Kuala Lumpur is home to some of the world's most spectacular buildings, a modern metropolis in transition with a dynamic skyline. However, there also remain some examples of distinct pre-war architecture of this constantly changing city. The river played an important role in how the city evolved -- around it we have the Merdeka Square area to the west of the river. That was the administrative quarter while the other quarters were represented by Market Square, Chinatown and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Each of these areas contributed to the early development of the city.
Kuala Lumpur had its origins in the 1850s when the Malay Chief of Klang sent Chinese upriver to open new and larger tin mines. They landed at the confluence of Sungai Lumpur (now Gombak) and Sungai Klang and established mines at Ampang. Later, tin mines were opened at Pudu and Batu.
This trading post was a wild frontier town plagued by floods, fires, disease and the Selangor Civil War (1870-73). During this time, Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy emerged as a leader, responsible for the survival and growth of the town.
In 1880, in view of its strategic location, the Selangor state capital was moved from Klang to Kuala Lumpur. Nothing of this earlier period remains as all structures were of wood and attap which were destroyed in the fire and subsequent flood of 1881.
Thereafter, Frank Swettenham, the British Resident of Selangor who was instrumental in the development of the town, required that buildings be constructed of brick and tile. The advent of the railway increased accessibility. The development of buildings intensified in the 1890s, and in 1896 Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the capital of the newly formed Federated Malay States.
The multiracial community of this period settled in various sections of town. Market Square, east of Sungai Klang, became the commercial centre for the whole town. The Chinese congregated around this Square and south into Chinatown. To the north, across Java Street (now Jalan Tun Perak), were the Malays. Nearby, a number of Indian Chettiars (money-lenders), and in later years Indian Muslim traders, set up business. West of the river, the Padang (now Merdeka Square) was the focal point of the British administration.
Kuala Lumpur continued to grow despite two World Wars, the rubber and tin commodity crash and the State of Emergency (1948-60) during which Malaya was preoccupied with the communist insurgency. In 1957, the Federation of Malaya gained its independence from British rule. Kuala Lumpur remained the capital through the formation of Malaysia, achieving city status in 1972, and was established as the Federal Territory in 1974.
The old commercial heart of Kuala Lumpur includes examples of various styles of shophouse architecture. These styles were initially adapted from buildings in southern China and later incorporated Western elements.
The typical Chinese shophouse was built in rows with a common wall between each unit. Each shophouse was long and quite narrow, with a depth of two or three times the width. The traditional shophouse had two storeys. It combined a store in the front at street level with the owner's living quarters above or at the rear. A central air well provided light and ventilation. The first floor projected over the ground floor to form a covered walkway. The building backed onto a narrow lane, which was used for deliveries and removal of night soil, and to provide access for fire fighting.
Prior to 1884, shophouses were attap huts built by Chinese merchants to service the miners. In 1884, Frank Swettenham, concerned about fire hazards, decreed that the shophouses had to be rebuilt in brick with tiled roofs.
A shophouse was required to "provide an arcade or verandah-way at least five feet in width (and the) verandah-way shall be uniformly laid". Called the kaki lima or five-foot way, this created a 1.5m-wide covered passage, which enabled pedestrians to walk under cover, protected from the sun and rain, and away from vehicular traffic.
As the town grew, sewers and other utilities were laid beneath the streets and the roads were re-paved, thus raising the street level above that of the five-foot way. The level of the walkway can therefore be an indication of the period in which a shophouse was built -- the older the shophouse, the lower the walkway.
Walk the Heritage Trail
A good place to start a tour of the old administrative quarter of Kuala Lumpur is the Merdeka Square. Here, at the stroke of midnight on 31 August 1957, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time, and Malaya became an independent nation. Originally called the Parade Ground, it was later known as the Padang (field). The Square was the focal point of colonial Kuala Lumpur. Most of the buildings which surround it date from the turn of the century.
To the east of the Padang is the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. It was originally known as the new Government Offices and housed the Public Works Department, the Survey Office, the Treasury, the Post and Telegraph Offices and some of the departments of the Federated Malay States.
Construction began in 1894 and was completed in 1897. The largest building of its day, it is constructed entirely of brick, and what appears to be cream stone is actually plaster- covered brick. The front facade is 137.2m in length with an imposing porch in the centre. The porch consists of three horseshoe arches, the piers supporting them being nearly 1.2m in thickness.
The 41.2m central tower holds a clock that was first heard during Queen Victoria's birthday parade in 1897. This is surmounted by a copper dome that is in turn topped by a copper chatri. Two circular towers, housing stairways leading to the upper floor, flank the central tower.
When Selangor moved its administrative offices to Shah Alam in 1974, the building was extensively renovated to house the nation's judiciary.
South of the Padang was the first bank to open a branch in Kuala Lumpur -- the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. In 1891, the bank moved to its new premises on this site, chosen for its proximity to the police headquarters on Bluff Road (now Jalan Bukit Aman). As the two-storey building proved inadequate, it was replaced by the present structure in 1909.
The three-storey building was designed with arches on the ground floor to make the façade more compatible with the neighbouring Moghul buildings. Initially, there was a single-storey wing extending onto Jalan Raja. This section of the building was removed when the street was widened and arches were reproduced on the blank wall. The verandahs on the building have now been enclosed with windows. Take note of the four corner domes, covered with belian timber, a hardwood found in East Malaysia.
During the great floods of 1926, the bank's vaults were flooded and water rose to 1m above the floor. Business was transacted upstairs in the living quarters and the staff was transported by sampan to work. Later, millions of dollars of soggy bank notes were laid out on the Padang to dry, under the watchful eye of the police.
On 2 April 1996, the renovated building opened its doors to the public as the National History Museum with a permanent exhibition on Malaysia's historical development.
Next to it is the Government Printing Office, completed in 1899. A rare feature for a building of its time was the structural support system of cast iron columns and trusses, which allowed for a large open interior. This was necessary to house the large printing press machines.
On the top end of the Padang sits the Anglican Church of St Mary the Virgin, consecrated in February 1895, and designed by AC Norman. The architectural style was early English Gothic, which is noted in the buttresses on the outside of the building. In 1958, the rear of the church was extended to house the Jubilee Hall and in 1968, a double-storey annexe was built. St. Mary's was elevated to the status of a cathedral in 1983.
The original part of the building is shaped like a cruciform and consists of the nave which has an open-timbered roof constructed of Malaysian merbau and serian wood. The chancel, raised above the nave floor level, is paved with tessellated tiles and lit by three stained glass windows sited in the octagonal end.
To the west of the Padang sits the Royal Selangor Club, founded in 1884 as a social and cricket club for the growing expatriate community. The earliest Selangor Club building was a simple timber structure with an atap roof erected near the north eastern corner of the Padang. Around 1890, it was replaced by a two-storey timber structure designed by AC Norman, Government Architect, and sited in its present position on the west side of the Padang.
The Club was affectionately known in Colonial days as "The Spotted Dog". One theory was that the Police Commissioner's wife used to bring her black and white Dalmatian dogs to the Club. But more probably, the name reflected the mixed membership at that time, as opposed to the other clubs which were exclusively for the expatriate community.
In 1970, a disastrous fire destroyed a great portion of the building. After some years of uncertainty, the Club was rebuilt. Designed by Fong Ying Leong again in mock Tudor style, it was completed in 1979.
The Hash House Harriers, now an international body of over 1500 cross-country running clubs, was founded at the Selangor Club in 1938.
There are other interesting trails of Kuala Lumpur that one can explore as well. Walk around the old Market Square leading up to the Bukit Nanas area, and explore the Petaling Street / Chinatown area as well as the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman commercial heart. Enjoy!