14 Sept – Amid the dilapidated shophouses of former tin-mining town of Ampang, one building stands out – its walls painted deep black and bold red, filled with graffiti, while the signboard hanging above is covered in black paint.
On the red and black wall is a drawing of two boys shaking hands. One sports a spiky hairdo, spikes on a black jacket and gloves; the other more conventionally dressed in a hoody.
Pulling open the shophouse’s metal shutters reveals a black brick wall with six “no’s” painted on it in bold white letters – No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no drugs, no alcohol, and no violence.
Walk through the wooden door to the left, and one would find a small stage and space for an audience of 300. Since all of the musical instruments have been confiscated by the police last month, the stage lies empty.
To the left and to the right of this room are walls filled with graffiti – an explosion of colours that is muted by the counterculture atmosphere of this dimly lit room.
This is the place run by a group of punks as a performance space. Welcome to ‘Rumah Api’.
On Aug 28, the eve of the Bersih 4 rally, police surrounded this shophouse, and arrested and detained more than a hundred revellers for more than 60 hours. It was only then that this place known only to those in the scene, was thrown into the limelight.
A community space
Since 2006, Rumah Api has been an important venue for the local punk and underground rock scene. But to the co-operators of Rumah Api, Man Beranak and Ashed, it is more like a community space for the punks.
“Rumah Api is not just a place for music, it is a place to promote punk ideology and attitude.
“Here, our interests go beyond music,” Man said softly, as he spoke to Malaysiakini during an interview in a smoke-filled living room upstairs.
The idea behind Rumah Api is to promote punk culture to mainstream society in hopes of changing society’s negative views towards the subculture.
The 35-year old Man (photo) is a veteran in the community, and looks after the place on a full-time basis. He lives upstairs from Rumah Api together with his wife.
“We want to show to society that although we may look like rebels, we are not the bad guys.”
The area where Rumah Api is located is predominantly ethnic Chinese while the adjacent area is predominantly Malay. In between, the youths with their tall spiky hair and leather jackets stand out as their patronise the local eateries.
“At first they would feel uncomfortable or even frightened by these ‘aliens’. But we approach them and sometimes they have a problem, so we would offer to help them.
“Over time, they realise that although we may look like bad people, especially with that dreadful-looking green or yellow hair, but they know we are actually a bunch of good boys.”
The punk movement started out as a subculture in the 1970’s music scene, using their flamboyant and eccentric styles as a way to oppose the values of mainstream society.
For Ashed, 26, it was less the fashion but the attitude which led him to Rumah Api’s doors. He wishes, above all, that people would understand punks better.
He said punks are not a group living in its own world, but instead are concerned about the downtrodden and hopes that through community service, it can help these oppressed people.
Soup kitchen, free market and more
‘Food Not Bombs’ is one of Rumah Api’s community service initiative.
Every weekend, Ashed and other punk youths would bring a shopping cart to the Ampang market to collect food items that the traders were unable to sell or are about to throw away, to be cooked and distributed to the homeless and the poor.
But even this straightforward noble cause was wrongly portrayed with a local TV channel broadcasting a reporting claiming “skinheads eat garbage”, he said.
“At first when we sifted through the garbage bins at the Ampang market, the locals asked us what we were doing and whether we’re looking for food because we couldn’t afford to pay for it.
“We told them that we want to cook the food for the poor and the homeless. So the traders said, ‘This is excellent. Next time don’t look through the garbage anymore. Come to our stalls and we will give you the ingredients’,” Man said.
Since then, this group of youths would show up at the market and go stall-to-stall just before they close to collect the unwanted food, and never fail to return with a full load in their trolley.
Beyond feeding the poor, he said, it is also to raise awareness on food wastage.
For a time, the cooking was done at Rumah Api, but the group has since shifted to the streets around the Masjid Jamek area to do their cooking and food distribution.
Another of Rumah Api’s activities is the Free Market, where old but usable items are collected and distributed to those who need them through a stall outside the premises.
He explained that Rumah Api also organises a number of free workshops, including classes on music, art, and language.
Apart from the locals, the punk youths often interact with migrant workers in the area. Ashed said the group has a good relationship with the many migrant workers in Ampang.
“Whether Chinese, Malays or migrant workers, we know them well. We are planning to focus more on migrant workers in the future. Whether or not they have a working permit, we want to set up a support system for them.”
Fire represents the birth of a generation
Social work aside, Rumah Api, located just 100 metres from the Ampang Jaya traffic police headquarters, is mostly known to locals as the “music place”.
Most of the groups that perform here are rock and punk bands, playing loud music usually from 8pm onwards, and ending at on the dot at midnight.
“The neighbours keep telling us to finish early and not play past midnight, because they want to go to sleep. Except for one neighbour who complained more often, the rest have no issues,” Man said, chuckling.
Rumah Api used to be known as ‘Gudang Noisy’, a commercial music space operated by one person who rented it out to bands.
Man took over in 2010 following a rent dispute between Gudang Noisy’s proprietor and the landlord and renamed the venue ‘Rumah Api’.
“Why Rumah Api? Because the word api (fire) represents the birth of a new generation,” he explained.
Man is the vocalist of heavy metal band ‘Sarjan Hassan’ while Ashed is the vocalist of another band – Annihilation Turbo Kids. Besides running Rumah Api, Ashed is also a freelance writer.
Their hopes for a better society may sound political, but Rumah Api is scant concerned about mainstream political current affairs.
This is why the Bersih 4 eve raid remains puzzling for Man, who said that he is still unsure if the raid – the first Rumah Api has ever faced since 2006 – had anything to do with the mammoth rally in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 29 and 30.
“If people want to go to the streets, it is their right. We cannot stop nor provoke them (from attending the rally).
“The police claimed that we were distributing flyers. They also said that we are mobilising people to attend the Bersih rally, but they were unable to provide any evidence,” said Man.
Just do it yourself
He also denied that Rumah Api had joined any of the music events linked to the previous Bersih rally.
“Even if there were, they were other bands or they were just our friends, not from Rumah Api,” he added.
Toppling the government – a charge Rumah Api patrons are investigated under – seems to be the last on their list of priorities.
For now, the focus appears to be keeping Rumah Api afloat so their dreams of spreading the punk ideology of self-reliance and community alive.
The meagre ticket sales from the venue is just enough to cover the rent for the two-storey building, but Rumah Api refuses to look at things from a business perspective.
As far as the duo is concerned, this is a collective run and owned by like-minded individuals.
“Actually, we don’t need to rely on the current mainstream system to survive. We can do it on our own. And if we cannot do it alone, we can do it with our friends.”