Founded at the head of the Klang Valley in the mid-nineteenth century, Kuala Lumpur – widely known as KL – has never had a coherent style. The earliest grand buildings around Merdeka Square, dating from the 1890s, are eccentric fusings of influences from across the British Empire, now overshadowed by soaring modern landmarks (notably the Petronas Towers) that wouldn’t be out of place in Hong Kong or New York. This melange extends to the people too; attractions aside, you could spend a visit simply soaking up KL’s excitingly diverse Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures: the conversations heard on the street, the huge range of food, and the profusion of mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines.
Although KL is also a noticeably sociable and safe place, many Malaysians have mixed feelings about their capital. Though the city is second only to Singapore in regional economic clout, the former prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, hit the mark when describing KL’s first-class infrastructure as betrayed by a third-world mentality, and demonstrating a poor grasp of planning, maintenance and service. Untrammelled development over the last decade has bequeathed the city many featureless buildings, follies and terrible traffic snarl-ups, which some locals tolerate only because KL offers them good money and experience before they retire to a cherished provincial village. Conversely, others feel that it has been their salvation, the one city in the country that’s big and broad-minded enough to allow them to explore their true artistic or spiritual identity.
Travellers who visit both KL and Singapore often conclude that if only KL could acquire some of Singapore’s ability to organize systematically and transparently, while Singapore had some of KL’s pleasingly organic qualities and didn’t take itself quite so seriously, then both cities would benefit. As things stand, they remain rivals, competing in their own way for investment and recognition while grudgingly admiring each other.
A stay of a few days is enough to appreciate the best of KL’s attractions, including the colonial core around Merdeka Square and the adjacent enclaves of Chinatown and Little India, plus, to the east, the restaurants, shops and nightlife of the so-called Golden Triangle, the modern heart of downtown KL. It can be equally rewarding just to take in KL’s street life, in particular its boisterous markets, ranging from fish and produce markets stuffed into alleyways, to stalls selling cooked food of every shape and description, or inexpensive clothes and accessories.
KL’s hinterland is hardly devoid of worthwhile sights either, among them the rugged limestone Batu Caves, which contain the country’s most sacred Hindu shrine; FRIM, or the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, with a treetop canopy walkway for a quick taste of the rainforest; Kuala Selangor and its magical fireflies; and the hard-to-reach birding hotspot of Fraser’s Hill.
KL was founded in 1857 when the ruler of Selangor State, Rajah Abdullah, sent a party of Chinese to prospect for tin deposits around the junction of the Gombak and Klang rivers. The pioneers duly discovered rich deposits 6km from the confluence near Ampang (east of the present-day city centre), which grew into a staging post for Chinese mine labourers. Unusually, the settlement acquired the name Kuala Lumpur (“muddy confluence”) rather than, as convention dictated, being named after the lesser of the two rivers – KL should, by rights, have been called “Kuala Gombak”.
At first, KL was little more than a wooden shantytown; small steamers could approach within 30km along Sungai Klang, but the rest of the trip was either by shallow boat or through the jungle. Yet settlers poured in, seeking to tap the wealth of this unexplored region: British investors, Malay farmers, Chinese towkays (merchants) and labourers. The Chinese also formed two secret societies, the fierce rivalry between which restrained the township’s growth until the influential former miner Yap Ah Loy was appointed as Kapitan Cina, or Chinese headman, in 1869. Ah Loy brought law and order to the frontier town by ruthlessly making an example of criminals, parading them through the streets on a first offence and executing them if they re-offended twice. He led the rebuilding of KL after it was razed during the Selangor Civil War (1867–73) and personally bore much of the cost of a second rebuilding after a devastating fire in 1881.
The British Resident of Selangor State, Frank Swettenham, had most of KL’s remaining wooden huts demolished in the 1880s and imported British architects from India to design solid, grand edifices suitable for a new capital. By 1887 the city had five hundred brick buildings, and eight times that number in the early 1900s, by which time KL had also become capital of the Federated Malay States.
The early twentieth century
Development continued steadily in the first quarter of the twentieth century, during which time Indians from Tamil Nadu swelled the population. Catastrophic floods in 1926 inspired a major engineering project that straightened the course of Sungai Klang, confining it within reinforced, raised banks. By the time the Japanese invaded the Peninsula in December 1941, the commercial zone around Chinatown had grown to eclipse the original colonial area, and the towkays, enriched by the rubber boom, were already installed in opulent townhouses along today’s Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Ampang. While the city suffered little physical damage during World War II, the Japanese inflicted terrible brutality on their historic enemies, the Chinese (at least five thousand of whom were killed in the first few weeks of the occupation alone), and sent thousands of Indians to Burma to build the infamous railway, of whom very few survived. At the same time, the Japanese ingratiated themselves with certain Malays by suggesting that loyalty to the occupiers would be rewarded with independence after the war.
Following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the British found that nationalist demands had replaced the Malays’ former acceptance of the colonizers, while many Chinese felt alienated by talk that a future Malay government would deny them full citizenship. The ensuing Communist-inspired Emergency left KL relatively unscathed, but the atmosphere in the city was tense. These issues finally came to a head in KL’s May 1969 race riots, in which at least two hundred people lost their lives, though things calmed down rapidly after the imposition of a state of emergency.
In 1974 KL was plucked from the bosom of Selangor State and designated Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal Territory), an administrative zone in its own right; Shah Alam, west along the Klang Valley, replaced it as Selangor’s capital. After a period of consolidation, KL and the rest of the Klang Valley, including KL’s satellite new town of Petaling Jaya, became a thriving conurbation in the 1990s. That decade, and the early part of the new millennium, saw the realization of several huge infrastructural ventures that are part and parcel of local life today – KL’s international airport and the Formula One racetrack, both at Sepang in the far south of Selangor; the Petronas Towers and the attendant KLCC shopping development; the various urban rail systems across the city; and Putrajaya, the government’s administrative hub off to the south (though KL remains the legislative centre and seat of parliament). The transformation of swathes of KL and much of Selangor is less dramatic today, but still proceeds apace – not least in the ongoing construction of the Klang Valley MRT rail network – and concerns are being voiced over the potential strain on water resources and other environmental repercussions.
Top image: Batu Caves statue and entrance © anek.soowannaphoom/Shutterstock