soon. I am stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, I sang in my head. “Let’s go to the shop next door,” he said. I blinked at him innocently. “Watch your sister!” my brain screamed. “There might be something nice there,” I said slowly as possible. Walking slowly as possible.
There was my Father! He was coming up the escalator. “Dad!” I called out. He looked suspiciously at us. The Bad Man dropped my sister’s hand and I grabbed it. The barracuda was sidling away. He told my father he was just keeping an eye on us. He swam off into the crowd. I can still see his face. Thwarted. Hungry. My father looked at me. “You are the oldest,” he said. He took my sister’s hand and we all went down the escalator. The River of Money swirled all around us. He never mentioned it again. I never got to explain to my sister why I had her hold the Bad Man’s hand.