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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Revisiting KL’s kaki lima

26 06 2018

I love wandering around the “kaki lima” or five-foot-ways of old Kuala Lumpur. Full of life and character, they remind me of the lively and colourful five-foot-ways of the Singapore of my younger days.

The corridors are found along the Malaysian capital’s many old shophouses.  Seen also in most towns and cities across Malaysia and also in Singapore, the five-foot-ways (not necessary five feet wide) trace their existence to the Jackson (Singapore) Town Plan of 1822. The plan, which Raffles had a hand in, required that “all houses constructed of brick or tile should have a uniform type of front, each having a verandah of a certain depth, open at all times as a continuous and covered passage on each side of the street”.

More on five-foot-ways:

A five-foot-way along Jalan Sultan.

One along Jalan Hang Lekiu.

One along Jalan Tun Perak.

One along Jalan Tun H. S. Lee.

One along Jalan Petaling, with pavement fortune teller.





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.

JeromeLim-1963

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

JeromeLim-1972

Kneading dough at a back lane pau stall.

JeromeLim-1973

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

JeromeLim-1980

The back lane wet market at Madras Lane.

JeromeLim-1983

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

JeromeLim-1994

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

JeromeLim-2003

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





Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Administration Building

28 12 2010

These days most would associate Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, affectionately referred to as KL, with some of the modern landmarks that have risen in a city that itself rose out of the confluence of the muddy Gombak and the Klang Rivers. KL is a city that I have been very fond of, visiting it on an annual basis since the 1970s when it took six hours on the old trunk road in the back of my father’s car. It is a city that I have long associated with food and shopping, usually ending up staying in budget accommodation off the main shopping belt of Bukit Bintang which also gave access to the wonderful street food in the Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace areas.

Kuala Lumpur features some magnificent architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century including the Railway Administration Building which was completed in 1917, which is sadly now overshadowed by the new icons such as the Petronas Twin Towers.

It wasn’t until perhaps the 1990s that I started to notice some of the wonderful architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century, having had the independence to wander around some of its streets, such as the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building and Masjid Jamek, and using the trains as a means to travel to KL, who could not but notice the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the magnificent Railway Administration Building just across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin from the station.

One architectural masterpeice, the KL Railway Station, seen through the arches of another, the Railway Administration Building (now the KTMB HQ) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Both buildings feature Morrish influences and were designed by A.B. Hubback.

With much of the focus on the new icons of KL, less attention is now placed on these mainly Moorish architecture inspired buildings – the work of the Public Works Department, the PWD (which was incidentally led by the very able Mr Charles Edwin Spooner at the end of 19th Century, before he was appointed the General Manager of the FMS Railways in 1901 – thus having a hand in the Railway Buildings as well). The Masjid Jamek, as well as the two Railway Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century were designed by an architect with the PWD, a Arthur Benison Hubback, who incidentally rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army during the First World War, and had the good fortune of working under the architect of Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Arthur Charles Alfred Norman. Besides being responsible for some of the iconic architecture of KL Hubback also was responsible for works such as the Ipoh Railway Station and work in the sister colony of Hong Kong, the most notable work being the terminal station of the Kowloon to Canton Railway at Tsim Sha Tsui (which sadly was demolished in 1977, leaving only the Clock Tower, which now serves as a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, behind).

The former Kowloon Railway seen during construction in 1914. It was demolished in 1977 with only the Clock Tower, now a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, remaining. The station was designed by an architect with the Selangor PWD, A.B. Hubback who was responsible for some of the iconic buildings of Kuala Lumpur (source Wikipedia).

Tsim Sha Tsui's historic clock tower (1915) ... the last remnant of the Kowloon Railway Station.

The Railway Administration Building, now the Headquarters of KTM Berhad (KTMB), has been one that I had longed to visit for a long time, but somehow never got to in all those years passing through the Railway Station. It was one that I would always hold in awe, with its age browned façade dominated by moorish styled arches and domes. Based on the information plaque at the entrance to the compound, the building is a “fine example of Moorish architecture reflecting the Ottoman and Moghul glory of the 13th and 14th Centuries blended with Gothic and ancient Greek designs of the 14th Century. The ground floor is adorned with 97 large frontal Gothic arches and 4 smaller arches. The high and wide verandahs skirting the building create a cooling effect and are suitable for the constant high climatic temperatures in Malaysia. The first floor has 94 large arched windows of Gothic design and 4 circular arches of smaller size. The second floor has 171 Gothic arches and 4 large and 12 smaller circular arches. Five domes sit majestically on top of the building, each surrounded at four corners entwined columns. They are of orthodox Greek design typical in the 14th century. This historical building suffered serious damage twice in its lifetime, firstly during the Second World War when its North wing was bombed and secondly when the same wing on the second floor was gutted by fire in 14 November 1968.

The moorish inspired age-browned façade and the main central dome of the Railway Administration Building in KL.

Another view of the age-browned façade of the Railway Administration Building through one of the arches.

Stepping into the building for the very first time, I could not but be amazed by the sheer splendour of its Moorish inspired design. As the information plaque rightly describes the verandas, they are indeed cool and airy, and dominated by a wonderful row of Gothic styled arches that brings to mind those of the interiors of some of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches of Europe and perhaps the Mosque of the Caliphs in Cordoba and to an extent CHIJMES in Singapore. Unfortunately, the upper floors of the building are out of bounds, being where the offices of KTMB are located and my exploration of the building was confined to the ground floor. One of the features that can be appreciated from the ground floor at the main entrance lobby of the building is the beautiful central staircase which spirals below the central dome of the building, featuring some wonderful wrought iron work on its banisters for which a visit to the building is certainly worthy of. If you are ever in KL, do take the time to visit this magnificent building, one that is often passed over for some of the more modern icons of a city that is in fact blessed with some wonderful architectural masterpieces, particularly those given by those highly talented colonial architects who played a big part in the infrastructure development not just of KL but in some of the other British colonies at the turn of the 20th century.

The central staircase below the central dome provides access to the upper floors of the building (which is out of bounds).

The central staircase.

A photograph in the hallway showing the building and the railway station.

The building also features some beautiful ironwork.

A window seen through one of the frontal arches.

A view across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin through one of the arches.

Magnificent gothic arches from the exterior corridors of the building.

A view of the Gothic arched corridor at the back of the building.

A broken part of the buildings cornice lying at the side of the building.

A view of the staircase at the wing of the building.

A semi-circular flight of steps at the wing of the building.

An old signal post on display at the front of the building.

The frontal arches.

In the gardens in front of the building.