Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown – A Draw With Tourists

Many great cities in the world have a Chinatown, which is a section of the city that is dominated by Chinese culture. Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, however, is unique as Malay and Indian influences have added more colour to the district. Visitors can browse inside a Chinese medical hall, cross the road to admire the magnificent statuary inside the Sri Mahamariman Temple and pop into the nearby Central Market to enjoy Malay nasi campur or buy handicrafts such as tekat and songket. Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is a melting pot of cultures and is testimony of the tolerance and warmth of its people

This colourful network of streets and alleyways is roughly demarcated by Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Jalan Sultan and Jalan Cheng Lock. A hodge-podge of Neo-Classical shophouses, modern shopping complexes, fan-ventilated coffee shops and stores selling a myriad of wares ranging from salted fish, herbal medicine, Buddhist figurines and funeral paraphernalia make for interesting browsing. The character of Chinatown changes throughout the day. In the morning, office workers nibble on dim sum in restaurants and housewives jostle in a wet market; in the late afternoon, stalls start to open for business, and in the evening, there are all sorts of lively goings-on: smells of food being cooked lingering in the air, hoarse shouts of fruit traders, haggle of customers, and cajole of waiters at passers-by.

The establishment of this district is inextricably tied to the founding of the city in 1857. Raja Abdullah, the Malay chieftain of Klang, instructed a group of Chinese prospectors to search for tin in the area, who landed on the eastern bank of the Klang River near to its confluence with the Gombak River. They established tin mines in Ampang, which attracted hordes of Chinese immigrants who settled on the eastern bank of the Klang River. The Malays mainly settled in the north, across Jalan Tun Perak.

In 1868, when Yap Ah Loy became Kapitan Cina (Chinese headman) of Kuala Lumpur, he set up his house, opium dens and gambling sheds at Lebuh Pasar Besar near the present day Central Market. Under his leadership, the settlement developed rapidly. In 1882, Sri Frank Swettenham, the British Resident ordered that the sheds be demolished and shifted southward, which led to the gradual shift of Chinatown to its present day concentration. Along the former High Street, (now Jalan Tun H. S. Lee), the shophouses, especially those numbering 34 through 40, are original 1880’s buildings. Today, a clock tower of Art Deco stands at Lebuh Pasar Besar. It was erected in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of King George VI.

If you can stomach the smell of fish and poultry, pop inside the Wet Market at Jalan Petaling, which has been operational since 1914! Gasping fish wriggle on cement slabs, chickens are crammed in cages, hogs’ trotters hang from hooks and piles of vegetables lie invitingly in baskets. The entrance to the wet market is at Jalan Hang Lekir — a street with an unsavoury past, as it had 39 registered brothels in 1890. For more palatable sights and smells, stroll along the five-foot ways of the shophouses at Jalan Hang Kasturi opposite the Central Market. Witness the Chinese ceramics and potpourri of vinaigrette goods such as century eggs, salted vegetables, sea cucumbers, bottles of soya bean paste and salted fish.

A visit to Chinatown wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its tea houses. Patrons select a type of tea which is brought by a waitress along with a tea set consisting of a burner, steeping kettle, miniature cups, a wooden spatula for stirring the tea and a small scoop for removing the dross. The entire tea brewing process is explained and demonstrated by the waitress. Guests are then given the privilege to repeat the tea-making ritual.

Historical sights are aplenty. At Jalan Tun H.S. Lee (formerly known as High Street), the Kwang Siew Association was completed in 1888. Its temple roofs and eaves are adorned with stone dragons and mythical creatures, while two granite lions watch over its entrance. Sin Sze Su Ya Temple, built in 1864, today cowers behind modern buildings. Proceeding south will bring you to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple with is magnificent goporam (gateway tower). Constructed in 1873, this temple is arguably the most important in the city as it is from here that the annual Thaipusam pilgrimage to Batu Caves begins. Another interesting temple is the Chan See Shu Shu Temple of 1906, which is located at the southern end of Jalan Petaling. Its eaves and walls are decorated with colourful terracotta figures.

At Jalan Tun H. S. Lee, the pitched roof of the Old Victoria Institution peeps through the foliage of angsana trees. Resembling an English cottage and made of timber and brick, it was designed by A. C. Norman. In 1911, the bungalow in its grounds was the scene of a murder. On April 23rd 1911, Mrs Ethel Proudlock, the wife of the acting headmaster, fired six shots at one William Steward, a European planter, killing him. At her trail, Mrs Proudlock claimed that she shot Steward in self-defence as the latter had attempted to rape her. However, she was convicted of her crime as witnesses testified that one day before the murder she had met Steward at the Selangor Club. English writer Somerset Maugham immortalised this crime of passion in a short story which was later made into a film titled “The Letter.”

The modern face of Chinatown shopping can be found in Uda-Ocean and Plaza Warisan as well as Kota Raya and Sinar Kota on the fringe of the district. A large selection of local crafts is sold in Central Market. Batik, songket, kris (Malay dagger), wooden carvings and wau bulan (moon kites) are the popular items snapped up by visitors. You can have your portrait drawn by artists or have your future predicted by palmists and astrologers. In the evening, Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street) comes alive under its multilevel perplex roof. Stroll on its brick flooring past dozens of stalls selling handbags, sunglasses, CDs, VCDs, watches, perfumes and clothing.

Eating is the number one pastime of Malaysians and in Chinatown, there is plenty of Chinese fare to savour. Grand Chinatown Restaurant, Tang City Food Court and Restoran Chinatown Food Centre are packed with stalls selling noodles, hot-pot, roasted duck, grilled fish and “dragon-eye” water.

Chinatown has plenty of budget hotels. For more up-market places to stay, try Hotel Mandarin Pacific, Hotel Furama, Hotel Malaya and Swiss Inn to mention but a few. A wealth of experience awaits the traveller at Chinatown. Make sure it is in your itinerary when you are in Kuala Lumpur.

Source by Paik-Leong Ewe