So many secrets lie buried within this living museum that even locals don’t have a clue.
Text & Photography by Jan Yong
Being born and bred in Kuala Lumpur, I’d thought I knew a lot about Chinatown as my mother used to take me there for shopping decades ago. I know about Chinatown’s most famous soya bean stall, Kim’s Soya Bean, which has been around for over 50 years or longer, and is now run by the founder’s descendants; as well as many other famous eateries there. And even a salon which has been in operation for over 40 years.
That is until I met tourist guide extraordinaire Jane Rai, who lifted my knowledge of Chinatown to the next level. Not your usual tourist guide, Jane has done extensive research on the history of this storied district in KL, the oldest in KL after the one at the Old City Centre where the Sultan Abdul Samad Building stands.
A 3-hour group walking tour led by Jane made me realise I didn’t even know half the history of the place. And that’s only a slice of the full history of Chinatown. Well, did you know that Petaling Street was once called ‘The Monte Carlo of KL’ due to a proliferation of opium and gambling dens, as well as being a hub of prostitution? But contrary to popular belief, people then used opium sparingly and addiction wasn’t an issue, so there was no stigma attached to it.
As the oldest Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple attracts hordes of visitors before the Movement Control Order took place. Currently, it only allows entrance to a limited number of devotees. There is an interesting story as to why a big Hindu temple was built there, right inside Chinatown. Jane’s walk will provide a very captivating take on that.
Opposite the temple is a row of shophouses and behind them is a wide open space (now used as a car park) that used to house a cinema, quite incongruously named as Madras Lane Cinema – which has never screened any Indian movies.
Upon digging further, Jane postulated that the name ‘Madras’ was used probably because the people constructing the cinema were mostly from Madras at the time. Hence, as a token of appreciation, their hometown’s name was inscribed there forever, until the cinema got demolished.
Also, not many know that there is a Sikh temple along Jalan Balai Polis – a legacy from the days when Sikhs were recruited as police officers. It’s still operating today – offering the traditional free meals on Sunday mornings to everyone regardless of their religion.
Next to the Madras Cinema location is a narrow alleyway called Madras Lane Market which was originally supposed to temporarily house traders from the nearby Central Market. The latter was then undergoing a massive refurbishment to convert it into a modern handicraft centre.
Having settled there for a few years, the traders decided to stay put since they would lose their customers if they were to move elsewhere. It is now home to a number of stalls selling hawkers fare such as chee cheong fun, curry laksa, and taufu, as well as wet market staples like vegetables, fish and live chickens that are slaughtered on the spot.
Along the same road further down towards Public Bank are some of the oldest florists in Malaysia. They have been around for decades and some of their regular clientele have been with them for that much length of time too.
And if you walk past a few Chinese medical halls, you would perhaps not realise that one of them, the 75-year-old Kien Fatt Medical Store is one of the oldest suppliers of Chinese herbal preparations in KL.
There are many tradesmen who have been plying their trade for decades in this part of town. Count it your lucky day if you managed to talk to them, many of whom are well into their 60s and 70s.
But my favourite is the half shop and the 3-in-1 shop along Petaling Street. In the case of the former, one half of the shop consists of a restaurant, Poh’s Tau Fu Fah, which serves desserts and typical main meals but in a very atmospheric ambiance filled with antiques that tell the story of Chinatown, in parts. It’s almost like you have gone back in time 100 years.
Next on the menu is the 3-in-1 shopfront – but you would need to go on one of the walks to know the exact location of the secret bar. There are still a lot more secrets to uncover in Chinatown and the walking tour founded by Jane is a good start.
And by the way, if you want a good view of all four iconic buildings in KL – KL Tower, Petronas Twin Towers, The Exchange 106 and the still-under construction Merdeka 118, go up to the 8th floor of Four Points by Sheraton Kuala Lumpur Hotel. You can even catch a good view of Chin Woo Stadium and its Olympic-sized swimming pool that was once an iconic institution in its heyday.
Oh, and I almost forgot. There is a back lane where racks and racks of ducks are hung to dry. It’s another one of those open secrets that even many locals don’t know about.
Jane’s Free Walk Kuala Lumpur Unscripted is tip-based. Register at Facebook, 019-699 2668 (WhatsApp only) or E-mail: booking@ freewalkkualalumpurunscripted.com