Retracing footsteps

12 09 2018

I enjoy visiting Kuala Lumpur for a variety of reasons. The Malaysian capital, known by its acronym KL to most, provides me with a sense of having returned home home in a way that home – some 200 miles away in Singapore – is no longer able to do.

An old market in KL.

It would seem strange, if not for the history Malaysia and Singapore shares and perhaps, for the frequent visits I have made to KL since I was a child. In the bits of the past, found in the modern of the bustling metropolis, I especially find joy in. The disorder of their shophouses, the clutter along the five-foot-ways, the colours and smells of old street markets and old coffee shops, are that reminder of the Singapore that I grew to love as a child that I would never otherwise be able to ever see again.

Lunch time at Lai Foong.

An old coffee shop that I remember from my childhood visits to the city, the Kedai Kopi Lai Foong, is one such reminder. An institution in a city in which there is no shortage of such old gems, the 1950s coffee shop seems little changed from the 1970s and is quite reminiscent of the busy urban centre coffee shops of Singapore’s lost past.

Mirror, mirror on the mosaic wall.  Mirrors were commonly given as opening gifts at coffee shops in Malaysia. Mosiac or kitchen tiles were commonly used on the walls of coffee shops both in Singapore and Malaysia as they could be easily cleaned and did not require frequent repainting.

Positioned at the corner of Jalan Tun H. S. Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, it sits just across Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock from Petaling Street (or Chinatown). That and its proximity to Central Market – now the touristy Pasar Seni, has meant that the coffee shop has long attracted more than its fair share of the local crowd as well as a steady stream of out-of-town visitors. With Tripadvisor now inflating the number of would be visitors, any attempt to seat oneself in the confusion of tables and chairs in the shop’s confines, presents quite a challenge. Any intent to savour some of the coffee shop’s famous fare must now be accompanied by the patience of a saint, some guile, and most of all, a fair bit of luck; all of which I must have had when visited the coffee shop for a bowl of its much-talked about beef noodles back in June.

A scene reminiscent of the coffee shops of old Singapore, with its stalls lining the outer edge of the shop.

A posting I made on Facebook of the bowl of beef noodles invited a comment from a locally based acquaintance, in which a recommendation was made to have the wanton mee at Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye, another old kopitiam. With its location along Jalan Bukit Bintang also presenting me with an opportunity to reacquaint myself with an area of KL that I had lost touch with, there was enough of a motivation for me to hop on the MRT to Bukit Bintang, just a few days later.

Kedai Makanan Toong Kwoon Chye.

Despite the familiarity I had with the area, I had no impression at all of Toong Kwoon Chye prior to my June visit. I found it quite easily, tucked away in a quiet corner of the street. It might have been the time of the day but even if it was of a similar vintage to Lai Foong, Toong Kwoon Chye couldn’t have been more different. There was absolutely none of Lai Foong’s rush and time, seemed to slow to a standstill, the moment that I stepped into the coffee shop.

Furnished in what may be described as the classical kopitiam style, with marble topped tables and wooden chairs – sans the spittoons of course – Toong Kwoon Chye’s old coffee shop feel was made complete by its counter, even if it was somewhat more modern in looks than one might have expected. Just like any old coffee shop of the good old days, a row of clear-glass jars with red covers stood at one end, half filled with biscuits and other snacks for sale. With so much of a sleepy old out-of-town kopitiam vibe about it, it seemed fitting for me to while the morning away sipping on a cup of coffee and take the time to savour the plate of shredded chicken noodles that I had ordered.

The ebb and flow at Toong Kwoon Chye.

The lazy breakfast put me in the mood for an unhurried stroll, which first took me inside Sungai Wang Plaza. It was one of two interconnected malls from the 1970s I never failed to visit whenever I find myself in the area. The other, which I liked better, was Bukit Bintang Plaza. That has since made way for redevelopment. With little to distract me in Sungai Wang, I decided to continue my stroll outdoors instead and soon found myself retracing footsteps I must have last made some four decades past.

The changing face of Jalan Bukit Bintang – now missing BB Plaza.

The familiarity I had with Bukit Bintang had come out of numerous family holiday stopovers in KL. Holidays abroad in my childhood, with the exception of a visit to Thailand in 1978, invariably meant road trips across the Causeway. KL, a six-hour drive before the North-South Highway made drives a breeze, served as a break-journey point on the road up to more northerly destinations such as Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill (at which the Singapore Government maintained holiday facilities for civil servants). The combination of affordable accommodation, shopping and food in Bukit Bintang, made it a good location to put up in.

Tong Shin Terrace.

One of the things we must have done with sufficient regularity, for me to have remembered them in such vivid detail, were the walks to Chinatown. That took us down Jalan Alor or Tong Shin Terrace, and then west along Jalan Pudu. Both Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace seemed to have retained much of their character, although I am told that Jalan Alor’s well patronised nighttime eateries now cater to quite a different crowd.

I found myself taking a little detour into the area’s back lanes, perhaps in the hope of finding a nasi lemak stall that we had stumbled upon during a June 1979 sojourn in KL. That visit to KL was one to remember for several reasons. It provided me with my first experience as a football spectator outside of Singapore. The match that I caught was also one of huge importance to the Singaporean football fan of the 1970s, the Malaysia Cup final.

The back lanes around Tengkat Tong Shin.

The final, played at KL’s Stadium Merdeka, saw Singapore take on a Selangor team that featured Malaysian footballing legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam and Santokh Singh. The final that year was significant for the debut of the talented Fandi Ahmad, who was also playing in the competition for the first time. Fandi, then 17, would go on to illuminate the competition in which Malaysian state teams and Singapore featured.

STadium Merdeka today, surrounded by a development that is seeing the rise of Malaysia’s tallest building, a 118-storey tower that will also be the third tallest in the world.

As the match coincided with a trip we were making, we were able to obtain tickets at the stadium when they went on sale. That made it all the more memorable, as it meant that we were seated in a section occupied by the crowd of boisterous home supporters in a match in which controversial 66th minute Selangor goal proved to be a turning point. Mokhtar would add a second to complete a two goal victory for Selangor but all that is another story. What would also make that trip one to be remembered was the joy of discovering nasi lemak at its simplest, served at a makeshift stall.

A courtyard hotel.

There no nasi lemak to be found this time, not at least the manner in which that was served. However, the back lanes yielded several new discoveries. Spruced up and a lot less familiar, they now feature brightly painted wall murals, modern eateries and a very nice looking courtyard hotel.

A back lane eatery.

Back out from the back lanes, it all became familiar once more down Tong Shin Terrace. An old block of flats, which I had always assumed to have been a low-cost housing development, came into view. I therefore was quite surprised to learn with Google’s help that the development, the Blue Boy Mansion, was thought of as a landmark development when it was erected back in 1962.

The Blue Boy Mansion.

Inside the Blue Boy Mansion.

West from from Blue Boy Mansion along Jalan Pudu, just past Tung Shin Hospital was another familiar sight. Now in disguise as the modern looking Pudu Sentral, it was unmistakably Puduraya, for a long while KL’s main bus station. The station now sees just a fraction of the bus services that used to operate out of it. I realised how time has flown by in attempting to recall when I last took a bus out of the station. That was a trip to made in the mid-1990s to Kuala Kubu Bharu to catch another bus up to Fraser’s Hill.

Hitting Pudu Sentral meant that I was closing in on Chinatown. As there was still time to spare, I decided to make my way to Lai Foong  in the hope of satisfying an urge I was having for its char kway teow, only to find the stall closed. The disappointment of that, coupled with the rising heat and humid of the mid-June Klang Valley afternoon, made the lure of modern KL – in the form of an air-conditioned mall – hard to resist. I soon found myself in one to cool off and then have a late lunch, before I headed back to Petaling Jaya where I was putting up.

Char Kway Teow at Lai Foong.


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One response

20 09 2018
Ken Sim

thks forthe photos i likethe old tyle kopi shops that also existed in sporebut thefresh market in kl dontlook hygienicas the met arenot kept in freezers sameas in china and mostlike buzzed around by disease carrying flies or mosquitoes

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