Standing The Test Of Time

29 August 2016

If you have lived or worked in Kuala Lumpur, chances are you would know of the popular touristy stretch of historical buildings adjacent to Dataran Merdeka. But how many of us really know about the history that lies beyond the façades of these buildings?

As Merdeka draws to a near, we take a walk down memory’s lane to revisit a few of the familiar and lesser known structures from the 1910s to 1950s that are still standing in Kuala Lumpur today.

Decade: 1910s

Former Sessions and Magistrates Court, 1910

The first building on our list is a familiar sight for most. Located along Jalan Tun Perak near the Jamek Mosque and a stone’s throw away from Dataran Merdeka is the former Sessions and Magistrates Court.

This building and many others like Carcosa Seri Negara were designed by British architect and soldier Arthur Benison Hubback (A.B. Hubback) during his stint in Malaya.

Before being used as a courthouse, the building originally served as the headquarters for the Federated Malay States (FMS) Survey Department and is one of the remaining examples of Mughal-eclectic style architecture in the country.

Currently, it lies vacant amidst the pile of road works around it.

Malaya Hainan Restaurant, 1911

Sitting prominently at the corner of Jalan Panggong and Jalan Balai Polis is a two-storey semi-wooden structure that combines a distinct mix of Malay and Tudor styled influences in its architecture.

A Post Office in its past, it is now Malaya Hainan Restaurant which opened to some fanfare in 2014 and was even officiated by the mayor of KL.

Tides have changed and the restaurant is only operating minimally by serving drinks and light snacks.

While a large portion of the place is shuttered, the employees will allow you to wander around and check out some of the relics from the post office that they have kept within the place.


KTM Berhad, 1914

The headquarters of Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) Berhad is housed in a large imposing structure of Moorish elements, complete with domes on its main columns and Gothic arches.

Its hues of greyish browns contrast against the whites of the KL Railway Station which is located directly opposite it along Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Construction began in 1914 but due to the events of World War 1, the building was only completed in 1917.

It first served as the FMS Railway Head Administration Office and was later known as the Malayan Railway Administration Office before it finally became KTM Berhad’s head office in 1985.

Like the Sessions and Magistrates Court, this was one of the many projects undertaken by A.B. Hubback.


Decade: 1920s

LFS Coliseum Cinemas, 1920

A huge standee of famous Tamil movie star Rajinikanth graces the entrance to LFS Coliseum Cinemas.

More popularly known as Coliseum Theatre, it remains as one of the country’s oldest operational standalone cinemas and was built in 1920 by prominent philanthropist Chua Cheng Bok of the successful Cycle and Carriage business.

This cinema is currently managed by Lotus Five Star Cinemas (LFS). The government had intentions to close it in 2006 and convert the building into a heritage centre but public outcry halted the process.

In 2012, renovations and restoration works were done to the interiors and the cinema now has two screens and a seating capacity of 474.


Badan Warisan, 1925

Located in a restored 1920s colonial bungalow along Jalan Stonor is Badan Warisan, an NGO at the forefront of Malaysia's built heritage conservation.


The bungalow was originally used as the British officers’ government quarters up until Independence when it changed ownership several times into private hands.

It is one of the last remaining examples of mock Tudor, Roman Basilica styled bungalows in the enclave. The residence is now denoted as as a Heritage Centre by Badan Warisan and includes a gift shop as well as a library.


Additionally, Badan Warisan also shares its compound with Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman, a beautiful traditional kampung house from Kedah that Badan Warisan helped restore and relocate in 1996.


Telekom Museum, 1928

With eight tall, gleaming pillars lining the side of this three-storey building, Telekom Museum definitely stands out among the other skyscrapers at the intersection of Jalan Raja Chulan and Jalan Gereja.

It adopts a Neo-Classical design with towering Greek columns that were typical of the colonial architectural style in Kuala Lumpur during that time period.

The museum was built to house the Central Battery Manual Telephone Exchange in 1928 but in 1984, there were plans to tear down the building and develop a 26-floor telecommunications complex in its place.

Fortunately, the project was halted by then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and it has since been gazetted as a heritage building. Jabatan Telekom Malaysia assisted in the restoration process and in 1994, the building was turned into the current museum.


Decade: 1930s

Lee Rubber Building, 1930

Lee Rubber Company which was then helmed by rubber tycoon, Lee Kong Chian, commissioned an Art Deco styled building designed by Arthur Oakley Coltman (A.O. Coltman).

At four storeys high, this geometrically shaped building with thick pillars was considered the tallest in KL when it was built.

During WWII, the building was used as the headquarters for the Kempeitai and in later years, became better known as the location of Popular Bookstore in Chinatown.

Lee Rubber Building has been gazetted under the National Heritage Act and currently sits vacant.


Majestic Hotel, 1932

Just up the road from KTM Berhad, Majestic Hotel still stands proudly as it did many years ago when it was built as a luxury accommodation during British-ruled Malaya.

It was the first to incorporate modern sanitation into each room with custom designed furniture, silverware and furnishings imported from England. The posh décor attracted the upper echelons of society and was the place to mingle and party during its heydays.

The hotel spiraled into a slow decline by the 1970s but was saved from demolition when it was gazetted under the Antiquities Act. The last guests checked out in 1983 and the hotel housed the National Art Gallery for several years until 1998 when it was subsequently vacated.

Restoration works started in 2008 and in 2012, the Majestic Hotel reopened under the management of YTL Hotels.


OCBC Building, 1938

The former headquarters for the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) Bank at Medan Pasar reignited some interest when it was used as one of the locations for this year's Urbanscapes festival.

Also designed by A.O. Coltman, the Art Deco styled building even includes an underground parking for bicycles.

The stark white exterior with a curved façade that follows the bend of the road is eye-catching among the sea of dustier looking buildings.

Now known as 2 Hang Kasturi, the site now functions as an event space.


Decade: 1940s

The Row, 1940s

Just off the corner on a perpendicular street from the popular Yut Kee Restaurant lies The Row, a strip of 22 recently refurbished shophouses by developer Urbanspace.

Formerly known as Asian Heritage Row back in the early 2000s, the once popular entertainment strip of bars, clubs and restaurants have been reinvented and given a new lease on life.

The Row is barely recognisable from the Art Deco form houses in its earlier days. From an upper-class residential area, tenants gradually moved out in the 1970s and the area shifted into a commercial environment.

Today, it is becoming a growing hub of cafés, independent local shops, bars and co-working spaces.


Capitol Theatre, 1947

Located directly across the road from Federal Theatre, Capitol Theatre was one of the many cinemas owned by Shaw Federation Cinemas. It started off by screening Chinese movies until 1996 when it switched to screening Indian movies.

Capitol Theatre finally closed its doors for good in 2000 and the only visible identification that hints at its former life are the CAPITOL signs on the building’s façade.

Walking into the space now, you will see boxes stockpiled ceiling high with cashiers out front. Wan Lee Heng Cash & Carry Sdn Bhd, a wholesale retailer, is the anchor tenant and occupies the cavernous space where the screening hall used to be.

At a corner lies Mek Tomyam, a small restaurant that has been serving its patrons for “belasan tahun” according to the makcik who works there. 


Sek Yuen Restaurant, 1948

One of the oldest Chinese restaurants in town, Sek Yuen Restaurant occupies two adjacent lots on Jalan Pudu and is renowned for their Cantonese fare.

The original one-storey building is still in business, with food for both premises being cooked out of the same kitchen since 1948.

The stoves are purportedly so old that they have a ready pile of firewood stocked in the back lane to light them.

Like the dusty walls and rickety furniture, many of its chefs and wait staff have been at Sek Yuen for years, ageing sentimentally alongside the restaurant that has withstood the test of time.


Decade: 1950s

Chin Woo Stadium, 1951

Since its construction, Chin Woo Stadium has been sitting atop a hill, like a grand dame overlooking most parts of KL.

It contains KL's first Olympic-sized swimming pool and was the first sporting facility for athletes to be opened in the country. The stadium is currently managed by the Chin Woo Athletic Association Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. Cultural activities like wushu, tai chi, lion dances and more are regularly organised.

While it has been a popular gathering spot for the local Chinese community over the years, the facilities are open for all to use.

Chin Woo Stadium is also located in close range to other heritage sites like Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara.


Lai Foong Restaurant, 1953

Situated right at the busy intersection of Jalan Tun HS Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock is a building painted in bright orange.

Built in 1953 for The Rubber Trade Association of Selangor & Pahang, this building also houses Lai Foong Restaurant, one of KL’s most popular kopitiams.

Many flock here for its famous Hainanese beef noodles from the Lai Foong stall operated by the second-generation Tan family.

Tan Len Chuan was a Chinese immigrant and started small by hawking beef noodle soup at the restaurant in 1956. His success grew and the family currently owns the lease to the entire kopitiam.


Federal Hotel, 1957

Federal Hotel’s illustrious past seems to go unnoticed in the bustling district of Bukit Bintang.

Completed just three days before the nation’s Independence Day, it was built to accommodate the dignitaries that were in town to witness the historic moment.

Tan Sri Low Yat was the developer of the original nine-storey structure designed by architect Lee Yoon Thim who was instrumental in the construction of many post-Merdeka structures. A later 21-storey extension that included a revolving restaurant was done in the early 1960s.

Many famous guests have drifted through its hallways over the years, among them former world heavyweight boxing champion, the late Muhammad Ali.


By Lyn Ong

Photos by Lyn Ong

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