It's a hot and stuffy morning in Kuala Lumpur, and I’m about to do what my mother always warned against – walk into an alley around Chinatown.
When you have lived long enough in KL, you know better than to wander off in Petaling Street by yourself. Think of it as the urban boogeyman. Much has been said about the vices that take place along these backlanes.
But it’s broad daylight, so what’s the worst that could happen?
From Jalan Petaling, I turn a corner into a slightly smaller street. After passing some wholesale shops and a busy eatery, I find Lorong Panggung (known as Kwai Chai Hong to the long-term Chinese community here) tucked between dilapidated walls of yesteryear buildings.
But wait, what is that pop of colour ahead? A row of pre-war shophouses has been painted in bright bold yellow and blue! It all seems like something you might chance upon in Europe. And yet, I’m at a backlane in one of KL’s most infamous areas.
This beautiful restoration is part of a revitalisation project by Bai Chuan Management, a local space management company. Project Kwai Chai Hong encompasses 10 shophouses (four along Lorong Panggung and six at Jalan Petaling) as well as a charming little hidden laneway.
Visitors to the area will find a nostalgia-tinged arch that marks the entrance of the secluded back alley. Pass over a bridge and you will be greeted by six thematic murals, each with a delightful tale.
The artworks depict the daily activities of the early Chinese settlers living in the vicinity during the 1960s. Above all, they exude an Instagram-worthy vibe that will surely draw avid photographers and the young creative crowd.
What initially started as a commercial project, which took about eight months to run from scratch to completion, is now a potential tourist hotspot.
Bai Chuan Management has secured a 12-year master lease for all 10 shoplots, until 2030.
“When we got the master lease for the shop lots, we started off thinking it’s going to be just a side business to earn money. Properties in Petaling Street are known to fetch good rental,” says Bai Chuan Management managing partner Zeen Chang.
“We definitely saw the money, but at the same time we saw an opportunity in the kind of potential this place has,” she adds, alluding to the vibrant backstory of the area.
The history-rich Lorong Panggung has many stories to tell. The name of the lane in Cantonese – Kwai Chai Hong – loosely translates to “Ghost Lane” or “Little Demon Alley”.
In case you’re wondering, no, the place isn’t haunted. There are no official records on the origin of that less-than-stellar name, though.
Some lifelong residents claim the name came about when mischievous children used to run around the laneways on rainy days. Irate parents would then shout out “kwai chai”, a colloquial slang that loosely translates to “naughty children”.
Another source connects the name to the presence of illicit ... “entertainment” that took place here in the past. During the early days of Chinese settlers, it was an area filled with petty gamblers, drunkards, drug addicts and people participating in other vices.
All these traits of Kwai Chai Hong are wonderfully personified in the murals. The artworks serve to celebrate the heritage of the Chinese community and its contribution to the Chinatown area.
If anything, the murals remind visitors of the glorious past and is sure to evoke nostalgia.
One painting shows a pair of lovebirds perched atop a bridge while another depicts children flicking marbles. Meanwhile, old timers might be familiar with an artwork of a Chinese calligrapher helping settlers craft letters to be sent back home.
The murals were all painted by local artists Khek Shin Nam, Chan Kok Sing, Chok Fook Yong, Chew Weng Yeow and Wong Leck Min.
There’s also a century-old antique lamp that’s believed to be among the oldest street lamps in the city. While all the above harken to old world charm, the project also incorporates a nice technological touch. The murals here are accompanied by a QR code, lending the artworks an interactive nature.
Scanning the QR code with your phone will bring visitors to a page with audio clips that accompany each mural.
“Some people might say that adding the QR code ruin the old world feel of the project. But the code helps to add the element of sound to the art,” Chang explains.
Ultimately, Chang hopes the project will land Kwai Chai Hong on the tourist map and change the public’s perception of Petaling Street and its surroundings.
“I want to create something that people will look forward to see when they are in the area. If this project kicks off and attracts more tourists to the area, that is when I feel the passion has finally paid off.”