The first time I visited Kuala Lumpur was when I was overlanding my way down the Malay Peninsula in 2006. Like most backpackers I ended up in a cheap guesthouse in the Chinatown area of KL.
I was amazed that there were so many heritage buildings that had not been restored. There are sections of old Kuala Lumpur that compare with Singapore or Penang, yet little has been done to make something of it. Like other cities in the region, Kuala Lumpur is seemingly ignorant about preservation of heritage buildings.
Since that first trip I ended up becoming based in Southeast Asia, and with AirAsia based in KL I pass through a couple of times a year. I’ve already been through KL twice in 2017, and this year I have noticed more changes in Chinatown than anytime in the last decade.
The Chinatown/Heritage Quarter area (Old City)
For this article I refer to the old area of KL as Chinatown, though there doesn’t appear to be an exact boundary or definition. Search for Chinatown in Google and you get this shaded area.
And a hotel search in Chinatown KL also clusters hotels within the area of this map.
The top triangle of the shaded area (bounded by the Klang River, Jalan Tun Perak, and Jalan Pudu) is an area popular with South Asian migrants, though it still gets lumped in as Chinatown. I’ve seen it referred to as the Heritage Quarter, and for the whole area it should be rebranded as the Old City.
[Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin – more Little Dhaka than Chinatown.]
The one street that is undeniably in Chinatown is Petaling Street, which has a Chinese arch at the entry of the Petaling St Market.
Most of the buildings on Petaling are obscured by the market. If you go in the morning before everything is set up you can see the old buildings in various states of decay.
Also in Chinatown is Jalan Sultan, which has a wealth of heritage buildings that are in danger of being lost. This row was saved from demolition and now waits for a restoration savior. If this was in Penang or Singapore it would be a row of boutique hotels by now.
In the aforementioned Heritage Quarter, Market Square has recently been renovated as an attractive space with a water feature. Some of the old shophouses on this square also have been spruced up, showing what potential this area has.
[Market Square, Kuala Lumpur.]
Cool cafes in old buildings
With so many heritage buildings crumbling into the ground, its heartening to discover businesses see their potential and make the most of these assets. On this trip I visited three cafes in the Chinatown area that show what appeal these old buildings have.
The first place I visited was Chocha Foodstore, which is set in the old Mah Lian Hotel building.
The problem of using these buildings is that the interiors are often not suitable for modern retail shops or restaurants. Chocha have gotten around this by stripping out a lot of the interior, leaving the most remarkable features of the original structure.
A few doors away from Chocha is Merchants Lane. This is one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” cafes as it is accessed by an entrance next to an old shop. Go upstairs and there is a large warehouse space that has been converted into a cafe.
The cafe has created an open space in the middle of the building which has a little garden. There is an old tree trying to strangle the building, like the ruins of Ta Prohm at Angkor.
Like the other cafes, this building is in a typical long and skinny shophouse, so it’s a matter of getting creative with the space of the building.
Kuala Lumpur means “muddy confluence”, which derives its name from the meeting of the Gombak and Klang rivers. The lovely Jamek Mosque sits on this very river junction, but little else about this area could be described as lovely.
[The muddy confluence, under renovation.]
Once the two rivers become one it resembles a storm-water drain. It’s an ugly site for what is the centre of the city. Fortunately this part of KL is soon to be transformed with a massive redevelopment known as the River of Life project. There will be pedestrian walkways and new green space along the river, and the river will be cleaned up and rehabilitated upstream as well.
Here is an artists impression of what the “muddy confluence” will eventually look like.
A new metro line
[Construction of the Pasar Seni interchange.]
Adding to the chaos of redevelopment is the construction of the Sungai Buloh–Kajang MRT line. This will connect Pasar Seni (the station serving Chinatown) with Bukit Bintang (one of the most popular areas for tourists). It is scheduled to be opened in mid-2017.
KL118 – soon to be KL’s tallest building
Perhaps the biggest catalyst for change will be the KL118 tower (now known as Merdeka PNB 118). As the name hints, this will have a whopping 118 floors and stand at 682 metres, easily eclipsing the current tallest building in KL – the Petronas Twin Towers. The building is designed by Melbourne architects, Fender Katsalidis (yay Melbourne!).
If you stand at the corner of Jalan Sultan and Jalan Hang Jebat (at the Leaf and Co Cafe) you can see the construction cranes. Also included in this picture is the usual traffic apocalypse that chokes the streets of Chinatown.
[Chinatown and the KL118 construction site.]
Work has already begun on this project and is due to finish in 2019. There will be a new metro station here (Merdeka) which is in between Pasar Seni and Bukit Bintang.
So that is the state of the old city of Kuala Lumpur in 2017. One of the reasons for lack of heritage redevelopment is the cost of restoring old buildings. With the old city being redeveloped hopefully there will be a newfound interest in restoring old KL, as there has been in other Straits heritage cities.