Travel Articles Malaysia

KL’s Early Chinese Influence

KL's Early Chinese Influence
KL's Early Chinese Influence
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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 Those three day boat rides to Klang, ‘poling and rowing’ have now been replaced by slick efficient one hour train rides.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.

Colonial Kuala Lumpur

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Colonial Kuala Lumpur
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It may come as a surprise to many people that Kuala Lumpur is in fact the youngest capital city in South East Asia. It’s founding can be dated back to 1857 when the Sultan of Selangor, influenced by the money to be made from tin mining in the neighbouring state of Perak, sent a group of Chinese laborers up the River Klang to start prospecting.
Those hardy pioneers landed at the confluence of the Rivers Klang and Gombak, at the place where the Masjid Jamek now sits, and started hacking away at the jungle that covered the area.

The miners are long forgotten and the jungle has long been replaced by a different sort of jungle. So complete and so rapid was Kuala Lumper’s growth that within three decades it was declared the capital of colonial Malaya as the British, flush from the global demand for tin and rubber, set about creating a fantasy Moorish city where they could enjoy their gin and tonics and play cricket under the tropical heat.

In the 1880s KL was taking shape. Merdeka Square was even then designated as an open space, initially where the nascent Selangor police force would drill. A photograph from that period shows an early Selangor Club facing onto a rough and ready field. Opposite, where the Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samed now stands, was a muddy track flanked by attap roofed shacks with walls of woven bamboo strips.
 
Behind lay the omnipresent jungle, dark and foreboding and still home to tigers and other wildlife.

And yet by the first decade of the 20th century a vibrant, cosmopolitan capital city had been hacked from the jungle proclaiming the wealth and confidence of British Malaya.

Merdeka Square, formerly known as the Padang, still sits at the heart of KL. In 1880 the area where the Anglican Church now stands was swampy and while locals used to grow vegetables the colonials would shoot game birds.

By 1892 it was decided the Padang would be perfect for cricket so the area was flattened and pretty soon there were tennis courts and football pitches at both ends to cater for the growing band of administrators.

A musical bandstand was constructed so people sitting on the balcony of the Selangor Club could enjoy the latest sounds while sipping their gin and tonics.

Flooding from the nearby River Klang caused a different type of amusement when the whole Padang flooded. A lawyer at the time offered a wager. He would swim from the balcony of the Selangor Club, across the Padang to Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samed with his feet not touching the ground.

The Selangor Club had first appeared in 1890 though in that wonderfully snobbish manner of the British overseas a new club was to appear later as the original one had got too popular. The self appointed elite wanted to enjoy their downtime in more exclusive company and not mere clerks and planters.

But it is the Selangor Club that is the best remembered. It was soon nicknamed the Spotted Dog for reasons that have now been lost in time. One suggestion was that once membership had been opened to local dignitaries, i.e. non white, the club’s elder members took to describing it in a derogatory way and one such was the Spotted Dog.

Today it is an icon of KL. Low rise amid all the high rise that now dominates KL I’s Tudor beams seem oddly at ease within the context of the Padang. It acts as a link to early KL as it grew from being a kampong and into a world class city. The British have gone but the Selangor Club hangs on in there.

With places to play and drink sorted the next thing the colonial administrator wanted or needed was a place to pray. Certainly as more family men were being transferred to KL more and more took their wives and prissy middle class Victorian attitudes didn’t look to well on so much cricket and gin occupying their men folk’s time.

Work started on the gothic style St Mary’s and soon it was expected all staff would attend the 11 am Sunday service properly attired. Failure to attend would be noticed and a quiet word in the ear of the offender would follow. Because of course chaps had to be seen to be doing the right things and if they weren’t, well they were letting the other chaps down and they couldn’t have that, could they?

The Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samed was added in 1897. It was from here that Malaya was governed. The impressive Moorish fa?ade is still an impressive sight in today’s KL but where once it dwarfed the Padang now it in turn is dwarfed by modern KL’s skyline and it can look slightly incongruent beneath the glass and concrete that surround it.

More buildings followed in a similar style. It was as if the architects had overdosed on a cocktail of Arabian Nights and Moghul building design made simple. The tudor Selangor Club and the gothic St Mary’s, as British as the cricket on the Padang was being surrounded by minarets and copulas.

All these administrators of course needed suppling and up stepped Loke Chow Kit, a leading Chinese trader at the turn of the century. He built KL’s first department staor backing on the government buildings right on the river bank. Despite the arrival of the railway in KL in the 1890s much of the growing cities daily needs still came up the river.

It was to Chow Kit that the Europeans would come for the daily necessities of life. Wine, tinned food, quality cigars and of course hats.

Life was becoming very comfortable indeed for the early administrator as KL continued to expand.

Today much of that early industry can still be seen in and around Merdeka Square. In its 150 + years KL has grown ever upwards and outwards but at its heart it still has the feel of a small village in the tropics.

Kuala Lumpur: Off the Backpacker Route

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I went to Malaysia very much on a whim; AirAsia had one of their coveted seat sales and time was permissive. However, I didn’t know what to expect; if the customs of a predominantly Muslim country would accomodate the the anything-goes backpacker mentality of Thailand. What I discovered was one of the most energetic and diverse cities in Southeast Asia. From architecture and culture to shopping and food; Kuala Lumpur (or “KL” to people in the know) serves up eclectic mixes of each. Dense markets and spicy street food in the Indian district, women in full burkas flaunting Fendi bags and Dior sunglasses, and the nicest skyline this side of Manhattan. From my homebase in the heart of the Golden Triangle (KL’s bustling downtown), I spent a few busy days in the middle of it all.

While traveling Malaysia might not be as cheap as, say, rural Vietnam, budget-conscious travellers won’t be shortchanged. In Kuala Lumpur, backpackers flock to the neon lights of Chinatown (Jalan Petaling) for cheap beds, cheap streetvendor wares, and cheap beer on outdoor patios. With all the trappings of a Sino-Malaysian Khaosan Road (minus the Jack Johnson, 24/7), this is the place to meet fellow backpackers. Seeking a bit of tourist anonymity? Jalan Bukit Bintang in the Golden Triange has reasonable accomodation in the heart of the city, a few blocks from trendy shops and chic nightclubs. The funky Number Eight Guesthouse (No 8-10, Jalan Tengkat Tung Shin) may be one of the best (and cleanest) guesthouses in Southeast Asia. KL’s famous East-meets-Middle-East-meets-West population is the stuff of true urban multiculturalism, and this is reflected in its buildings. The Petronas Twin Towers (scaled famously by Connery and Zeta-Jones in Entrapment), one fo the tallest structures in the world and Malaysia’s most iconic, sits at the northern edge of the Golden Triangle. It’s base operates as a very chic, very Western shopping mall. Admission to the Skybridge is free, but involves long line-ups for very limited tickets. Those seeking a view of the city should hit the observation deck of KL tower (on Jalan Punchak) for less crowds and a striking view of the twin towers themselves.

From a bird’s eye view, you’ll also spot the 40-metre clocktower of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin). This courthouse was the original headquarters of the Colonial Secretariat, and the Islamic-inspired, British-designed building is one of KL’s most stunning landmarks. Also notable on the skyline are the three domes of the Jamel Mosque, modeled after India’s Mogul, and the blue umbrella-shaped roof of the National Mosque, whose Malay-Islamic design breaks the usual Arabic-Islamic architectural mould. Each of these buildings are open to the public and stunning from the inside.

If you want to take in some culture, KL’s Islamic Arts museum (on Jalah Lembah Perdana) displays ethnic artifacts, costumes, textiles and art, along with models of the world’s most famous mosques. The ornate turquoise dome on the roof is the perfect spot for some fresh air and photos.

Those looking for daytrips into the Malaysian countryside have many destinations (and tour companies) to choose from. The famous Batu caves, used as temples by Hindu priests, are full of beautiful statues and the odd monkey. Romantics and entymologists shouldn’t miss a nighttime river tour in nearby Kuala Selangor, where guests board rowboats to see the fireflies that populate the dense mangroves.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia

Situated just off the mainland of Malaysia to the very north, the pretty island of Penang – known as Pulau Pinang in Malay – is a great place to spend a few days. Bordered by Thailand to the north, many people head straight to Penang after taking the train through Thailand and across the border.
There are many reasons to visit Penang. With its beautiful beaches, Kek Lok Si – perhaps the largest and finest Buddhist temple in Asia – and spectacular scenery, it is easy to see why the island has earnt the nickname Pearl of the Orient.

Don’t miss Kek Lok Si, the terrific pagoda-style temple situated atop Penang Hill. Not only is this a great place to relax and meditate, but the views from the top are spectacular as well. Another good place to visit is the Botanical Garden. This 30-hectare garden was created in 1884 and features a sparkling waterfall as well as beautiful wild Rhesus monkeys.

Also known as Foreigner’s Rock, Batu Ferringhi is a picturesque beach resort. Take a break from temple hopping and trekking through the jungle to simply lie back on the sand a soak up the sun for a while. The Penang Butterfly Farm is located nearby at Teluk Bahang. The butterfly farm is set in picturesque tropical gardens and has thousands of species of butterflies and insects.

In 2004 Time Magazine announced that Penang had the ‘Best Street Food in Asia’, a fact that many dedicated gastronomes have known for some time. People flock from all over Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to sample the wide range of cuisines available, which include Malay, Chinese, Indian, Nyonya, Thai and a sprinkling of Western dishes such as pasta and hamburgers.

The Indian district of Penang features a large number of stalls bearing dishes from all over India, and this is a great place to dine on portions of daal, biriyanis, tandori chicken and a wide range of other dishes.

If you fancy a treat, take a spin in the Revolving Restaurant on 25A Lebuh Farquhar. It takes an hour for the restaurant to make a complete revolution, allowing you to enjoy spectacular views of Penang.

Some of the best and cheapest accommodation can be found in Georgetown, especially on Lebuh Chulia, where there are several guesthouses offering rooms from RM 200 per night.