Petaling Street

The history of Kuala Lumpur would not be the same without the emergence of Petaling Street, a street that continues to thrive on various trades, and bring together diverse communities.

Today, Kuala Lumpur's famous Petaling Street or known in Cantonese as Chee Cheong Kai is recognised as a popular place for the trading of counterfeit goods, a description that hardly justifies its vibrant past.

Petaling Street is Malaysia's Chinatown, a place where early settlers came to Kuala Lumpur in pursuit of wealth from the booming tin mining industry in the 1800s.  Most of the settlers were Hakka and Cantonese, and led a steady migration of Chinese communities into the city.

Jalan Petaling

The might and fight between clans

These communities were under the control of clan heads, also known as Kapitan or captains.   Malaysia's famous Kapitan Yap Ah Loy was from the Hakka Community and played a central role in developing Kuala Lumpur.

Chinatown's origins centred on market square and along Jalan Tun H.S Lee, formerly known as High Street due to its higher grounds.  This strip became a popular place for settlements because it was less prone to floods.

The rivalry between the Hakka and Cantonese clans led to a civil war breaking out in 1870 over the control of tin and related trade.  The fighting was so intense, it halted tin mine production altogether.  The British administration was forced to intervene, marking its first such involvement in local politics.

The war led to the destruction of many buildings as well as abandonment of several mines.

When miners couldn't work in flooded mines, Yap Ah Loy convinced them to remain in Kuala Lumpur,  to refocus their skills on the agriculture sector.

Yap also set up a tapioca mill in this area to ground tubers from his farms, giving it its name, Chee Cheong Kai, which means starch factory street.


Heritage stays alive

Chinatown was home to tradesmen, farmers and miners and also bustling restaurants and arts groups.

The famous restaurant Yook Woo Hin was built in 1928 and still serves up dim sum to hungry locals and travellers.

The oldest Chinese opera clubs in Kuala Lumpur, Yan Keng Benevolent Dramatic Association was formed in 1920 , to raise money for charity.

The proceeds raised from performances were donated to hospitals, senior citizens' homes and schools. But, with membership decreasing, part of the building had to be sub-let to generate income.

Another historic building is the Kwong Fook Wing Tailor shop which still keeps its 60-year-old facade.

Unfazed by development, these buildings remain as icons for Petaling Street, an attraction to history buffs and travellers.

While Chinatown is known as the area of convergence of Chinese communities in the early 18th century, multi-cultural practices are well accepted and tolerated in the area.

Jalan Petaling

For instance, the country's oldest functioning Hindu temple is located on Petaling Street, founded by prominent businessman K. Thamboosamy Pillai in 1873.

Built in the South Indian style, the place of worship was moved to Jalan Tun. H.S. Lee from the former Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.

Kapitan Yap himself built the Sin Sze Ya Temple in 1864, dedicated to patron deities of Sin Sze Ya and Si Sze Ya.  The Chinese headman believed the deities had helped him to defend the city from enemies during the civil war.

Other storied versions of the origins of the temple point out that it was built to honour Kapitan Shin Kap of Sungai Ujong, a headman that Yap worked for before moving to Kuala Lumpur.

Modern-day development

Fast forward to the 21st century and you find Petaling Street receiving a RM11.3million facelift.  In 2003, two large Chinese arches were constructed at both ends of the street, as a welcoming sign for visitors.  A massive roof cover was built along the street. Its green appearance gave the street's nickname, “The Green Dragon”.

Petaling Street

With the street closed off to motorists, visitors to Petaling Street have easier access to the many stalls set up along the road.  Shopping on Petaling Street is similar to shopping in any Malaysian market, where visitors master the art of haggling for lower prices and bargaining for discounts.

Petaling Street's popularity with tourists and locals is perhaps helped by the ease with which to get there. The street is located a stones' throw away from a light rail transit station and Puduraya.

A new public transport project, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project is likely to pass through the area, which had led to tough negotiations over land acquisition and preservation of heritage buildings.

The street has gone through a turbulent past, and is set to witness an eventful future, but one thing is certain: visitors to Petaling Street will have plenty to experience in this lively area.

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