The Rise of Kuala Lumpur

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Although KL is now one of the great cities of modern Asia, its origins are comparatively recent and altogether humble. Compared with the straits settlement cities of Singapore, Penang, and Melaka, KL is a relative newcomer. Frances Wilks charts the history of a 19th-century tin settlement which has had an unexpected but altogether grander destiny.

I have to admit that my first visit to KL was not necessarily a happy one. At the age of four, I spent three weeks in the Railway Hotel with my parents while my father waited to hear in what part of Malaya his government posting would be. My mother, newly arrived in the Tropics, despaired (amongst other things) of the heat, the ants in the biscuit tin, and the rusty squeaking of the fan. It was 1958, the year after independence. KL was a fairly dreary town and so it was with considerable relief that we set off from the Arabian-inspired yet impeccably colonial KL Railway Station on the train to Penang where sea breezes in the gardens at the E&O Hotel welcomed us. When I returned, however, half a century later (and a full third of the length of KL’s history), I was astounded by the vision of a cosmopolitan city, its twin towers rising to scrape the sky, the magnificent highways, and its feeling of prosperity and purpose.

At The Confluence Of Two Rivers

We have to go back a century before the birth of modern Malaysia to the year 1857 when two nephews of the Sultan of Perak, Rajah Abdullah and Rajah Juma’at, with the support of two Chinese businessmen from Malacca, launched an expedition to the upper reaches of the Klang River. By this time tin mining was well established in the Kinta Valley of Perak and considerable fortunes had been made. In fact the discovery of tin had created a need for skilled tin miners and tinsmiths, and this in turn led to some of the midcentury migration to the peninsula, as only the Chinese at that time had that kind of expertise.

We can only imagine how grim the conditions were during that first expedition. Eighty-seven Chinese miners poled up the river by raft until they came to the confluence of the Klang and the Gombak rivers. The place is still there. In the grounds of the Jamek Mosque, now very much dwarfed by skyline of the modern city, the Klang and the Gombak rivers meet. Now canalised and concretised, the tamed waters flow gently together – an improbably humble spot for the founding of a city.

The early miners struck through dense, tropical jungles until they found immensely rich tin deposits in the area now known as Ampang. However tragedy soon struck. Virtually all the labour force was struck down by malaria, and within four weeks, less than a quarter of the original 87 were still alive. Undeterred by this Rajah Abdullah sent a second expedition and shortly after this, tin in commercial qualities was sent downstream in ever-increasing quantities to fuel the insatiable demands of the British Empire and the burgeoning industries of North America.

A Wild West Town Becomes A Colonial City

The early years of KL were almost exclusively male and life must have been pretty rough much as it was in the Wild West towns, or in the early days of early Australia. Men must have suffered backbreaking labour during days, crouching over tin pans or digging the earth and spent their nights drinking and gambling to ease the pains of loneliness. Although few got rich, there was always the possibility of fortunes and, as they did in the gold mines of California at approximately the same time, the Chinese miners joined the various secret societies that jostled for supremacy. Rival factions fought bitterly until Yap Ah Loy was created the Kapitan Cina, or head of the Chinese in 1868. At the time only 31 years of age, and despite having arrived penniless in Malaya at the age of 17, Yap possessed considerable leadership qualities, as well as a certain ruthlessness. He built prisons, punished offenders, and squelched revolts in such an effective manner that by 1879, the capital of Selangor was moved from Klang to Kuala Lumpur.

In 1880, the British Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Frederick Weld, appointed Frank Swettenham, a Singapore official, as Britain’s Resident in Kuala Lumpur. He quickly realised that the ramshackle town of simple atap huts with thatched roofs was unhealthy and overcrowded and ordered that they be replaced with brick buildings. By 1887, there were over 500 brick dwellings, the population had grown to four and a half thousand, and there was a regular train service from Klang. The early years of the 20th century saw the development of KL as the administrative capital of British Malaya, which was then a patchwork of sultanates, in varying degrees of alliance with the sprawling colonial power.


Murder On The Verandah

By the turn of the century, KL had become a bit more comfortable to live, and white women started to come out to Malaya and live with their husbands who were usually in government service or plantation managers in the new rubber estates that were developing. Although tin had started the proto-nation’s route to wealth, rubber greatly added to it. In those days, much of the capital’s social life centred on the whites-only Selangor Club, the chief watering hole for the colonial administrators and visiting plantation managers. They used to lounge on rattan chairs on airy verandahs, drank cooling “stengahs,” or whisky and soda.

This rather narrow expatriate society was rocked to the core in 1911 when Ethel Proudlock, the wife of the acting Headmaster of the elite school, the Victoria Institution, shot and killed her lover, William Seward, a mine manager. In the sensational trial that followed, she claimed that he had tried to rape her but the evidence pointed to a passionate affair and a murder inspired by jealousy. Although she was sentenced to death by the court, the Sultan of Selangor pardoned her, much against the wishes of British officials. Somerset Maugham, who visited Malaya in following decade wrote a fictionalised account of the drama in his short story, The Letter.

Post War Developemts And Satellite Towns

KL had its first air raids during the Second World War and was occupied by the Japanese invading forces for three and a half years. The post-war years, especially the Emergency time of the early and mid- 1950s as the country fought a communist resurgence, saw the influx of thousands of squatters into the suburbs of the city. Part of the solution to this problem was the creation of a satellite town, Petaling Jaya, housing both homes and factories. Later developments have been the moving of the administrative buildings to nearby Putrajaya, and the combining of Putrajaya and KL to form a Federal Territory. The iconic and globally famous Petronas Towers, completed in the late 1990s, held the title of tallest buildings in the world until they were eclipsed by the Taiwanese skyscraper Taipei 101 in 2004.

We now fondly call Kuala Lumpur by its initials, KL. It perhaps obscures the fact that Kuala Lumpur means “muddy estuary (or confluence)”, a reference to the joining of the Klang and the Gombak rivers where the tin miners first landed a mere 150 years ago. While this is not a grand name, it should also be remembered that one of the most beautiful flowers in the world, the lotus, also rises from the mud. Perhaps 21st-century KL has something of the quality of the lotus about it?

Source: Senses of Malaysia January/February 2014

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