While reading the NY Times 52 Places To Go In 2020 I raised an eyebrow when I saw Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur listed as one of the featured destinations. Older KLites who have not been to Chow Kit for many years might have raised both eyebrows and popped their eyes out a bit.
Chow Kit is a sub-district of Kuala Lumpur, not far from the Golden Triangle area and the Petronas Twin Towers. Chow Kit had a reputation for being a seedy part of town, being home to the largest red light district in KL. It also has the largest wet market in Kuala Lumpur, alongside a second-hand market and wholesaler district. And being close enough to the historic old city centre it has a stock of colonial-era shophouses that are in dire need of repair. In other words it has all the ingredients necessary for gentrification.
With its central location it was only a matter of time before it went through regeneration. I’ve noticed this in different places across Malaysia. Last year I visited the “Brooklyn of Penang” and the revitalised old town of Ipoh. KL Chinatown is currently undergoing a renaissance, and now Chow Kit is having its own Brooklyn moment.
The last time I remember being here was in 2009 when I stayed at the Tune Hotel, so apparently, I was there before it was cool. I like seeing neighbourhoods in the midst of urban renewal, so it was time I made a revisit to Chow Kit.
Having not been there for over a decade I starred the places mentioned in the NY Times article in my Google Map as a starting point. I walked there from Bukit Bintang, though you can get here by Monorail at Medan Tuanku station.
[Map of Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur.]
Looking at the Chow Kit sub-district boundary on Google Maps there appears to be two distinct areas. The first area of activity is on the south side of Jalan Sultan Ismail.
[Chow Kit boundary.]
I was trying to think of a New York-Style name for this area to distinguish it from the rest of Chow Kit. If you were to use the Soho naming convention (South of Houston Street), then this area could be SoSI (South of Sultan Ismail). This is a long street though, so it doesn’t make any geographical sense. South Chow Kit? SouChow (pronounced Sau-Chao)? No. An easier name would be Lower Chow Kit.
I started my exploration in “Lower Chow Kit”. Every cool neighbourhood has to have a cool cafe, and I found it at Common Grind.
On the same street as Common Grind is a row of freshly renovated shophouses that were almost ready to start letting out. As their website says, they are “breathing new life into a forgotten row of shophouses”. No doubt the feature in the New York Times will help with finding tenants. I look forward to seeing what is here in the future.
Nearby is Tapestry. I arrived at brunch o’clock during the week and there was a line out the door.
You can’t have a hipster neighbourhood without at least one craft beer bar.
And there are some great public art murals.
There are a new luxury boutique hotels around here, including Hotel Stripes Kuala Lumpur, Autograph Collection.
The Heritage Hotel has made the most of a row of colonial-era buildings.
And the landmark hotel in this area is the Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur.
On the north side of Jalan Sultan Ismail is The Chow Kit Hotel, which you could say is the centre of the new Chow Kit.
Located on the corner where the monorail turns north, this 4-star luxury boutique hotel evokes a style from the 1920s and 30s. There is also a bar and restaurant if you want to get a taste of the style on offer.
Next door to The Chow Kit is the more budget-friendly MoMo’s Kuala Lumpur. This hotel has a taco/cafe/karaoke bar in the reception. If there is anything that heralds the hipsterfication of a neighbourhood it’s a taco bar. If I had been staying in KL a bit longer I would have stayed for lunch. I was only in town for a few days though, and my entire calorie intake was allocated to getting through my favourite Malaysian meals.
To the north of MoMo’s are the Lorong Haji Taib laneways. Around here is the wholesale area which becomes a red-light district by night. This is Malaysia though, so don’t be expecting the Soi Cowboy of Kuala Lumpur. On the other side, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman is the Chow Kit Market.
This is an old-school wet market that has mostly disappeared from central Kuala Lumpur.
Also on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman is Bazar Baru Chow Kit.
Next to the market is the largest Sikh temple in Southeast Asia.
While I was in Chow Kit I got to work out something that has been bothering me on the Kuala Lumpur transit map. As someone who dabbles in making metro maps I noticed how there are some stations where you can transfer to another station outside of the paid ticketing area. This is represented by a person walking on a line between two stations.
On the map, you can see a long walking path between Sultan Ismail and Medan Tuanku (both in Chow Kit). As metro maps don’t abide by geographical accuracy there is no way of telling if this means that they couldn’t get the two stations to align next to each other on the map, or if you are walking halfway across the city.
It turns out that this is a genuine pedestrian connection between two stations, with an uninterrupted elevated walkway from one station to another. According to Google maps the total path is 650 metres and takes 8 minutes to walk. London is famous for having some long walks at transfer stations within the paid ticketing area. I don’t recall using a metro system with such a long walk between non-ticketed areas.
There wasn’t a coherent plan when they started building metro lines here, with different companies building different systems. The system has been unified now under one ticketing system, and interchanges have been improved. KL now has one of the best urban rail transits in Southeast Asia.
From Medan Tuanku you can go via this walkway straight to the Chow Kit Hotel, or continue to Sultan Ismail station to connect to lines 3 and 4. To keep the walkway step-free they have made a draw bridge at Jalan Raja Laut in case large vehicles need to pass underneath.
It’s still only early days, but there is for sure a new scene emerging here. Chow Kit’s geography pretty much ensures that there is more to come. Next to Chow Kit is Kampung Baru. This low rise village (the name means New Village) is opposite the KLCC central business district and has so far held out from development. This area will now be a new urban area, which will then draw Chow Kit even closer to the city centre.
A hat-tip to Sanjay Surana and the NY Times for doing something a bit different by listing an emerging neighbourhood instead of the whole city. Next up I will be visiting the Kampung Baru area to see its last days as the village in the city.