As a city, Kuala Lumpur (KL) is ever-changing, with new multi-story buildings being built to support the growth of new businesses and new shops opening on every corner. During the day, people flock to the city for work, shopping or just to take in the sights.
Unfortunately, the older buildings themselves aren’t keeping up with the pace of progress. Many of the older buildings are stained with grime, paint peeling off the walls. People skirt around the alleyways which tend to look dark and uninviting. Rubbish bags pile up around lampposts like a bizarre decoration. As a tourist hub, KL’s Golden Triangle still draws the greatest number of visitors, locals and tourists alike, but the wear and tear is undoubtedly evident.
There is however some glimmer of rejuvenation taking place in the form of a new tourist attraction along a once a dirty, neglected alley, Kwan Chai Hong. This newly christened street is now a vibrant, colourful, charming laneway surrounded by new cafes and small shops. A ‘passion project’ administered by Bai Chuan Management, Kwai Chai Hong evokes memories of the area’s past as the heart of KL’s Chinese community during the 1960s through the very modern medium of street art. The lane was officially opened to the public in April this year and has quickly gained a name as an Insta-worthy spot amongst locals and travellers alike.
Bringing back the charm
When asked about why they chose this particular laneway to revive, Bai Chuan Management co-founder, Zeen Chang, recalled that it was the charm of the place and the nostalgic memory of Jalan Petaling and Lorong Panggung that inspired them to revamp the area. “As we began work to mend this once neglected laneway, we fell more and more in love with it,” Zeen notes. “It was more than a dream come true.”
The project was founded by Ho Yung Wee and Coco Lew who were offered a 12-year lease for 10 units of shophouses connected by a laneway between Jalan Petaling and Lorong Panggung. From the start, the intention was never to demolish or strip the area of its cultural heritage. Instead, the couple was inspired by Coco’s memories of her childhood years tagging along with her mother as she frequented Petaling Street. At the time, Petaling Street was her favourite childhood spot with good food to feast on and filled with peddlers selling all sorts of interesting things. Decades later, Coco would return to Petaling Street to open a shop of her own selling toys and stationery.
“We were more inspired by the potential [the area] brings. We wanted to bring people back to KL Chinatown – bring back the glory days of Chee Chong Kai (茨厂街) and make the place lively once again,” Zeen explains.
To help make their vision come true, they turned to five local artists – Khek Shin Nam (郭先楠), Chan Kok Sing (陳國勝), Chok Fook Yong (祝福荣), Chew Weng Yeow (周永友) and Wong Leck Min (黄烈明). Rather than commissioning more well-known or even international artists, Zeen explains that they wanted to open the opportunity to others. “Much like how this project has given us the chance to explore things outside our expertise, we wanted to give talented artists, who were waiting for a break, a chance to share their work.”
They used murals as a way to depict what life was back then and share the stories of the heritage buildings in the area and the people who once lived in them. And these murals aren’t just one-dimensional; next to each mural is a plaque with a unique QR code which adds an additional audio element to the experience. The addition of props – a stool placed before a calligrapher’s table or a handkerchief dangling from a courtesan’s fingertips – allows visitors to interact with the images and, in a way, become part of the artwork.
Creating memorable cities
Project Kwai Chai Hong is just one of the many rejuvenation projects in the Greater Klang valley. There has been a new movement by locals, many of them young entrepreneurs, working together to reclaim some of Malaysia’s abandoned areas.
Think City’s Programme Director, Lee Jia Ping, calls this placemaking, a term first introduced by US-based non-profit Project for Public Spaces to describe the practice of communities reinventing public spaces to fit their needs and to truly make these spaces the heart of the community. By reclaiming public spaces, she believes that cities can be made welcoming and comfortable for all, not just for the locals or the people who have lived there for generations, but also for tourists, migrants and the younger generations who move in.
“For any city to be successful and vibrant, there needs to be diversity of content and a variety of offerings. At the moment, nobody is really celebrating this part of the city because either a) people feel that it is unsafe and don’t dare to come down, b) that there is nothing to come down to this part of the city for, or c) that it only caters to a certain segment of the population,” Jia Ping says, motioning to the windows that overlook the main Leboh Pasar Besar street. “That’s not enough to sustain an area like this.”
Set up by Khazanah Nasional Berhad in 2009, Think City is an urban regeneration and social purpose organisation whose true north is to create cities that are resilient, inclusive and able to be celebrated by everyone. They specialise in rejuvenating areas that have fallen into disuse, using methods like space activation, public realm improvement, content and culture curation, capacity-building and research and advocacy.
Georgetown, Penang, was their first project. Now, they’re working with KL City Hall to turn five blocks in downtown KL into a creative and cultural district.
For Think City, the hardest part is figuring out how to make areas relevant again. Despite being the capital city of Malaysia, KL is virtually empty after hours as most of its footfall comes from people travelling to the city for work and leaving immediately after. Rare is the person who ventures outside of KL’s Golden Triangle.
“You don’t go to a city for the scenery of blocks and office towers. You go to a city to see its natural beauty, to see its built heritage and engage with it. Every time I take people around [downtown] KL, they’re surprised that there’s so many things to do when in fact, there’s a lot of stories here that are interesting not just to tourists but also to locals. I get a lot of people telling me, ‘Wow, I feel like a tourist in my own country, in my own city!’,” Jia Ping laughs. “So, [our work] is about unearthing forgotten narratives or building new ones and making these areas relevant again.”
And the best way to do it is through organising events, to give people a reason to come back and rediscover these forgotten areas. For Jia Ping, it’s all about content. An improved façade can only do so much; the key to increasing footfall is the character of the building and what’s inside. A good example is the refurbished Zhongshan Building which has recently made a name for itself as a creative hub that is hip, alternative and yet still very respectful and welcoming.
The Kuala Lumpur Creative and Cultural District (KLCCD) builds on Zhongshan’s model, covering a 100 hectares area from Little India to the north to the old KL Railway Station in the south. With so many important heritage sites under threat, a framework is needed to ensure that future growth is holistic. The hope here is to attract new investment in the creative industries as well as a higher value of tourism that is anchored on Malaysia’s built heritage, vibrant public spaces and policies that promote diversity and inclusivity.
Starting an urban rejuvenation project, no matter the scale, is a big task in itself but as with any project, the launch is only half of the work. The other half is ensuring that the project is sustainable – like ensuring that the project site remains well-maintained, and that there is a constant flow of visitors – and this takes both discipline of action and flexible problem solving.
It’s been only a few months since Kwai Chai Hong was first opened but judging from the thousand-over posts tagged with the hashtag #kwaichaihong on Instagram, the project has gotten off to a flying start. It has brought a lot of people back to Petaling Street, both locals and international visitors alike, and this spike in traffic has given more business to vendors along Jalan Petaling. Many shopfronts have started their own renovation projects soon after the Kwai Chai Hong was launched in April which Zeen posits is either because new tenants are moving in or that existing tenants have decided to embrace the change that the revitalised laneway has brought.
Zeen and the rest of the team at Bai Chuan Management are well aware that they’re in this for the long run. Understanding that constant monitoring and engagement are critical to ensure project sustainability, the team have planned a full schedule of events designed to attract people to the laneway. “There’s so much more we can and will do to bring people back to KL Chinatown. We will continue to curate the space and its content moving forward, in the hope of creating a space where people will gather and learn about the history, arts and culture unique to the Chinese community in Malaysia.”
To Jia Ping and the team at Think City, success is “when we’re not needed anymore, and the city thrives by itself.” An old hand at overseeing long-term projects, the team at Think City tends to use a ‘pop-up’ methodology to help get projects off the ground. Jia Ping calls it ‘lighter, faster, cheaper’.
“First, we do the baseline research to find out the community’s needs and wants, then we ideate on what’s there and then we experiment. We basically display some of your plans and see how the community reacts.” If there is a positive reaction from the community – if more people show up to use the space – the team keeps the idea. If not, they toss it and go back to the drawing board. This use of recursive problem solving has helped Think City keep their projects relevant, sustainable and, ultimately, successful.