New generation of Chinese in Chinatown

Thor Kah Hoong

The designers of Merchant's Lane cafe maintain the building’s vintage and green appeal, in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, June 28, 2017.

It is a truism that Chinatown is Chinese in name only, with many of the original settlers having moved out, replaced by a new wave of immigrants. The Malaysian Insight meets with six young Malaysian Chinese who have gone against the tide.

A FOREIGN visitor may think Chinatown to be a misnomer, for while there are still Chinese businesses, stalls and residents here, theirs is a diffident presence amid their louder, brasher neighbours from, but not limited to, Bangladesh, Nepal and islands in the Sulu Sea.

A truism is that the food stalls in the cramped bazaar are largely manned by immigrants; old restaurants like Kum Loon Tai and Yoke Woo Hin, where generations of Chinese held their wedding dinners, have closed down or moved out. 

An example of how to evolve with the times is Kim Lian Kee, which has branded itself as the “first stirrer” of Hokkien mee eight decades ago, and which is now encountered in non-smoky malls, though the original outlet still clangs its smoky woks at the corner of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Hang Lekir.

A common cause was social mobility – kids going to universities and becoming air-conditioned, nine-to-five tied professionals, many of those graduating overseas staying on to contribute to Malaysia’s brain draining.

That truism is refuted by half-a-dozen young Malaysian Chinese, not all born in Kuala Lumpur, but who have a stake in Chinatown, one for as long as two decades.

Of the six, Yeoh Lian Heng, 39, cultural activist, is the most altruistic. Born in Penang, he has made KL his home since 1999. He is director/curator of art space Lostgens, which relocated from Cheras to Jalan Panggung a few years ago when he heard of the MRT project’s threat to Chinatown.

He helped organise an arts festival in Chinatown a couple of years ago to raise awareness, to assert that there was still life in Chinatown, back off, development. He is satisfied with a partial victory – the project stopped short of extending all the way up to Jalan Hang Jebat.

Yeoh says, “I know it’s temporary. I cannot stop change. Recently, 19 shop lots were bought. What can we do? The owners are old. They just want to get rid of the property.”

Now what? His group is mapping the area, the buildings and their residents.

How are they funded? He does odd jobs as an art curator/visual artist. The centre has lecturers giving talks on philosophy.

Why doesn’t he apply to Think City KL for a grant to help with his mapping? He shies away from anything that reeks of government.

Yeoh was met in Cho Cha, a cafe in on Jalan Petaling serving halal Hakka fusion food. The building’s history is that of a brothel. There is no sign outside advertising the place. Inside, the place has been left largely untouched, exposed brick walls, rusting spiral staircase.

Cho Cha owner and designer Shin Chang keeps things simple in the cafe in Chinatown. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, June 28, 2017.

Yeoh was meeting with Shin Chang, 34, architect and Cho Cha partner/designer, to collaborate on a museum for the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium.

Shin studied architecture at Melbourne University. On his return, he did a stint with Sek San, which possibly explains his design aesthetics of letting the raw material speak as much as possible.

Shin: I like to keep it simple. Not make it portentous.

Realising the history of the building, it became a project for Shin – to maintain the spirit of the place.

The looming Sheraton Hotel swiftly piling up across the street from Cho Cha will obviously be good for business.

Shin: Oh no, if Chinatown becomes like Changkat Bintang – just tarted up commercialism – no point. The developer of The Sheraton said he wanted to buy a few lots, asked me for contacts. I told him I didn’t know. I am shocked Yeoh says 19 have been sold.

Shin laughs at the idea of buying over the place and preserving it. ”I wish I could. The price is RM6.5 million.” Old brothels in KL don’t come cheap.

The design is simple, not bland, in Cho Cha in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, June 28, 2017.

Three doors down from Cho Cha at No.150 is Merchant’s Lane. Again no signage, just a narrow green door. Up the stairs and into a café serving halal Malaysian fusion dishes, a favourite with the young crowd – spaghetti with ayam rendang.

Like Cho Cha, space divided into different moods, the open middle with a multi-rooted tree embedded in the bricks. Going down the stairs, there is a red light above the green door – which gives you the history of this building. What’s with the appeal of ex-brothels to young designers/entrepreneurs?

The designers of Merchant’s Lane are Kyle E, 31, Malacca-born, and Jun Ong, 29, mates since college and resident designers at the APW food and beverage complex in Jalan Riong, Bangsar.

Jun says of Merchant’s Lane: When we got this opportunity to do up this brothel, how could one resist? It was our first project. To build our name from a brothel, we couldn’t resist. 

Kyle: We are not against gentrification (because) then, we shouldn’t have cafes, we should only have traders.

Jun: We are just creating value for the place.

Kyle: If we don’t, they will tear it down. Become another office block. But I also believe, if the building is not being used, why keep it. It’s a controversial idea that would offend conservationists. It’s dilapidated. It costs too much to do it up. Change is inevitable with development. Yes, there were things that were torn down that shouldn’t have been; there’s regret there, but some others, long abandoned, did it matter to you before that?

They turned their designing eyes next on the Indian restaurant Hoppers in Jalan Pudu. Karpal Singh’s office used to be behind it. The duo, stumbling on hundreds of weighty medical books left behind, Karpal’s office specialising in that area of legal expertise, made them part of the décor, hefty tomes turned into tables, shelves, etc.

Jun: We respond to the history of the place. We don’t impose a style.

Kyle: We like buildings with stories. So we can add our chapter to it rather than give us a new space…

Jun: …like in a cold mall and you try so hard to give it meaning…

Kyle: … trying to convince people it is old… but it is not.

Jun summarises their approach to things: “We are at the age where we can take risks. Now, if we were in our 40s, 50s, with families…” – June 28, 2017. 

Part II: An angel in Chinatown

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