Every day, a little bit of the historical Petaling Street chips away with the aged locals leaving, and memories of its original community fading away.
One of the main reasons for this is the relative scarcity of documentation about the place, an issue the newly reopened Petaling Street Heritage House strives to address.
Standing out in Jalan Tun HS Lee with its bright yellow facade, the centre is a much-awaited continuation of its former base in Jalan Sultan, which was closed in 2014 when the pre-war shophouse it occupied was damaged in a downpour.
Founder Chong Keat Aun said the reopening was made possible with financial support from Asean Arts and Cultural Foundation, and when they found another suitable place in the area. Restoration of the shophouse took an arduous nine months.
Chong has been crusading for the preservation of Chinese dialects as well as Petaling Street for more than 13 years now. He actively collects oral history and other historical information from locals to carefully archive them.
Unfortunately, part of the process is saying goodbyes – 18 of his aged interviewees have died of natural causes.
“They hope we can help tell the stories of this place, its people, trades, buildings and treasure the old things they had dearly kept even though their children brushed them off as rubbish,” he told StarMetro.
Ever since the centre opened its doors, folk here, including many who had to move out with their children, have been streaming in with their dated belongings.
“Yes, it is a bit like a recycling centre but with the aim of preserving the heritage of this place. Each item collected helps us trace back the history of Petaling Street,” he said.
It is in a way a community centre as the old folk who often come back to Petaling Street for company can now gather in an air-conditioned space for free, complete with people who avidly want to listen to their tales.
“Petaling Street has a strong cultural and historical background but unfortunately, not many of the establishments here show that.
“It is slowly becoming like Bukit Bintang, where people forget about its past.
“We hope Heritage House can show the soul of this area, and our visitors are so surprised to find out that this is its real character,” he added.
If you have limited time to explore Petaling Street, try not to miss this treasure trove of items from between 1920 and 1960, which are diligently restored, categorised and exhibited here to gradually depict the complete picture of Chinatown.
Upon entering, you will be greeted by a workshop space, where photos capturing the artistic facet of Petaling Street and colourful lanterns bearing names of Chinese dialect groups are juxtaposed against vintage furniture collected from clans associations.
Amble upstairs, you will see the current exhibition detailing the theatre development in Petaling Street. A stage, seating area and even backstage comprising artefacts sourced from defunct theatre groups put up to replicate the scene of the bygone era. The centrepiece is a stage backdrop hand-painted in 1960s.
You will hear a narration by the late Too Chee Cheong, who lived here for over 90 years, on the sights and sounds when opera troupes visited.
Chong is also compiling a memoir for Too, who provided more than 130 old photos of Petaling Street.
The exhibition starts with some of the 1,500 iconic vinyl records donated by Yan Kee Records Store, believed to be the oldest in Kuala Lumpur.
There are precious records of opera sung in various Chinese dialects, as well as the first album of the classic Di Nu Hua (Princess Chang Ping) released in 1957.
Following that is a collection of 20 Mu Yu Shu (song lyrics books accompanied by percussion, and usually sung in the streets by the blind) from the 1920s, sourced from the closed-down Kai Chee Book Store. They are much sought-after materials for a string of academic researches carried out in Guangzhou.
Then, admire the splendour of the Madras Lane Cinema that was gutted in 1948 through old photographs and feast your eyes on gems found in a briefcase saved by a cleaner during the fire. Interspersed here are plenty of antiques ranging from actresses’ dressing cases, head gears, costumes, troupe flags, props to sculptured beams on the stage.
Last but not least, a brief history on Yan Keng Benevolent Dramatic Association formed in 1920, which still exists, marks a faint continuation of Chinatown’s opera journey in the present.
“There were a number of opera troupes in Kuala Lumpur. I hope to bring some of the maestros here to share their stories and hopefully the younger generation will take the opportunity to learn from them,” Chong said.
He added that the heritage house was also in urgent need of volunteers as guides, to collect data and translate Chinese literature to English, in a collective effort to preserve the history of Petaling Street.
Also, Heritage House pays a monthly rental of RM12,000 and the fear for sustainability is always there even though the foundation can support it for a few years. It welcomes support from the public.
Petaling Street Heritage House is located at 196, Jalan Tun HS Lee, Kuala Lumpur. To volunteer or for details, call Sherynn Lim at 011-2008 9067.