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Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown - It's History

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Sir Frank Swettenham

Frank Swettenham, was transferred from Singapore in 1881 for the post of second Resident of KL. A Resident was a British Official appointed on behalf of the Queen of England to advise the Malay Sultan or the ruler of the State on all official matters except on religious grounds. Swettenham was no stranger to Kuala Lumpur.

In 1875, he arrived on an official visit where he met Yap Ah Loy for the first time.Swettenham was well impressed with the Kapitan China, recording in his journal, ’I went straight to the house of the Captain China….he offered me champagne, but that I declined, preferring excellent beer which I certainly never expected to find here. It was by far the best mining village I have seen, the streets wide and excellently arranged, the shops most substantial…in front of the Captain’s house are the Gambling Booths and the market…there are about 1000 Chinese in the town and some 500 to 700 Malays.’

However things were beginning to change. In 1879 along with the second rise in world tin prices, an influx of Chinese miners brought in to open more mines contributed to an increase in population. Within a year the Chinese community had ballooned to 4000 people. The town was not equipped for such an increase and the town's structure began to disintegrate.

Swettenham later complained, ‘ the refuse of the drains is simply removed therefrom and laid on the side of the road….smallpox, cholera and fever break out here very often.’

Filth, disease and the stench were only the start of the problem. Fire would break out periodically and with inadequate fire fighting equipment except for a mandatory instruction from the Kapitan to ready a bucket of water in every household, little could be done to contain the fire. On 4th January 1881, an overturned oil lamp in an opium den spread quickly and in no time had engulfed the town. The settlement of about 500 houses was rebuilt with bricks and tiles instead of timber ply, mud walls and palm thatch roof with the cost of rebuilding borne by Yap Ah Loy. This may have been the beginning of town planning in Kuala Lumpur.

Shophouses on High Street

The oldest shophouses in Kuala Lumpur. recently been converted into a backpackers guesthouse ~ adaptive re use of old heritage buildings

The High Street, now called Jalan Tun HS Lee showcases early 1880’s shophouses. Shophouses were designed for the practical lifestyle where occupants lived upstairs and worked downstairs. The typical shophouse had a short frontage but with a depth of two to three times its width. The owner was required to set his building back in order to accommodate, what we call 'the five-foot walkway'. This covered walkway or veranda was used as shelter for pedestrians from rain and shine but during the early stages were more often than not occupied by cows, goats and gunnysacks full of produce were often found blocking most of the walkway, spilling over onto the pavement from the shopkeeper’s store. As always practicality overrides all for ingenious utilisation of space - take a look at the upper floor. The lost of space from having to include a five-foot walkway on street level and also central air well, is fully compensated by extending the upper floors over and covering the walkway. The upper storeys had shuttered windows to allow lots of circulation and to reduce added weight to be supported over the walkway. At the back of the shophouse, the shopowner was to leave space for a lane, which was required by town planners that was wide enough for bullock carts to move through to collect sewage and for the fire brigade if needed.

Shophouses on the High Street, numbering 34 through to 40 are about 2feet lower than other adjacent ones and are purportedly the original 1880’s buildings although the original roof have now been replaced with corrugated iron or tiled roofs. The street level was raised over the years due to frequent repaving of roads. The lower the walkway, the older the shophouses. Sadly, many of the old shophouses are being demolished or refurbished…a process aided by the lifting of the Rent Control Act in January 2000 where owners of pre-war buildings are now allowed to raise the rent of their premises to the market value thus indirectly or directly turning out tenants who have lived and traded there for generations. Before this Act of 1966 was repealed, the average rental was RM200 per month - ridiculously low for our day but effective in a way, to deter many from refurbishing the shophouses or opting for new tenants. According to statistics available, the total of pre-war buildings in KL is only 2,500. And even so, the numbers are falling fast.

Now, with this form of passive conservation efforts having been abandoned, there is no telling what plans will be in store for the historical monuments….let’s hope that we don’t lose our identity in our strive towards modernism.

The Market Square

The original town was centred on the market square area, a convenient location for traders - you can see just ahead, the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers. This was where the boats docked. That would be a little triangular patch of grass at the corner of the Jamek Mosque on the opposite riverbank. The Jamek Mosque was built by the British in 1909 and was the town’s national mosque until the new national mosque was built in 1965. The architecture of this mosque is very much Moorish (of Islamic-Indian influence) which, in fact was a favourite with the Colonial architects. Many of the British officials were transferred from India and believed that their designs would blend in with the Islamic faith of the Malay Sultans.

After the great fire of 1881, Yap Ah Loy rebuilt his mansion just where the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank is and from here governed over his community. Yap Ah Loy belonged to the Hai San secret society, whose members were mostly of Hakka dialect as he was. A small man with a fiery temper and a reputation to match, Yap Ah Loy built his empire on the many tin mines in Kuala Lumpur. With such autonomous rule over the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur, he was vested with the power to control the gambling and opium dens and brothels. Also as self-appointed governor of the town, he levied taxes on the community.

Yap Ah Loy’s houses at the market square, early 1880’s. courtesy of Arkib Negara

Its been said that during the more peaceful years under Yap Ah Loy’s watchful eye and a full police force of only six - law and order was maintained. Robbery was virtually eliminated. If a Chinese was found robbing, as first offence the incriminated was dragged through the main street with the stolen loot tied to his back. The second offence would result in the slicing of an ear and the third offence, which of course only a kleptomaniac would attempt, resulted in execution. However, law and order was also played to his fancy. During the Selangor Civil War, he had word out to the community that anyone who would bring him the heads of his enemies, he would be rewarded handsomely in silver dollars.

Yap Ah Loy, wasn’t about to lose his turf to other secret societies who were eagerly vying for his most lucrative position. Not being able to communicate with the Chinese, the British naïvely accepted Kapitan Yap as their trusted informant. They relied on the Kapitan for any news of secret society activities in KL and upon receiving news of such, they would despatch troops to control the situation. Obviously, Kapitan Yap used this opportunity to keep his enemies at bay. He played his game only too well. Yap Ah Loy was the headman to the most prominent secret society in the state, and what better way to handle competition by playing the victim in times when there was a greater protector.

The old market square, courtesy of Arkib Negara.

In the Market Square, Kapitan Yap’s business was thriving. Weary workers thronged the market all day and all nightlong in hope of making it rich at the gambling tables. Or to sooth their pain, they chased their worries away with opium and their loneliness in brothels. He owned all such outlets in the area.

An American naturalist named Hornaday visited the market in 1878. He was pleasantly surprised when he ambled into one of the Chinese provision shop and found Champagne for sale at 60 cents a quart and India pale ale at 15cents per pint. He was only too pleased at being able to get his hands on such cheap good alcohol in a frontier town as it was then.

Not everyone liked the market. Swettenham loathed the conditions at the Market Square and was determined to rid the place of the ramshackle sheds. They came to a compromise where Yap Ah Loy agreed to demolish his atap sheds and to replaced them with bricks and a galvanised iron roof.

Bank Simpanan Nasional Branch has taken over an old printing shop at the market square

Swettenham in turn, granted him the title of the land for life which upon Yap Ah Loy’s death in 1885 at the age of 48, was returned to the government as stipulated in the agreement. Swettenham took this opportunity to relocate the market to a site close to the current Central Market and had the old market dismantled to make way for a square.

At the old Market Square, a clock tower was placed here in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of King George IV, Queen Elizabeth’s father. Of Art Deco influence, it is decorated with abstract geometrical designs, typical art deco of which was immensely popular in the 30’s. Another type of architectural design is found in a row 3 storey shophouses fronting a part of the square.

The Government architect, AB Hubback, in 1907 introduced neo-classical design to his buildings, demonstrated in its decorative plaster garlands, balustrades and gables on the roof. Incidentally, Hubback was also involved in the design of the Jamek Mosque.

A little further down the road; to the right is a block of shophouses built in 1906 by Loke Yew, one of the more influential entrepreneurs of that era. Sin Seng Nam Restaurant occupies the corner shop. The shop maintains some of its original features….where wooden bars still serves as security doors…

Take a look at the delicate Dutch gables at the top - although the block is designed as a whole, each shophouse façade has its own look. During the younger days, the restaurant was a favourite with planters then and was known as The Vatican.

More on Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown ...

Kuala Lumpur / Selangor & Surrounding Day Tours

Day tours within Kuala Lumpur ~ | KL City Tour | Country & Batu Caves Tour | Cultural Night Tour | Garden & Parks Tour | Templer's Park Tour | KL Cultural & Heritage Tour | A day in Rainforest Tour | Putra Jaya & Agricultural Park Tour | Sunway Lagoon Tour |

Day Tours Outside of Kuala Lumpur ~ | Historical Malacca Tour | Genting Highlands Tour | Pulau Ketam Tour |

Day Nature/Adventure Tours Outside of Kuala Lumpur ~ | Elephant Sanctuary Trip | Fire Fly & Kuala Selangor Trip | White Water Rafting at Sungai Selangor | Water Tubing at Sungai Selangor |

 

Day Tours within Kuala Lumpur

Tours

Hrs

Day of Operations

Departure

Min Pax

Include

Rate

AM

PM

Adult
(RM)

Child
(RM)

Kuala Lumpur City Tour
(Itinerary)

3.5

Daily

9.00

2.00

2

-

60

30

Country & Batu Caves
(Itinerary)

3.5

Daily

9.00

2.00

2

-

60

30

Fullday KL City & Country (Itinerary)

9

Daily

9.00

-

2

Entrance fees & Lunch

230

160

KL Night Tour (Itinerary)

5

Daily

-

5.00

2

Entrance fee
Dinner & Show

180

115

Garden & Parks Tour (Itinerary)

3.5

Daily

9.30

-

2

Entrance to Bird Park, Butterfly Park & Orchid Garden

150

95

Templer's Park Tour (Itinerary)

3.5

Daily

9.30

-

2

-

120

80

KL Cultural & Heritage (Itinerary)

4

Daily

9.30

-

2

-

120

80

A Day In Rainforest (Itinerary)

4

Daily

9.30

-

2

-

180

150

National Zoo & School of Hard Knock (Itinerary)

4

Daily

9.30

-

2

Entrance to Zoo & Course Fee

120

100

Putrajaya Tour (Itinerary)

5

Daily

9.00

-

2

Entrance to Agr. Park & Perahu Ride

135

90

Sunway Lagoon (Itinerary) **

8

Daily

9.30

-

2

5 parks – Water, Amusement, Wildlife, Extreme & Scream Park only (excl bungy jump, G-Force, go-kart)

170

120

** Sunway Lagoon : Closed on Tuesdays except on Malaysia/Singapore School Holiday & Malaysia Public Holiday

Please Note:

* All tours are based on SIC (seat-in-coach) can only be conducted with the minimum number of person/adults required
* Pick-up and drop-off service from major hotels at Kuala Lumpur town centre
* For other pick up and drop off services in areas other than KL centre, please advise us. Additional surcharge will be accorded
* Services of an English Speaking Driver cum Guide
* Child is from 3 to 11 years old
* Touring by air-conditioned car or van (depending on the group size)
* Admission to attraction and meals where applicable (refer to itinerary)
* Surcharge of RM30/person during Ramadhan Season for Cultural Night Tour
* Country & Batu Caves not available for 3 days of Thaipusam Festival (Eve of Thaipusam, Thaipusam Day and Day after Thaipusam)
* Any unused services are non-refundable, non-exchangeable and non-deductible
* Full Charges apply to NO SHOW OR LAST MINUTE CANCELLATION

 

Day Tours outside of Kuala Lumpur

Tours

Hrs

Day of Operations

 

Min Pax

Include

 

Departure

Rate

AM

PM

Adult
(RM)

Child
(RM)

Historical Malacca Tour (Itinerary)

8

Daily

9.00

-

2

Lunch

130

95

Genting Highlands (Itinerary)

8

Daily

8.30

-

2

1 way cable Car

100

70

Pulau Ketam Rural Adventure (Itinerary)

8

Daily

9.30

-

2

Lunch

180

90

Please Note:

* All tours are based on SIC (seat-in-coach) can only be conducted with the minimum number of person/adults required
* Pick-up and drop-off service from major hotels at Kuala Lumpur town centre
* For other pick up and drop off services in areas other than KL centre, please advise us. Additional surcharge will be accorded
* Services of an English Speaking Driver cum Guide
* Touring by air-conditioned car or van (depending on the group size)
* Admission to attraction and meals where applicable (refer to itinerary)
* Child is from 3 to 11 years old
* Any unused services are non-refundable, non-exchangeable and non-deductible
* Full Charges apply to NO SHOW OR LAST MINUTE CANCELLATION

Postponements of Trip:

* Please be advised that the trip will not be allowed to be postponed unless we are advised of any changes at least 3 working days before trip commencement date

 

Day Nature Tours outside of Kuala Lumpur

Tours

Hrs

Day of Operations

Departure

Min Pax

Include

Rate

AM

PM

Adult
(RM)

Child
(RM)

                 

Elephant Sanctuary (Itinerary)

8

Daily

9.30

-

2

Entrance fee & Lunch

195

130

Shah Alam & Kuala Selangor Fireflies (Itinerary)

8

Daily

-

3.00

2

Dinner & Boat Ride

180

100

Please Note:

* All tours are based on SIC (seat-in-coach) can only be conducted with the minimum number of person/adults required
* Pick-up and drop-off service from major hotels at Kuala Lumpur town centre
* For other pick up and drop off services in areas other than KL centre, please advise us. Additional surcharge will be accorded
* Services of an English Speaking Driver cum Guide
* Touring by air-conditioned car or van (depending on the group size)
* Admission to attraction and meals where applicable (refer to itinerary)
* Child is from 3 to 11 years old
* Any unused services are non-refundable, non-exchangeable and non-deductible
* Full Charges apply to NO SHOW OR LAST MINUTE CANCELLATION

Postponements of Trip:

* Please be advised that the trip will not be allowed to be postponed unless we are advised of any changes at least 3 working days before trip commencement date

**Please Note that there will be a non-refundable handling charge on payment made. Conditions apply.

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Accommodation and Packages to Kuala Lumpur , KLIA , Petaling Jaya, Damansara , Subang , Sunway, Putrajaya, Kuala Kubu Bahru , Kuala Selangor, Klang and Surroundings

Accommodation :

Kuala Lumpur City

Kuala Lumpur

Boutique Hotels/ Retreats | Carcosa Seri Negara | Piccolo Hotel | Villa Samadhi |

5 Star Hotels | Doubletree By Hilton | Equatorial Hotel | G Tower Hotel | Grand Milennium Hotel Kuala Lumpur | Hilton Hotel Kuala Lumpur | Hotel Istana | JW Marriott Hotel | Hotel Maya | Le Meridien Hotel | Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur | Micasa All Suites Hotel | New World Hotel | Hotel Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur | Parkroyal Kuala Lumpur | Prince Hotel & Residence Kuala Lumpur | Renaissance Kuala Lumpur | Ritz Carlton Kuala Lumpur | Seri Pacific Kuala Lumpur| Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur | Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur | Sunway Putra Hotel |The Gardens Hotel & Residences | The Royale Chulan | Traders Hotel | Westin Kuala Lumpur |

4 Star Hotels | Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral | Boulevard Hotel | Corus Hotel | Concorde Hotel | Dorsett Regency Hotel | The Federal Kuala Lumpur | Flamingo By The Lake | Furama Bukit Bintang | Grand Seasons Hotel | Impiana KLCC | Melia Kuala Lumpur | Novotel Kuala Lumpur City Centre | Pearl International Hotel | Quality Hotel | Hotel Royal | Swiss Garden Hotel |

3 Star Hotels | The 5 Elements Hotel | Adamson Hotel | Alpha Genesis Hotel | Ancasa Hotel | Bestotel City Centre | Brisdale Hotel | Capitol Hotel | Corona Inn | Cititel Mid Valley | Citin Masjid Jamek | Citrus Hotel | City Villa KL | De Palma Ampang Hotel | Dynasty Hotel | Cititel Express Hotel | Grand Continental Kuala Lumpur | Grand Central | Grand Centrepoint Hotel | Grand Pacific Hotel | Kuala Lumpur International Hotel | Mandarin Court Hotel | Mandarin Pacific Hotel | Malaya Hotel | Maytower Hotel & Serviced Apartment | Hotel Maluri | Midah Hotel | Olympic Sports Hotel Kuala Lumpur | Plaza Hotel | Pudu Plaza Hotel | Prescott Inn Medan Tuanku | Puteri Park Hotel | Radius International | Royale Bintang Hotel | Seasons View Hotel | Sentral Hotel | Sentral Pudu Hotel | Sky Express Hotel | Sky Hotel | Sri Petaling Hotel | StarPoints Hotel | Swiss Inn | Vistana Hotel | Wenworth Hotel |

2 Star Hotels | Agora Hotel | Bintang Warisan Hotel | Citin Pudu | City Park Hotel | First Business Inn | Fortuna Hotel | Garden City Hotel | Grand Central Hotel | Heritage Station Hotel | KL Lodge | Le Apple Boutique Hotel | Nova Hotel | Noble Hotel | Palace Hotel | Puduraya Hotel | Replica Inn | Swiss Hotel Kuala Lumpur | Wira Hotel |

1 Star Hotels/Motels | Cardogan Hotel | Orkid Hotel | D'Oriental Inn | D'Garden Hotel | Winsin Hotel Chinatown | Shalimar Hotel |

Budget Inns & Homestays | Attapsana | Backpackers Travellers Lodge | Backpackers Travellers Inn | Blessings Homestay | Hotel Chinatown Town Inn | Coliseum Hotel & Cafe | Cube Boutique Hotel | Eight Guesthouse | Golden Plaza Hostel | Citin Pudu Hotel | Kowloon Hotel | Hotel MAYC | Pondok Lodge | Pujangga Homestay | Red Palm KL | Traveller Moon Lodge |

Service Apartments | The Ascott Kuala Lumpur | Bintang Fairlane Residences | Crown Regency Serviced Suites | Duta Vista Executive Suites | D-Villa Residence | Fahrenheit Suite Hotel | Fraser Place Kuala Lumpur | Holiday Villa Apartment Suites | Lanson Place Ambassador Row | Maple Suite | Micasa All Suites Hotel | MyHabitat Residence | PNB Darby Park | Pacific Regency Hotel Suites | Prince Hotel & Residence Kuala Lumpur | RentNow Kuala Lumpur Serviced Apartments | Somerset Seri Bukit Ceylon | MH Hotel & Residences Kuala Lumpur | Sunway Putra Hotel & Apartments | The Nomad Sucasa All Suite | Wedgewood Serviced Residences Mont Kiara | The Zon All Suites Residences | Tiffani Kiara Serviced Residences Mont Kiara |

Selangor

Bagan Lalang

| Hotel Seri Malaysia | Seri Bayu Resort |

Bangi & Putrajaya

| Hotel Equatorial Bangi-Putrajaya | Marriott Putrajaya | Palm Garden Hotel IOI Resort | Pullman Putrajaya Lakeside | Putrajaya Shangri-La |

Cheras

| D'Garden Hotel | Sun Inns Cheras |

Damansara

| Eastin Hotel | One World Hotel | Royale Bintang Damansara | Peninsula Residence | Sun Inn Kota Damansara |

Gombak

| Alang Manja |

Klang

| Blue Star Hotel | Crystal Crown Hotel | Embassy Hotel | Family Hotel | Goldcourse Hotel Resort | Hotel Mutiara Klang | New International Hotel | Royal Comfort Hotel | Histana Hotel |

Kajang

| Prescott Metro Inn |

Kelana

| Sun Inns Kelana Jaya |

Kepong

| Sun Inns Kepong |

Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) / Sepang

De Palma Hotel Sepang | Empress Hotel Sepang | Pan Pacific Hotel KLIA | Golden Palm Tree Sea Villas & Spa |

Kuala Selangor

| De Palma Inn | Firefly Park Resort | Kuala Selangor Nature Park | Melawati Resthouse |

Morib

| Impian Morib Hotel |

Petaling Jaya

| Armada Hotel | PJ Hilton |

Puchong

| Sun Inns Puchong | Sun Inns Puchong 1 |

Rawang

| Grand Paradise Highway Rawang ( North Bound ) |

Seri Kembangan

| Mines Wellness Hotel | Sun Inns D'Mind | Sun Inns Equine Park |

Subang / Sunway

| Holiday Villa Subang | Pyramid Tower Sunway | The Saujana | Grand Dorsett Subang | Sunway Resort Hotel & Spa | Sun Inns Hotel Lagoon, Sunway | Sun Inns Hotel Mentari, Sunway | Summit USJ |

Shah Alam

| Concorde Shah Alam | De Palma Hotel Shah Alam | EV World Hotel | Grand Bluewave Hotel |

Tanjung Sepat

| Hock's House |

Trips & Packages :

Kuala Lumpur & surroundings Day Trips

| KL City Tour & Day Tour | Countryside Tour | Cultural Night | KL cultural & Heritage | A Day in the Rainforest | National Zoo & School of Hard Knocks | Putrajaya & Agricultural Park | Genting Highlands | Sunway Lagoon Theme Park | Elephant Sanctuary | Pulau Ketam | Kuala Selangor and Fireflies trip |

Volunteer Programmes

| 14 Days Malaysia Zoo Experience | 26 Days Zoo, Orangutan & Pygmy Elephant Volunteer Adventure | 28 Days Malaysia Zoo Experience |

Combination Trips :

Nature/ Highland/ Island / Culture / Heritage

| 5 Days 4 Nights Kuala Lumpur & Penang - Cooking Class + Food Trip Package | 5 Days 4 Nights Kuala Lumpur Cooking Class + Food Trip Package | 7 Days 6 Nights Peninsular Malaysia Nature & Island Trip | 7 Days 6 Nights Peninsular Malaysia Animals , Nature & Island Trip | 8 Days 7 Nights Kuala Lumpur, Penang & Langkawi Tour Package | 9 Days 8 Nights Peninsular Malaysia Highland, Nature & Island Trip |

 

Malaysia Cities , Towns & Villages

Peninsula Malaysia Cities , Towns & Villages

Kedah

| Alor Setar |

Terengganu

| Chukai | Dungun | Kemaman | Kijal | Kuala Terengganu | Paka |

Perak

| Ipoh | Kuala Kangsar | Lumut | Taiping |

Selangor

| Klang | Kuala Selangor |

Kelantan

| Kota Bahru |

Federal Territory

| Kuala Lumpur |

Johor

| Mersing |

Negri Sembilan

| Seremban | Kuala Pilah | Lukut |

Pahang

| Sungei Lembing | Kuala Lipis | Kuantan |

Melaka

| Melaka |

Sabah and Sarawak Towns , Cities & Villages

Sarawak

| Kuching | Long Bedian | Long Lama | Long Terawan | Miri | Marudi |

Sabah

| Sandakan | Kota Kinabalu | Tawau |

 

About Kuala Lumpur:

State of Selangor :

Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur:

Activities in Kuala Lumpur & Selangor:

Accommodation in Kuala Lumpur:

Accommodation in Selangor:

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