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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
KL opens its first "Afro" hair salon

Jonathan Kent for East Asia Today
in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia has opened its first hair studio specialising in "Afro" hairstyles.

Urban Vibes in Kuala Lumpur specialises in a variety of styles, including extensions, "dreadlocks", "sister curls", "straw sets", "up-dos" and braiding.

Jimi Hendrix, pop star
Jimi Hendrix was famous for his "Afro" hairstyle

Despite the fact that there are very few people of African origin in Malaysia, Tanzee Renee, the director of Urban Vibes, believes that there is still a big demand for "Afro" styles.

"The Malaysians are really interested in the African look, the urban look. The locals here are very much into the music, the style, the fashion and the hair," she said.

But why has African-American street culture become quite so popular in a tropical, predominantly Muslim developing country like Malaysia?

Muna Noor is the editor of Malaysia's leading clubbing magazine, Juice.

"I think it has got a lot to do with the arrival of satellite TV and music channels like Channel V and MTV, " she said.

"I look at people like Colin Powell and Kofi Annan and it shows that we coloured people can do anything, just like the lighter-skinned people
Aini Aziz, young Malaysian

"Basically the music is really laid back, chilled out and it really appeals to the kind of lifestyle we have here.

"And Malays and Malaysians just love dancing so I think it suits the groove and it's actually brought about a lot of local acts who are now doing that kind of music."

Acts like the "Teh Tarik Crew", named after Malaysia's favourite drink "teh tarik", which literally means "pulled tea".

What was it that grabbed them about hip hop and black American culture?

"Initially I liked it because there were a lot of swear words in it, but after listening to it closely I started identify with what some of the groups were trying to say, about race, police discrimination, stuff like that," said Ahmad, one of the crew's members.

Role models

At the launch party for the Urban Vibes Salon I tried to discover more about how people of African origin are viewed in highly race-conscious Malaysia.

Some young people, like Aini Aziz, see successful African-Americans as role models for other dark-skinned people.

"They are dark skinned, so I can identify with them because I am coloured too," she said.

"I look at people like Colin Powell and Kofi Annan and it shows that we coloured people, can do anything if we set our mind to it and be successful, just like the lighter-skinned people," she added.

But in a country where pale means beautiful, and where skin lightening products are sold hard to insecure young people, being dark - let alone black - means facing discrimination.

Matthew Yamoah from Ghana in West Africa has had his share since coming here.

"I think Malaysians are really stereotypical. If I am on the train during rush hour, I will have four seats to myself just because I am black. No one wants to sit next to me. That's how bad it is here," he said.

Perhaps Malaysia's love affair with black street culture will be a catalyst to change some of the attitudes about race here.

If nothing else, this is certainly a country where such issues are discussed with astonishing frankness.

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