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The miners are long forgotten and the jungle has long been replaced by a different sort of jungle.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.