Seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar

1 01 2016

I love a wander around the streets of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. KL, as the city is fondly referred to, not unlike Singapore, has seen an incredible transformation over the last three decades. But unlike Singapore, which has discarded much of what that made it what it was, KL has retained pockets of of the old world; a world that gives me that sense of familiarity that is missing from the streets of the city I spent most of my life in.

One area I am particularly fond of taking a stroll through is in the part of KL around Petaling Street. Much about it has changed – and is still changing, in its back lanes and kaki-kaki-lima (five-foot-ways) I am able to find enough familiar to me from my excursions to it of two and a half decades past. Still around are the busy places of worship and the old but now shrinking back lane wet market and familiar food-stalls at Madras Lane. The old shophouses along Jalan Sultan are also still there, although some of the trades found in them – such as an old denture workshop, seemed in the two years since I last visited the street, to have closed for good.

A peek into the late 19th century Kuan Ti temple at Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A peek into the late 19th century Kuan Ti temple at Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A five-foot-way along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

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The front of an old pet bird shop along Jalan Sultan.

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Kneading dough at a back lane pau stall.

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A back lane kopitiam (coffee shop) at a back lane flea market, Pasar Karat.

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The back lane wet market at Madras Lane.

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The well-known Four-Eyed (bespectacled) One – Sze Ngan Chye roast duck cart along Petaling Street.

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Slaughtered birds at a live chicken stall at the wet market.

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KL favourites in a back lane – the Madras Lane Yong Tau Foo and Laska stalls.

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A colourful area in old KL

5 07 2013

One of the more interesting and colourful parts of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, affectionately referred to as “KL’ to wander around is the area around what used to be the heart of Chinatown. The area is one that is very much in transition, having discarded large bits of a past which has now been largely forgotten. The area is now better known for the street market at Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), a modern interpretation of the street markets of old complete with the offering, typical of many modern street markets, of imitation goods.

Lychees on sale at the Petaling Street market. The area is one of the more colourful areas of KL.

Lychees on sale at the Petaling Street market. The area is one of the more colourful areas of KL.

A remnant of the past in the midst of stall selling fake goods -  real goods, in this case really good roast duck out of a push cabinet along Jalan Petaling.

A remnant of the past in the midst of stall selling fake goods – real goods, in this case really good roast duck out of a push cabinet along Jalan Petaling.

The area, as with much of the rapidly modernising city, finds itself in the throes of change. Walking around today, we find that there is increasing number of shophouses where the once thriving organic trades have abandoned, the businesses themselves having been abandoned by the modern society. Despite this, there are still pockets in which the area does cling on to its past, where reminders of a world which soon may pass can still be found.

One of two old textile shops still operating at Jalan Tun H S Lee. The shops once did a roaring trade in the days when it was common to have clothes tailored.

One of two old textile shops still operating at Jalan Tun H S Lee. The shops once did a roaring trade in the days when it was common to have clothes tailored.

An old photo studio along Jalan Sultan.

An old photo studio along Jalan Sultan.

One area which does hold tightly on to the past is found off Jalan Petaling /Jalan Sultan at Madras Lane. There a market, relatively quiet by yesterday’s standards, does still operate. It is in a section of the wet market, where some trades do still thrive can be found. That is where some of the best street food said to on and off the streets of  old KL is said to be found at. Besides the two famous laksa stalls which often sell out before lunch time, there is an extremely popular Ampang Yong Tau Foo stall at which even if one is there for an early lunch, one sees a snaking queue.

The wet market at Madras Lane is not as busy as it once might have been.

The wet market at Madras Lane is not as busy as it once might have been.

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The cooked food stalls at the market still however, do good business.

The cooked food stalls at the market still however, do good business.

The queue at the Ampang Yong Tau Foo stall.

The queue at the Ampang Yong Tau Foo stall.

A walk down Jalan Sultan and the other streets around, including those north of Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock around Old Market Square can also be pretty interesting. There is plenty of the old mixed with the new including textile shops, medicine shops, snack shops, eating places and other traditional businesses set among businesses which are more relevant to today’s society – including a whole area rich in colour that now caters to a group of migrant workers from Bangladesh. Jalan Sultan is particularly interesting, besides the back lanes there teeming with food stalls and one at the end of which a back lane barber operates, there is an old place where dentures are made.

A look down Jalan Sultan.

A look down Jalan Sultan.

A old idsused public telephone.

A old disused public telephone.

A back lane off Jalan Sultan.

A back lane off Jalan Sultan.

A shop in which dentures are made.

A shop in which dentures are made.

Another view around Jalan Sultan.

Another view around Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall Chinese medicine shop along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A hole-in-the-wall Chinese medicine shop along Jalan Tun H S Lee.

A hole-in-the-wall convenience shop along Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall convenience shop along Jalan Sultan.

An old hardware shop and signboard along Jalan Petaling.

An old hardware shop and signboard along Jalan Petaling.

Along Lebuh Pudu - business have sprouted up catering to the migrant Bangladeshi population.

Along Lebuh Pudu – business have sprouted up catering to the migrant Bangladeshi population.

An area south of Jalan Sultan I have not previously explored is that around Jalan Balai Polis and Jalan Panggong – which seems now to be dominated by businesses catering to budget travellers. Besides the old shop houses and lanes which are full of character, that is also where some remnants of the old are still very much in evidence. One is an old abandoned houses standing at the corner of Jalan Panggong where Jalan Balai Polis turns into it next to which one is confronted by a now familiar sight in KL – a construction site. It is at Jalan Balai Polis where a memory which has survived for more than a century does exist – that of the Gurdwara Sahib Polis. This interestingly dates back to 1898, built to serve the community of Sikh policemen who were brought in from India by the British to serve in the police force – a throwback to a time when a large part of the police force was dominated by Sikh migrants from India not just in the then Federated Malayan States (FMS) but also in Singapore. More information on the Gurdwara Sahib Polis can be found at this link.

An old abandoned house along Jalan Panggong.

An old abandoned house along Jalan Panggong.

A Sikh police house of worship along Jalan Balai Polis.

A Sikh police house of worship, the Gurdwara Sahib Polis, along Jalan Balai Polis which dates back to 1898.

Lorong Panggong off Jalan Balai Polis.

Lorong Panggong off Jalan Balai Polis.

Lorong Panggong.

Lorong Panggong.





Seeking an old world over the New Year

5 01 2012

Strange as it may seem, I found myself wandering around streets some 350 kilometres away during the lead up to the New Year, thinking for a while that I was in a Singapore that I had my wonderful childhood in. The streets of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where I was has been a source of fascination for me since my first visit there as a child of six and it has also become, along with other parts of the country, a place where I often search for that world – the Singapore of my childhood that is now lost to me. The streets of Kuala Lumpur today and those of the Singapore of yesterday are undeniably two very different worlds – worlds far apart in many ways. Both cities have seen dramatic changes in four decades since my first visit and are today hardly recognisable from the cities they had emerged from. There is however one key difference in how either city have gone through their respective transformations. Where with Singapore, much of what made Singapore, Singapore, has now been lost – replaced in many cases by the cold hard stare of glass, steel and concrete, there is still the buzz of daily life that can be discovered nestled in between the towering edifices of modern Kuala Lumpur.

There are places I remember ... that resemble this. A back lane off the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

An area that I take particular joy in wandering around has become known as the city’s Chinatown – centred on Petaling Street or Jalan Petaling, once a must-go destination on my almost annual visits to the city to savour some of its culinary offerings. The street market it is well known for has unfortunately seen the inevitable invasion of stalls that provide a wider apppeal to a tourist than the local, but there is still in and around the area a world much like that old world we have left behind in Singapore to stumble upon. It is in the five-foot ways and narrow alleyways off the main street that this older world I seek is tucked away. One, alleyway which runs parallel to Petaling Street off Madras Lane (or Jalan Sultan) is home to what must be a well known wet market, teeming in the early hours of daylight with many from the area and beyond, in search for the day’s supply of fresh produce. I first came to know of the market on a trip to Kuala Lumpur that coicided with my very first journey out of the now forgotten Tanjong Pagar Railway Station some two decades ago – and it nice to see that it still is set in that wet, slippery and less than pleasant smelling passageway that leads to what must seem like a reward at the end of it.

The wet market at Madras Lane.

A butcher's assistant at the wet market.

What lies at the end of the wet market is a cluster of food stalls – ones that have a reputation for being amongst the best in a city where sumptous street fare is never hard to find. Despite the less than pleasant demeanour with which customers of some of the stalls are served, the cluster never fails to draw a steady stream of hungry customers in the mornings and the very popular Chee Cheong Fun, Yong Tau Foo and Assam Laksa usually sells out by the time one arrives for a late lunch.

Madras Lane is also famous for its street fare.

The early morning crowd at the Yong Tau Foo stall.

Enjoying a bowl of noodles at Madras Lane.

After a bowl of the irresistable Assam Laksa and a glass of warm soya bean milk the morning I found myself there, there was still time to discover what else Madras Lane had to offer. The five-foot ways and crowded back lanes was certainly a joy to wander through -a hole-in-the-wall shop with colourful magazines strung up for sale, as well as a shop lot where one could have an offending mole removed caught my eye as did a back lane strewn with pushcarts awaiting use to serve the evening’s dining crowd, a back lane barber, a sidewalk fortune-teller, and a cobbler waiting patiently for his next customer.

A bowl of Assam Laksa I had to have.

A sidewalk fortune teller along Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall shop.

A five-foot way along Jalan Sultan.

Have that offending mole removed.

I suppose I would have spent the entire day immersing myself in that old world – but that unfortunately wasn’t that Singapore that I had sought, although it did in many ways remind me of it. It was time then to transport myself to the new world – first for lunch and for a look at another area I was familiar with from my early visits to the city – the Bukit Bintang area which has also seen tremendous change. And as darkness descended on the city for the last time in the old year, it was time to embrace the new – in a way that even an old world cannot escape from – with a blast of colours in the sky, but perhaps in a gentler and quieter way than it would have been if I had stayed at home. With that there is a realisation that much of the old ways will soon be forgotten … but there is that hope that the city I found myself in, would cling tightly on to those little reminders of its past which would allow me many more opportunities to seek the familiarity and comfort of the old world that I can no longer find in the place I grew up in.

A somewhat quieter welcome to 2012 than I would have expected in Singapore - fireworks over Bandar Utama in Malaysia.

The finale after the 10 minute dispay over Bandar Utama.