Pushing away the darkness in Chow Kit
|Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. Azrul can be contacted at [email protected]|
MARCH 7 — There are many varieties of courage. But it takes a special kind of courage to be a kid growing up in the Jalan Chow Kit area in Kuala Lumpur.
When you look at Chow Kit, you have a feeling that the government has given up on this part of the city and decided to focus on the bright, sunny and easier parts of town. The benevolent face of the prime minister is everywhere on countless posters, banners and billboards but he seems to gaze into a distant future. He could do well to peer down.
Mention Chow Kit and the often portrayed image of dark, grimy, crime and garbage infested streets comes to mind. Behind the façade of the bustling and colourful shopping streets that this place is known for, are concrete alleys, backstreets and dark corners amidst abandoned buildings and rundown houses.
This is where urban poverty and the homeless exist in stark reality, sleeping on pavements, under bridges and at street corners just a stone’s throw away from the swanky, chic clubs and watering holes of Heritage Row. Where generations of youths have swung by Lorong Haji Taib to gawk at the beautiful transgenders preening themselves from doorways and windows (I have been guilty of this once, the gawking, not the preening).
Chow Kit is where hardcore drug use has been a problem for decades and continues to be endemic to the area. Where sex workers are forced to bring their very young children to work because there is no affordable and accessible daycare. Where girls and boys as young as 11 can be found on the streets at odd hours of the night sans parents. Where the lines of those who access the soup kitchens and charity food distributions on any given day seem to be getting longer. Remember Sudirman? If he were alive today, he wouldn’t be singing about Jalan Chow Kit.
But for many kids, Chow Kit is home.
Last week, I met two amazing individuals who have been working hard with some of these children in an effort to make a difference in their lives and those who live in Chow Kit. Lew Pik Svonn and Fahmi Reza are founders of the Chow Kit Kita (Our Chow Kit) project. This initiative which began in 2010, works with at-risk and vulnerable 13- to 18-year-old kids who live, work and go to school in the area. Some of them come from impoverished homes, live in abusive environments, are school dropouts and are children of sex workers and drug users.
There are several projects in the area that work with kids and provide a safe space for them. However, most of them deal and treat the children as children. The Chow Kit Kita project gets them ready for a future as adults by providing life skills and exposing them to decision making, public speaking, individual responsibility, critical thinking, creative expression and income generation. You’ve heard the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This is the real deal.
Through several workshops conducted by volunteers on weekends and school holidays over a period of five months for each phase, these teens are given sessions in mural and graffiti painting, street photography, video production, acting, T-shirt printing, computer graphic design and research techniques. They pick what skill set that they would like to develop based on their own interests.
Honestly speaking, it makes me wish I could go for some of these sessions!
Chow Kit Kita is really a community mapping project. Through the eyes of its youngest inhabitants, the area is mapped out according to themes. The first two phases were on ethnic and religious diversity, and on places to eat. Through interviews with local community people, neighbours and sometimes their own family members, the kids in the project gathered information, recorded video footage and gained insights into little-known aspects of their neighbourhood.
The results? I saw some of the stuff produced during one of the Art for Grabs events last year and I was simply blown away. A cornucopia of products that the kids are rightly proud of, ranging from printed T-shirts, badges and videos to photography exhibitions and theatre performances.
But the gems have got to be the amazing maps showing places of worship, and places to eat in and around Chow Kit. Tourism Malaysia and the Ministry of Tourism could learn a thing or two from these kids on putting these things together in a format that is attractive, informative and, in the case of the cari makan brochure, amazingly mouth-watering! Note: the best goreng pisang ever can be found in Chow Kit!
I can tell that it has been an amazing journey for Pik Svonn and Fahmi. It has not only been a transformational process but it has been life changing for many of the teens involved and their parents. The Chow Kit Kita project has given a new sense of awareness, pride and responsibility to the participants, volunteers and facilitators.
An evaluation conducted with the participants found that, through this project, all of them improved their understanding and respect for other cultures and religions. It made them more creative and able to express themselves better.
Most importantly, going through the Chow Kit Kita project enabled them to gain self-confidence and increase their self-esteem. It has given these kids a sense of purpose, hope and achievement. Some of them have even been hired to work on commercial projects, some of which can be seen on RapidKL buses. The project has made these kids lift their heads up high and say “I am proud to live in Chow Kit.”
Despite winning awards, being recognised and featured in the media, the Chow Kit Kita project has come to a standstill. The project has literally run out of money. Pik Svonn and Fahmi have in fact been funding this entire project for the past two years out of their own pockets, spending their time and savings.
They have also been dependent on the in-kind contributions by the many volunteers and several organisations that have come to their aid in the past. This year, without the RM60,000 needed to run the project for six months, the Chow Kit Kita project will need to be suspended or closed. It is a depressing thought.
Next month, I will be running the full marathon (42.2km) in the Energizer Night Race 2012 at the Sepang International Circuit in an effort to highlight and raise funds for the Chow Kit Kita project. Email me if you would like to support my effort. Should you be interested to support the project directly, please do contact Pik Svonn and view the project’s website.
The kids under the Chow Kit Kita project will change the landscape of Chow Kit and bring back hope, joy, pride and light into the neighbourhood.
It takes special courage to do that. So let’s do our bit to support them and help change lives.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.