Tatler Tours: The Best Spots In Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown
1/9 Petaling Street
For those unfamiliar with the history of this popular local landmark, Petaling Street was once home to Chinese settlers (most of whom were Hakka and Cantonese) who joined Malaysia’s flourishing tin mining industry in the early 19th century. However, a civil war between the two clans in 1870 led to not only the destruction of many buildings but also the cessation of mining activities as miners were forced to abandon the sites as the infighting worsened. Consequently, the unattended mines flooded, and the miners found themselves left bereft of their livelihoods.
But Kapitan Yap Ah Loy, a prominent figure in our capital's history, bade his fellow brethren to stay. Building a tapioca mill in the area that was known as Petaling Road then, he persuaded the Chinese community to shift their focus towards agriculture instead. And although the venture failed in 1880 due to the price reduction in tapioca, the factory’s Cantonese iteration, 'Chee Cheong Gai', remains to this day.
Today, while Petaling Street proper is rather infamous for counterfeit goods and bustling night crowds, there is more than meets the eye in this urban neighbourhood.
2/9 Sin Sze Si Ya Temple
Founded by none other than the aforementioned Yap Ah Loy in 1864, the temple was said to be built in honour of the captain’s predecessor, Kapitan Shin Kap of Sungei Ujong (known today as Seremban) as well as his chief general, Chong Piang. And while the stories behind the temple’s two deities, Sin Sze Ya and Si Sze Ya, remain convoluted to this day, locals say that they weren’t so much as gods but simply two mortal men who had done deeds so great that, according to Yap Ah Loy, were deserving of remembrance.
3/9 Sri Mahamariamman Temple
Founded by K Thamboosamy Pillai, a prominent figure in the Tamil community during the 19th century, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple was initially built as a private family shrine in 1873 and previously located at the edges of Chinatown in what was formerly known as High Street, before it moved to Jalan Tun H S Lee. In the 1920s, however, the Pillai family opened their doors to the public, and the temple was soon regarded as a solace for Tamil immigrants who worked as contract labourers in Malaya. Atop the temple gates sits a monolithic 'raja gopuram' (monumental tower)—vibrant and intricate, the 75ft tall tower is carved with 228 Hindu idols and was constructed in 1968. With over 186 years of history, this makes it the oldest functioning Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur.
4/9 Kwai Chai Hong
Decorated with colourful murals that depict glimpses of Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s with the help of local artists, this tiny street boasts plenty of new eateries. A popular tourist attraction full of Insta-worthy spots its entrance is a red bridge right. History buffs, try to spot the functioning Century Old Lamp Post that dates back to the early 1900s just beyond the bridge. In case you're wondering, its Cantonese name translates to mean "Little Ghost Lane".
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5/9 Bunn Choon Restaurant
The first thing that caught our noses was the decadent, buttery smell of fresh pastries that came wafting out of a yellow-blue shophouse in Kwai Chai Hong. Sampling freshly baked treats from family recipes that go as far back as the late 19th century, the warm, buttery flakiness of the signature egg tarts didn’t disappoint while the pineapple tarts had the perfect pastry-to-filling ratio. Bunn Choon’s kaya puffs are also on the must-try list, as the coconut jam is rich but not overly sweet.
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A hidden bar, the entrance is actually an unassuming toy shop. Venture further and you'll find yourself in an opium den-like hazy pink light where you'll find couples chatting behind beaded blinds. Keep walking and you'll come to an open air courtyard; the main bar is just beyond this space. Co-founded by award-winning mixologist Angel Ng, the bar is known for its delicious cocktails.
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7/9 ChoCha Foodstore
This tranquil, cosy space isn’t your run-of-the-mill restaurant. The ground floor is where gastronomes can feast on contemporary Asian cuisine that uses locally sourced ingredients, while the first floor houses a bar, pop-up stores, a café and even a co-working space.
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The brainchild of architect-duo Shin Chang and Shin Tsen, REXK was built to be a multifaceted space meant to be explored. Visitors can get a quick cuppa at the cafe bar, have a casual drinking session at PURO wine bar, visit a barbershop, peruse its secondhand bookstore and hunt for some gems at the vintage shop.
The building has survived three fires and was famously once the Rex Cinema operated by the Shaw Brothers in the 1970s. The architects didn’t want to alter the building’s structure and decided to keep its original character alive.
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9/9 Four Points Sheraton Kuala Lumpur
While a relatively new development, this 4-star hotel provides easy access to many of the attractions in Chinatown. The hotel itself is designed to reflect the nostalgic vibe of its location, with a mix of Art Deco and 18th-century chinoiserie. Cuisine-wise, this charming abode takes one down memory lane thanks to a traditional Peranakan spread for afternoon tea at Lady Yi's Tea House.
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- Photography Khairul Imran