IS JALAN Masjid India, KL's oldest shopping hubs rapidly losing its identity as an Indian shopping haven to become a hub for piracy? BAVANI M reports.
JALAN Masjid India, popularly known as India Street in tourism brochures, has long been known as Kuala Lumpur's oldest shopping hub.
It is a popular enclave for Indian food, jewellery, spices and textiles and Indian music.
Yet, if one were to visit the street today, there is something very different about the area, as it seems to be missing a vital element that used to make it a popular shopping hub.
Newcomers may not be able to see it, but old timers are aware of the problem.
“The street is losing its identity,'' said 70-year-old Meenachi, who has been selling jasmine flowers in the area for almost 30 years.
“Back in the old days, this place was famous for 'Indian things' and it was the place to go for those looking for Indian textiles and garments,'' she explained.
Today, however, there is a change in the face of traders in the area.
There seems to be more non-Indian traders in the neighbourhood.
“The area was like a magnet, pulling in traders from all over the place, a centre of trade back in the days of my father,'' said Datuk Ameer Ali Mydin, owner of Mydin wholesale emporiums and supermarkets.
“Back then, when people were to visit Kuala Lumpur, the desired shopping destination was Jalan Masjid India,'' he said.
According to Ameer Ali, over the past 10 years, Jalan Masjid India's popularity changed from being a popular shopping destination for the Indian community to become one that drew in the Malay community as well.
“The pioneer businessmen in the area started accommodating their businesses to suit the new shoppers and Jalan Masjid India soon began to draw in Malay businessmen as well,'' he explained.
Foreigners, including Malays from Singapore and Brunei known for their immense purchasing power, would go on major shopping sprees during the weekends.
The area also attracted a good number of tourists from India, Pakistan, China and the Middle East.
Pioneers welcomed the healthy competition, as most of the smaller businesses were buying their goods from pioneer businessmen like Mydin.
However, this very same competition soon started becoming the very reason that is indirectly killing the popularity of the place.
Many attribute this to the RM10.2 mil upgrade and bazaar project done by Kuala Lumpur City Hall to, supposedly, attract more tourists to the area.
“The bazaar (upgrade) is basically the culmination of the process of Jalan Masjid India slowly losing its identity as one the oldest shopping hubs in Kuala Lumpur,'' said jeweller Syed Akbar Ali of Zeenath Begum Jewellers.
“Firstly, City Hall's idea of building the bazaar to pull in the crowd has in fact turned away the crowd,'' said Syed Akbar.
The main entry point into the street has been closed and the bazaar blocks the street, turning an already congested street into a chaotic place of confusion.
“Jalan Masjid India has been practically cut in half with illegal traders mushrooming at every nook and corner,'' said Syed Akbar.
“People have stopped coming here and businesses along the stretch have been experiencing a 50% reduction in revenue since the upgrade,'' he added.
The presence of illegal traders is another factor in the decline in business.
“City Hall's reasoning that the bazaar offers a chance for small-time Bumiputra traders to make some money does not make sense because, at the end of the day, the ones doing business are not the Bumiputra traders but Indonesians, Pakistanis and other foreigners,'' said Syed Akbar.
“Out of the 143 lots provided by City Hall for these small-time traders to do business, only 40 are actually Malaysian,'' added Ameer Ali.
“They block our businesses and sell illegal goods and turn a wonderful tourist hub into an eyesore and an illegal trade centre,'' explained Ameer Ali.
In fact, many are even questioning the legality of the bazaar, which they claim does not hold a Certificate of Fitness (CF).
“Technically, the drainage and irrigation, health and even the fire departments have not approved certain conditions,'' said Ameer Ali.
“Because the building does not have these approvals, City Hall cannot issue licences. So who is collecting the rent?” asked Syed Akbar.
This sad state of affairs has resulted in many of the pioneer businessmen giving up and renting their properties out.
“I have been experiencing a 50% drop in business for the past two years and it's no longer viable for me to continue here,'' said Syed Yunus, a local garment seller.
“Since the rental here is so high and the value of the property is one of the highest in the city, it is difficult to rent or sell at the moment,'' he added.
So people like Syed Yunus and Ameer Ali are doing the next best thing – moving out.
“Over here, an entire four-storey building can easily cost about RM40, 000 rental per month with the ground floor alone coming to about RM30,000 per month.
“Many have started renting out their premises to outsiders, mostly foreigners, resulting in the emergence of several lots of small businesses in one shop,” explained Syed Yunus.
At the end of the day, the giants of the past, including Mydin and Peerbhai, the owners of Wisma Kosas and Wisma Yakin, have nothing left but memories.
“It's a matter of time before Jalan Masjid India too follows the path of Chow Kit and becomes a ghost town,'' said Syed Akbar.
However, not everyone thinks that the area is losing its popularity.
Taxi driver Hisham Harun thinks that the small time traders, both legal and illegal, are good as they offer variety to customers.
“There's nothing wrong. We have a lot to choose from,'' he said.
Businessman Dev Krishna, who owns a music shop in Semua House, also does not think that Jalan Masjid India is losing its identity.
“Brickfields and Klang are Indian hubs. Masjid India, on the other hand, is for the bargain hunters.
“This is where you come for a good buy and you have plenty of choices,'' he said.
Secretary Siti Aishah agrees with Dev Krishna.
“I love the bazaar. I just bought a pair of Timberland boots for RM50,'' she declared enthusiastically.
When it was brought to her attention that it was not the real thing, she said: “So what, it looks good to me.''
Tomorrow: Once a textile place, now a dead zone