Historic Place Names: On the Heritage Trail in Kuala Lumpur
The next time you’re in Kuala Lumpur, make your way to Medan Pasar Lama. Pick a nice spot (try not to get in the way of the migrant workers congregating there), look up at the pastel-coloured row of buildings lining the square on its east side, and make a mental note to yourself: these are the oldest brick buildings in the city.
This area used to be called Market Square, because that was exactly what it was during its heyday in the 1920s, although its origins went back way before. There is a written account dated 1878(1) of a boisterous, bustling commercial centre with shops, gambling dens and stalls selling vegetables, fruits and meats, which flourished following the discovery of tin in nearby Ampang in 1857.
These colourful shophouses you see today weren’t always made of brick, of course. After the Great Fire and the Great Flood of Kuala Lumpur, both of which took place in 1881, the then British Resident Frank Swettenham ordered that the town be rebuilt. Not only had the fire destroyed much of Kuala Lumpur’s original wooden huts, the flood waters had swept away whatever that had been repaired, leading Swettenham to decide that enough was enough. Bricks it would be from now on.
I’ve always been fascinated by place names but one can’t write about the origin of names in the Malaysian capital and ignore the capital itself.
There is more than one story to the name Kuala Lumpur. Both agree that the name refers to the confluence or meeting point of the Gombak and Klang rivers, but according to the first story, it was a description of the confluence, i.e. that it was muddy or berlumpur. The second is rather interesting: There are records (2) that state that the Gombak River used to be known as Sungai Lumpur, or ‘Mud/Muddy River’. If this is true, ‘Kuala Lumpur’ could have been a direct reference to the start or origin of the present-day Gombak River as a tributary of the larger Klang River.
Whatever the history behind the name, the point at which the rivers met was too shallow for tin miners to go all the way to Ampang. They had to get down and travel on foot for the rest of the journey, and with the discovery of tin, the quiet Malay settlement on the bank of the Klang river changed dramatically, and Kuala Lumpur began to grow.
The area around Medan Pasar Lama is one of my favourite spots in KL. If you’re planning to spend a few nights in the city, take a look at Avenue J Hotel on Leboh Pasar Besar just a few steps away. Fresh from its launch in September 2016, the hotel was our base during the recent #AboutKL campaign hosted by Tourism Malaysia Kuala Lumpur. In keeping with the hotel’s location in KL’s heritage zone, the façade is influenced by British colonial architecture. The hotel itself is modern, with rooms which are minimalistic yet chic and comfortable. I would definitely head back to Avenue J- it has an excellent location, and the hotel provided our band of travel bloggers with much-needed rest for two nights.
Just across Avenue J Hotel is Cafe Old Market Square. This café is a reincarnation of an 85-year-old restaurant which first opened its doors in 1928. In the early 1900s, thanks to its proximity to Market Square, the original Sin Seng Nam Restaurant was the local haunt for petty traders, gamblers and tin miners, but over the decades its clientele grew to include people from all walks of life including civil servants, lawyers and judges before it shut down in 2013. Cafe Old Market Square has lovingly retained the atmosphere of the original establishment with photographs and prints of old Kuala Lumpur, and is the perfect place for a good local meal.
Remember what I said about the shophouses in Market Square being the oldest brick structures in KL? There’s another place name story there too. When Frank Swettenham decreed that only buildings made of brick and tile would be allowed, Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy jumped at the opportunity and bought a large stretch of land to the south of the town centre and established a brick-making industry. That area came to be known as Brickfields from the brick kilns that mushroomed there over the years.
Brickfields was another stop for #AboutKL. The kilns that used to stand there no longer exist, but Brickfields – also referred to as Little India- is now one of KL’s most vibrant districts. As the name suggests, this is the place for authentic ethnic Indian cuisine, clothes and jewellery.
Despite our rather heavy breakfast at Kafe Old Market Square, we were ready for lunch by the time we arrived at Annalakshmi Restaurant. Located at the Temple of Fine Arts in Brickfields, Annalakshmi grew out of a love for home-cooked food. The restaurant’s recipes are time-honoured, traditional favourites prepared by local mothers and grandmothers who take great care in ensuring that you’ve got just the right chutney paired with just the right curry.
Buffet displays are separated into north and south Indian cuisine, which we were told never to mix if we want the best dining experience. There’s a lovely atmosphere at Annalakshmi, and it’s certainly worth a visit. The restaurant is open daily except Mondays from 11.30am-3pm, and 6.30pm-10pm, and lunch buffets are RM18 while dinner buffets go for RM20 per person.
From Brickfields, we headed to Petaling Street, known for its markets, whether you’re looking for street food, accessories or cheap souvenirs. This is one of KL’s earliest streets, named after a tree. The petaling tree is believed to be locally extinct now but back in the day, the timber was used to build house posts as the wood was found to be termite-resistant. Elders in the Chinese community still refer to Petaling Street as Chee Cheong Kai (‘tapioca mill street’), probably because Yap Ah Loy used to own a tapioca factory nearby.
Just a few steps away in Chinatown is the 153-year-old Sin Sze Si Ya Temple. Like many historical buildings in KL, Yap Ah Loy had a hand in the temple, built in honour of Sheng Meng Li and Chung Lai, two immigrants who were instrumental in his ascension to the position of Kapitan. Sin Sze Si Ya Temple may be the oldest Taoist temple in KL, but it is busy during Chinese New Year to this day.
From the temple, a quick walk brought us to the Central Market. The original market was located at the old Market Square in the form of wooden shacks with thatched roofs, but following the Great Flood in 1881, the market expanded and a new covered structure was built in 1888 at the present-day site. It was only in 1937 that a permanent brick building in an Art Deco style was built, but even then the Central Market was still a wet market selling fish and vegetables. After much wrangling between authorities and conservationists in the 1980s, the Central Market was designated a heritage building and reopened in 1986 as an arts and crafts centre.
To our surprise, we weren’t done for the day where food was concerned. On the mezzanine floor of the Central Market is Precious Old China Restaurant, which I had never heard of prior to #AboutKL. The restaurant is a feast for the eyes where the décor is concerned. There are marble-top tables for small groups of diners, but larger groups or those celebrating special occasions will find the main dining hall with its open area and private dining room more comfortable.
If you love antique furniture, gorgeous stained glass panels and Straits Chinese cuisine, you’ve come to the right place. We were served a delicious bowl of Nyonya Laksa and Sago Gula Melaka for dessert, which we enjoyed in the main dining hall.
Our visit to Central Market marked the end of our walk through old Kuala Lumpur. A city that grew by chance from a muddy confluence, a too-shallow part of the Klang River, a meeting point of two rivers where tin miners and traders were forced to stop, get down and make the best of what awaited them on land, all because they couldn’t go on any further. Who says dead ends are a bad thing?
**My gratitude goes out to Tourism Malaysia Kuala Lumpur for initiating the #AboutKL programme, the committee behind #AboutKL, and the other parties that made our experience possible: MaTiC; AvenueJ Hotel, Gravy Baby; Dinner In The Sky; Cafe Old Market Square; Annalakshmi; Kopitiam Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock; Central Market Sdn Bhd; Precious Old China Restaurant; MudKL; and Muzium Negara.
(1) William T. Hornaday: The Experiences of a Hunter and Naturalist in the Malay Peninsula and Borneo, from ‘Two Years in the Jungle’ (1885).
(2) Abdul-Razzaq Lubis: Journal of Southeast Asian Architecture (12), National University of Singapore, September 2013.