Picture Perfect Petaling Street
In conjunction with World Photography Day on 19 August, we take you thru the history of one of Kuala Lumpur’s most photogenic and historically rich locations, Petaling Street.
How “Chee Cheong Kai” Came To Be
The history of Kuala Lumpur began in the middle of the 19th century when when a member of the Selangor royal family hired tin prospectors to venture into the jungles of Ampang. Despite a high death toll, a thriving tin min was soon established. The miners who were mostly Cantonese and Hakka were governed by a Chinese Kapitan or headman, who administered the Chinese settlement and ensured law and order.
In 1870 a civil war erupted within the Chinese community, and the tin mines were abandoned. It was during this time of neglect that the mines became flooded and when the miners had returned, they found the mines to be unworkable. Yap Ah Loy, the most famous and influential Chinese Kapitan, persuaded the miners to remain in Kuala Lumpur by opening a tapioca mill in Petaling Street. It is this reason that Petaling Street is fondly known as “Chee Cheong Kai” in Cantonese, which means Starch Factory Street.
Kuala Lumpur circa 1884. Picture from ExpatGo
Petaling Street circa 1950s. Picture from Poskod.My
Petaling Street circa 1970s. Picture from Says
Fast Forward to Modern Day Petaling Street
Long popular among tourist for the market, temples, hawker food and budget hostels, Petaling Street has seen tremendous transformation over the years. In 2003, aware that Petaling Street was losing its attractiveness as a tourist destination, the government initiated a RM11million facelift of Petaling Street, which included the construction of a green roof covering the entire street, which was dubbed the “Green Dragon”, along with the addition of two large Chinese arches to welcome visitors. These arches, placed on either end of the street, prevented cars from entering, and thus transformed Petaling Street into a pedestrian shopping haven.
Despite the various commercialization projects taking place in Petaling Street, there is a movement to bring it back to its glorious days by restoring the area, all while remaining true to its historical and cultural roots. The revival of Petaling Street began circa 2016, when PS150 and Chocha Foodstore opened for business in restored pre-war shophouses.
With its entrance hidden behind a toy shop, the inspiration of PS150’s design came from its heritage being in Chinatown and also from it “past life” as a brothel. The original pre-war bricks were left exposed and plaster was stripped away to reveal the textures of the building’s historical past.
Pictures from PS150
A few doors down from PS150, Chocha Foodstore has also stayed true to the heritage of Petaling Street. Setting up shop in the abandoned Mah Lian Hotel, the owners of Cocha Foodstore maintained the structure and raw concrete walls, tiles and grilles from the hotel.
Pictures from Cocha Foodstore
A further boost to the restoration efforts is the Kwai Chai Hong project, launched in 2019. Involving 10 restored shophouses, six on Jalan Petaling and four on Lorong Panggung, visitors are greeting by an arch that sports the Mandarin characters of “Kwai Chai Hong”, and a red bridge that leads into a hidden laneway, where six murals depicting the daily activities of early Chinese settlers in the area during the 1960s can be found.
Pictures from KL Foodie
Although gentrification is inevitable, there needs to be a balance and respect of the heritage of Petaling Street, and businesses such as PS150, Cocha Foodstore and Kwai Chai Hong bring hope to those who value history. So to celebrate World Photography Day, head over to Petaling Street, snap a few photos, grab a few bites and drinks, and bask in the nostalgia.