If early KL had a heart it was the Old Market Square. Here, on the east bank of the Klang River early traders set up shacks to cater to the pioneer Chinese miners who had been sent up river prospecting for tin in 1857. Tin soon became quite profitable so more miners were despatched to the jungles around the river. And as the miners moved in so did a variety of traders seeking to profit from this exciting new industry.
Supplies for the growing village took something like three days from the Klang estuary on the west coast of the peninsular thanks to the twists and turns of the serpentine like Klang River and when they did finally arrive they were off loaded just south of the current Masjid Jamed, the place where the traders had set up stall.
For the Chinese miners living and working upstream the Old Market Square was their R & R. it was where they came to gamble, take opium and enjoy the pleasures of the local hookers. And overseeing this burgeoning empire was the Captain China. Yap Ah Loy.
On the corner of Jalan Kasturni and Lebuh Pasar Besar today stands a credit card centre. In 1877 there was a ‘fairly loose board house’ from where Yap Ah Loy ruled his turf surrounded by attap roofed houses occupied by his coolies.
There was a gambling shed close to the river, roughly where the Sin Seng Nam coffee shop now stands while the clock tower that stands almost apologetically at the heart of the square stands on the ground that was once the heart of the market selling the food and materials the miners would need to take with them up river.
The Old Market Square was the centre of old KL and the arteries radiating out today follow the rough old tracks first developed over 120 years ago as people hacked their way through the jungle to create new settlements at places like Pudu. A map of the area today would be recognisable to Yap Ah Loy and his contemporaries but put him by the clock tower and ask him to show you where his house used to be and he may struggle to come to terms with the changes that have since his patch of land transformed from essentially a rural market garden into a buzzing commercial centre. Those three day boat rides to Klang, ‘poling and rowing’ have now been replaced by slick efficient one hour train rides.
In his own right Yap Ah Loy is an intriguing character. Part gangster, part warlord (he would pay for rivals heads to be decapitated and he would display them outside his house, near that credit card centre), part businessman. His importance to the growing community of KL was recognised by the English colonial overlords and it was through his determination that the new town overcame such teething problems as floods, fires and internecine warfare that pit rival Chinese and Malay groups against each other.
His memory lives on in a couple of places around his old stomping ground. Yap Ah Loy Road is possibly one of the shortest roads in all of Malaysia while the Sin Sze Si Ya teple, built by him back in 1864 is still active and his memory is revered by devotees lighting incense to his memory. Look carefully inside the temple for a photograph of the man himself at his own alter.
At first glance the temple seems to have an orientation all of its own, set as it is just back and off the main roads. But Yap Ah Loy would have followed traditional feng shui principles when he designed the place so an expert, applying those principles, could come up with a rough idea of how the area looked while it was being constructed.
Yap of course is long gone. As is his old gambling shed as well as the hookers in their tiny shack. The attap roofed homes of his coolies have also gone and in their place has come high rise concrete buildings dwarfing the square. There are no more floods and real roads now link the old heart with the expanded city and its suburban overspill. It’s a transport hub, a commercial centre and as such differs little from similar places around the world. Much of Yap’s world has gone but what remains is Malaysia’s vibrant capital city. Without his determination and steely resolve, and his profits from sex and drugs, perhaps KL would have disappeared in one of the many fires and floods that hit the small town.