Old KL: The past, present and future
Here is where KL was conceived, the place that harbours the very essence of our city. It is where cultures, colours and creeds coexist. By Kong Wai Yeng. Photography Stacy Liu.
A man whizzed off on his motorcycle along the pedestrian pathway at Lebuh Ampang, nearly knocking our colleague in the way. She yelled after him. Indignant, he stopped and gave us the finger. Are KL-ites always so impudent? Or has the uncongenial condition around this old part of KL made people suspicious, insecure and tempestuous? ‘Go away. No pictures. Can’t you see I’m doing business?’ the owner of Sin Seng Nam restaurant growled at us. KL has always painted a cosy illusion where different communities live together harmoniously, as portrayed in Market Square (Medan Pasar) and Lebuh Ampang where you’ll find Mamak stalls, Chinese medicinal halls, Chettiars, Malay-operated supermarkets and Burmese eateries. Surely, this reflects our ability to live in a multifarious neighbourhood. It’s largely true but people can still be distrustful. ‘Our leaders have made no effort to bring the different races together. The British did but they failed. That is why, until now, we still live in racial disparity. You can’t blame people for being rude sometimes,’ Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato’ Dr Khoo Kay Kim explains.
Kuala Lumpur was formed at the confluence of Sungai Lumpur (now Sungai Gombak) and Sungai Klang to develop mines at Ampang and Pudu that soon became trading hubs. The perpetual warfare between the Hakka and Hokkien forced the British to appoint the first Chinese Kapitan, Hiu Siew, to administrate Kuala Lumpur. The city continued to be plagued by fires, floods and diseases thus Yap Ah Loy came to rule in the 1870s. Not only did Yap Ah Loy transform KL into a prospering mining town, he established opium sheds, prostitution centres and gambling dens. Market Square – where the HSBC headquarters now stand amongst neo-classical shophouses – was the commercial area that marked KL’s boom.
Fast forward to a century later, the city still crackles with life. Kollywood music blares out of speakers on Lebuh Ampang the same time Sin Sze Si Ya temple opens its doors and sounds the bell to announce their first donation for the morning. Even walking down Jalan Tun HS Lee itself is an adventure for the nose; the mustiness from Junk Bookstore, the bloodied scent of carcasses at Roslah Danial supermarket, talcum powder from barber shops, incense, flowers, paint, perfume, curry, Bak Kut Teh and of course, the stench from the sewers. Pavements can sometimes be congested with garland sellers, hawkers and fortune tellers waiting to read your palms. During my walk, I spent a moment in front of the tau fu fa stall on Lebuh Ampang; I heard languages I didn’t recognise; I saw a saree blouse tailor measuring a Chinese woman; a turbaned man haggling at the goldsmith; a homeless person feeding doves, and suddenly, a cluster of Indians coming to buy tau fu fa. This unique way of life can only exist because of the diverse human characters you’ll find in this colourful district.
But emblems of urbanisation have also attacked this city. Modernity sometimes plays the vandal, dissevering this old part of KL so steeped in historical, cultural and commercial significance. Many of its old residents have fled their pre-war abodes, which some have turned into telco shops, guesthouses, moneychangers and restaurants. In fact, more architectural riches, such as the buildings on Jalan Sultan, are targeted to ease up for development or left to decay. If this locality is slowly descending into a state of neglect, why do people still linger around here? Why do time-honoured shops like Chop Sang Kee, He Jiu and Old China Café refuse to relocate? Professor Khoo explicates, ‘Because of familiarity. These people, like me, can move around town even without thinking. Why leave a place when you’re so familiar with its every nook and corner?’
Progress is ineluctable but if development eats its way into our historic fabric, will KL lose its charm and identity? ‘I’ll give it another ten years. All these pre-war buildings will be gone because our conservation efforts have failed. I don’t think we actually understand the meaning of heritage,’ Professor Khoo assures. And he isn’t the only one who established such a conclusion. Erina Loo, owner of Be Tourist and a KL heritage tour guide, concurs, ‘I started a heritage trail walk around KL since 2009. In these three years, I’ve witnessed 30 per cent of the pre-war buildings around Market Square modified into modern shops. In just a year, three shophouses – previously located next to Reggae Mansion – were torn down to be turned into a carpark. Well, you do the maths.’ It’s fundamental to stir civic pride in preserving a city in thrall to development like ours because this area is where KL started – this is kilometre zero, if you will.
Nevertheless, not all is doom and gloom. KL’s central location has made this area a conspicuous target for development but people here still seem unfazed and complacent. Where would you find the Chinese and Malay sharing a table and chat over chapatti? At Santa’s on Tun HS Lee. An Indian making his daily pilgrimage to Soong Kee for beef noodles? On Jalan Tan Siew Sin. For Indian Muslim paraphernalia, Malay kuih and leech therapy? At Masjid India, of course. The vestiges of multiculturalism have existed since the conception of KL, where the Chinese established Chinatown, Malays at Kampung Baru and Indians at Brickfields – all within close range. And according to Professor Khoo, differences were only felt when politics surfaced… when our leaders decided to divide and conquer. Thus, people acting suspicious and insecure is not a coincidence – it is a result of our governance.
Old KL seems to be prospering well what with the appended Kasturi Walk at Central Market and the future addition of a new MRT station. But all this pretence might not square with reality. Historical buildings will be consumed by decay if laws are not enforced to preserve them. After all, what’s the point if we continue to exploit this city, and then celebrate the few things we’ve managed to ‘salvage’?
Heritage – derived from the chafed buildings, worn stone and even the marks on walls that bear KL’s cultural footprint – is quicksilver. This historic part of KL palpably joins the past to the present, creating bittersweet memories for people who have been here, or are still staying here. It’s probably the only place in KL you’ll find a sense of continuity from the beginning of time until now. In today’s fractured society, we tend to cling on to things that comfort, reassure and make us feel like we belong. And for people who’ve been living in old KL their entire lives, this is home.