History of Kuala Lumpur – a colonial heart
There’s one place in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia’s capital city, that you can bet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge won’t be shown on their royal visit – a clock tower that stands in Medan Pesar (Market Square), just north of the Chinatown district. This Art Deco monument was erected in 1937 to mark the coronation of George VI.
But the brass plaques that told you so were removed when Malaya gained independence from the British Empire. Just the screw holes remain.
It’s a handy metaphor for what’s left of colonial KL. On August 30 1957, the Union flag flew for the last time over Malaya (the modern name Malaysia came later, in 1963) and though it will be flying again in honour of royal British guests, Malaysia is focused on the future.
The National Museum, which tells the nation’s story, celebrates Malaysia’s arrival in the space age (a Malaysian astronaut joined the International Space Station in 2007) and looks forward to the country achieving “Developed Nation” status by 2020. Malaysia’s political elite has lost faith with the congested, polluted city KL has become and decamped to Putrajaya, a gleaming new administrative centre near the city’s international airport.
But a colonial heart still beats somewhere beneath those signature skyscrapers of modern KL, the twin Petronas Towers. And it will be to this faint pulse of history that William and Kate will be invited to bend their ear. One place they’re certain to visit is St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, a white church built in the Gothic style in 1894 on the north side of the cricket ground, now Merdeka (Independence) Square.
The Queen has been to the cathedral twice – in 1989 and 1998 – and no doubt the royal couple’s attention will be drawn to the brass plaque that marks her visits. But my eye was drawn to the pulpit, decorated with a bronze relief that commemorates the father of old KL, one Charles Edwin Spooner.
As state engineer in the public works department, Spooner was responsible for directing and advising the architects who designed much of the colonial city. So far as I know, Charles Edwin was no relation of that other Victorian Spooner, William Archibald, the Oxford don who took the town drain to London and elevated linguistic confusion to an art form. But Spooner is the perfect name for the inspiration behind the hotchpotch of styles and cultures that was old KL.
The city started life as a tin-mining settlement at the meeting point of the Gombak and Klang rivers – a photograph in the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery taken in 1884 shows a muddy encampment clustered on the river banks. Within 20 years, under Spooner’s sensitive eye and hand, it had been transformed into a vision of old Araby, with touches of West Riding town hall and Surrey Tudorbethan thrown in.
The white-and-cream railway station – built in 1892 and still functioning – is covered in spires and minarets, while the railway offices facing it are a spooneristic blend of Moorish domes, Greek columns and Gothic arches. But Spooner’s greatest legacy is the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, opposite the cricket ground, in the very heart of the home-from-home created by British administrators.
This building is a two-storey extravaganza of Gothic arches, colonnades, bronze onion domes and a clock tower in white and pink brick. Immediately to the south, the old post office and the former HQ of the Federated Malay States Railway, where Spooner worked, are scarcely less fantastical.
Cutting between these two buildings, a street called Lebuh Pasar Besar crosses the Klang river and leads into the tighter, more chaotic streets of Chinatown, where the colonial architecture remains fascinating – a weather-distempered jumble of Neoclassical, Dutch Patrician and Art Deco.
On the left, just over the bridge, is a Chinese restaurant – the Sin Seng Nam, with a Dutch gable end – that has been there so long you step down into it off the street.
Once known (for a reason I was unable to pin down) as “the Vatican”, it prospered in colonial days by serving the British food that reminded them of home.
Now it’s a haunt of functionaries from the nearby law courts, their chatter pinging off the white tile walls, and on this weekday lunchtime I was the only foreigner. But the comfort food hasn’t changed. Conceivably Spooner himself sat down to Hainanese chicken chop in brown gravy with chips and baked beans, and it’s still a favourite.
I saw plates of it speeding past my table and pointed them out in hope to the impatient waitress, who spoke no English. But my lunch, when it came, was that cliché of south-east Asian nosh, nasi goreng.
After an hour spent exploring Chinatown – a bustle of street stalls and tourist tat – my thoughts turned to afternoon tea, or possibly something stiffer. The civil servants and rubber planters of Edwardian times would naturally have moseyed over to the Royal Selangor Club, the half-timbered pastiche of a Home Counties golf club on the west of Merdeka Square that was once known as the Spotted Dog in honour of a resident Dalmatian.
William and Kate will no doubt drop in (it remains a members-only watering hole) but as I didn’t have a tie on me I headed north, into the Little India neighbourhood, to a classic leftover of the old days. Built in 1921, with Art Deco flourishes, the Coliseum Hotel on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was a bar, café and rooming house much frequented by Britons.
Nowadays it’s Indians rather than Britons knocking back the jugs of lager, but the sign above the bar – “Terms cash” – remains, and the menu still offers “Ox-Tail soup (Homemade)” and “Mixed grill (fillet steak, lamb chop, chicken, bacon, sausages and a fried egg)”.
On the wall, a cutting from the Malay Mail of 1921 advertises a forthcoming thé dansant at the Coliseum (“Ladies free. Gentlemen $1”). Clutching an ice-cold beer and staring at the double doors, I imagined a young prince and his new bride travelling back to the reign of George V to cause the biggest stir old KL had ever seen. -telegraph (UK)