AMID the hustle and bustle of the Petaling Street commercial hub in Kuala Lumpur, a small cluster of pre-war shophouses has miraculously remained residential until today.
For more than a century, commercialism has not “swallowed” this part of Chinatown due to its location that is shielded from the main roads.
Old-timers often liken the atmosphere to that of The House of 72 Tenants, a popular Hong Kong film released in 1973, which depicted many families cramped under one roof.
“We used to have almost 20 families squeezing into each of the shophouses, with rooms partitioned with wooden sheets for privacy.
“You know people back then had many children, so this street was really busy and noisy,” said 75-year-old Ho Kow.
“Most adults would be out for work during the day, the few left at home were tasked to look after everyone’s children, you can imagine how tough and tiring that could be,” he said with a laugh.
Things are totally different now as Ho is the only person from the group who still lives there.
The units’ soaring rental had prompted almost all of them to find greener pastures since the 1990s.
Ho’s children had asked him to leave the place, too, but he chose to stay put to run his coffee stall set up over 50 years ago.
“I have to wake up at 4am every day to make breakfast for my regular customers, I am too attached to this place,” he said, feeling lucky that the landlord had kept his rental low.
The units are still occupied, but mostly by bachelors and foreign workers.
Although his old neighbours had moved out, they remained close-knit.
The children have grown up to become successful in their own fields, but they stay in close contact and make it a point to converge to this place every Chinese New Year.
One of the old-timers, Lee Heng Chuan, made an extra effort to recreate the sights and sounds of the old days by setting up the Han Shou Tang Lion Dance Sports Club there.
Lee, the proprietor of the famed Kim Lian Kee chain of restaurants that served authentic Hokkien Mee, continues to offer the delicacy to his customers from his old shed in the area almost every evening.
“I miss this part of Chinatown most because the other areas are largely commercial whereas over here, I have friends who have become my family.
“It was an era without electronic devices, thus the children had so much fun with top-spinning, spider-catching and slipper-flinging (a game whereby a reward such as celebrities’ photos or colourful marbles is placed in the centre, to be won by the child who can hit it with slipper),” he reminisced.
Lee said being in the city centre the children were exposed to vices as gangsters, prostitutes and drug addicts loitered there.
“We adults watched very closely.
“In fact, we had requested for the ‘bad apples’ to leave so that the children could stay on the right track,” he added.
Also, the area used to host four martial art and lion dance clubs that had left due to rental issues and having no one to take over the operations.
Lee had filled a large void when he registered Han Shou Tang there eight years ago.
“It is only right to base our lion dance club here because of its rich history and tradition,” he said.
The sports club revived the tradition of having the “lion” knock on every door during Chinese New Year for blessings, it has also brought youngsters back to the old area again.
The troupe consists of 60 persons now, most of them have been training for four hours daily at the time-honoured shophouse.
Such sights can easily be mistaken as a scene from Wong Fei Hong, the Kung Fu legend film.
The youngsters have dedicated their festive holidays to this art form.
They will perform from 6am to midnight daily, and up to 4am on the eighth day.
The sports club makes the “hidden” but strongly-bonded community more visible to outsiders by organising new year banquets annually for a more joyous rendezvous.
“I hope the sports club will grow bigger and better, but more importantly, I hope it brings back life, charm and character to our Chinatown,” he said.
Also part of this hidden community are the proprietors of Sin Hin Loong grocery store – Choy Mei Heong and Liew Yoke Kim, both 64.
The couple moved out but continued to run the grocery store that had been around for over 60 years.
“It has been around for long, but that does not mean it is old,” said Choy.
“Undoubtedly, business is slower now but we believe that the MRT project will bring new opportunities.
“We have seen many changes, but we always hope for the best,” she said.