Tuesday, 27 December 2011

KL Walking Tour

Even though I was born and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, I had never joined a tour to appreciate the city’s history. I read about the guided heritage walk by a group who called themselves Be Tourist. It is free, starting from the meeting point of Central Market at 10.30am every day.
There was already a small group of foreign tourists, and for the next 2 hours, we would be delving into the nooks and crannies of the old KL.
Tour guide Erina Loo began the walk at Central Market, by explaining how Central Market was a wet market in 1888.  There, she briefed us on KL’s history from the arrival of plantation workers and tin miners. The walk took us past a row of shophouses known for selling dried seafood and Chinese herbs as well as grocery, but now only one or two are in the trade. The road has now been transformed into Kasturi Walk with a prominent Wau structure welcoming people to Central Market. KL is a modern city, not a heritage one. The old buildings were preserved by individuals and most of the architecture came about after 1881. Central Market’s art deco was only introduced in 1937.

It was a hot day, but I saw that the Westerners did not seem to mind at all. We were too caught up with the guide’s stories despite the blaring vehicles and smoke. We stopped in front a tiny shophouse at Jalan Tun HS Lee previously known as High Street, that is ordinarily missed by the untrained eye. The dark interior was cluttered with a variety of plates and bowls. The shop is known as Kim Hing Plates and Bowls and has been around for 50 years. We were told that two brothers were running the shop from the beginning until now, and the shop owner is a Singaporean and all they have is a gentleman’s agreement. So the shop is still very much in its original form as they have not renovated it for fear that the owner might take it back again. Most of the shops in that place share the same story. 
The next stop was a little square along Jalan Tun HS Lee with some of the oldest shophouses around. Would you believe that this place was a romantic park about 70 years ago? This road was once named Five Lanterns Street because it depended on 5 oil lamps to light up the area. Many marriage proposals were made here. Some evidence of the past was the row of goldsmiths stores directly across the square.
Erina added that if the man did not have enough money to buy a gold ring for his wife-to-be, he could always go to the pawn shops right next to each other. The bell on top of the building was symbolic of the sound of the bell which sounded similar to the word ‘pawn’ in Chinese. So the people, even the illiterate, knew it indicated a pawn shop.

The famous five-foot-wide covered walkways or 'kaki lima' in front of the old shophouses are reminder of our colonial past. Erina then led us to MS Ally Pharmacy, the very first pharmacy in the city, known for its distribution of free supplies during the emergency period.
The Old Market Square (now known as Jalan Medan Pasar) was the place that Kapitan Yap Ah Loy used to run his opium and gambling dens. Kapitan Yap was the founding father of modern KL for he developed KL as a commercial and mining centre during the mid-19th century.
In the middle of Jalan Medan Pasar stood the Sin Seng Nam Restaurant where planter tycoons used to gather for drinks. Opposite there was one remaining textile shop that had served the expatriates and tycoons in the old days.
In 1881, a flood swept through this area following a fire which engulfed it earlier. These successive problems destroyed the town's structures of wood and atap.  The original Yap Ah Loy market at Medan Pasar was also destroyed and the wet market was relocated to the building now known as Central Market. As a result, the British required that buildings be constructed of brick and tile. 

The British constructed the administrative buildings away from the Old Market Square in Jalan Mahkamah Persekutuan, which is now known as Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad.  Loke Chow Kit, a leading Chinese trader used to have his own departmental store in the same administrative area, which goes to show the kind of influence he had at the time.
While walking along the convergence of two rivers, Sungai Gombak and Sungai Klang, we stopped at a little lane between the HSBC and AmBank buildings. Here, Erina announced, once stood KL’s major jetty. We stared blankly at the empty space that is now a place of litter. It was the docking point for ships to transport goods to the commercial areas in KL. This road was once called Jalan Silang, a crossroad separating the Chinese and Indian communities. Going straight down, it would lead you to Chinatown.

A cluster of coconut trees along the Klang River where coconut trees have survived the tales of modernity.
Moving along to another iconic structure of KL is the Masjid Jamek mosque, filled with Moghul and Moorish influence in its designs.  It was built for the Malay settlement near the present HSBC Bank building.
The tour proceeded to Lebuh Ampang, the busiest part of the city. It was famous for the Chettiar community from South India after they set up money-lending businesses along this road. 

Taken at an old Chettiar shop that is still operating as a traditional money-lending outlet as well as a temporary living quarter for foreign workers. Traditionally, the Indians made their fortune selling salt but most of them left during the emergency period in 1960s.
Erina also identified her own 1Malaysia lane, called Lorong Bandar 1 that is sandwiched between Lebuh Ampang and Jalan Tun HS Lee.  Step into this alley and you will see a Chinese fruit stall, followed by a Malay stall selling economy mix rice and lastly, an Indian mee goreng stall, all in the same lane.
After the tour, we came back to Lebuh Ampang to have an authentic banana leaf rice in the upper room of an old shophouse. This joint is not visible from outside, so not surprising it’s mainly visited by the regular customers whilst the long narrow hallway downstairs could even accommodate other businesses like jewelry and tailoring.
Erina told us that the trail takes visitors through the history of 3 main race pillars in Malaysia and also a living heritage like the small lanes and stalls that have survived. While there are still old, original shophouses to be seen , many however, have been since sold and rebuilt with new, additional buildings on top of it.

The tour ended in the air-conditioned telecommunications museum at the intersection of Jalan Gereja and Jalan Raja Chulan, just past another old building, the St John's Cathedral. Originally the telecommunications building with neo-classical Greek design and architecture features was designated to be demolished before it was regazetted as a national heritage building.

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