Local Colours of Laman Kreatif Kluang

18 July 2018

Street art is bringing a creative revival to the old town of Kluang.

Among the warren of historical streets in the old town of Kluang, populated by pre-war colonial buildings, Jalan Teoh Siew Khor stands out for its colourful street art.

Laman Kreatif Mural by Mr Paiser

Spanning eight blocks and 250 metres, the murals reflect tributes to the city’s popular markers of self-identity, such as the fruit bat (keluang, from which the city derives its name), the bunga kemuning, the Johor sultanate, the royal army, Camy the tailor, Gunung Lambak, the railway and, of course, Kluang Rail Coffee—the famous station kopitiam that has been in operation since 1938.

Laman Kreatif Mural by Akeem

In an increasing number of cities and towns in Malaysia, street art murals have sprung up, adding pops of colour to streets and backlanes. In Kluang, these murals – created under a municipal project known as Laman Kreatif Kluang –  also form the backdrop to occasional craft markets, busking sessions, street theatre and other community events.

“We wanted to implement the concept of a visual gallery to this whole street. As a guideline to artists, we told them to take inspiration from the past and the future—all the way from 1915, when Kluang was founded as the administrative capital of central Johor by the British, to 2020,” says Mohamad Shahrudin Rosdi, an architect and head of the building department at Kluang Municipal Council.

“Since 2016, more than 100 street paintings have gone up here, and more will come. Laman Kreatif Kluang is an ongoing process.”

Left to Right: Artist Iskandar B. Noor Rahim, also known as Akeem, Mohamad Shahrudin Rosdi, an architect and head of the building department at Kluang Municipal Council with Shahrizad Hassan of Rumah Kita Kluang.

The first murals were painted by 38-year-old Shahrizad Hassan—also known as Bob—and his collective of street artists called Rumah Kita Kluang, which is based in Johor Bahru and has done some work there. “These days, I play more of a curator’s role. I find potential artists, ask them for sketches, and if we like their ideas, then they start,” Bob explains.

Originally from Perlis, Bob has been living in Johor Bahru since 2014, after he married. Before that, he lived in Kuala Lumpur, where he worked at a record company, and in Langkawi, where he managed a gallery. “Everyone else in Rumah Kita is Johorean,” he says. “There are about ten of us and we range from 16 years old to 40 years old. Most of the collective is in their twenties, because they have the talent but no platform to display their art.”

Laman Kreatif Mural by Adeputra

He adds that the murals in Kluang have become quite popular. “There were people who would take the train in from Ipoh in the morning and take the evening train back, just to take pictures on this street.”

Laman Kreatif Mural by Akeem.

Structural changes have also been made to Jalan Teoh Siew Khor. As a backlane that was often used illegally as a parking space before, it’s been cleaned up and pedestrianised, with the old drain pits covered by raised sidewalks on both sides of the street to allow safer access.

In an effort to revitalise this backlane as a public community space, shops have also been encouraged to open up their rear entrances. Currently, there are just a handful of backlane tenants open for business, including a bakery and a traditional kopitiam. Shahrudin said the council wants to be selective about the kind of businesses that move into Laman Kreatif Kluang, so that they reflect its ethos.

One of Laman Kreatif Kluang’s newest tenants is Kaki Lima Kluang, a tiny contemporary cafe run by three siblings. Summer Tee, who is 36 years old, saw promise in the “for rent” sign that was hanging on the shoplot. After living and working in Kuala Lumpur for over a decade, she moved back to Kluang, her hometown, to start this cafe.

“So far, I think the interesting part is meeting different people. This is an experiment. We’re giving ourselves a year to see how it goes,” she says. “But we’re quite lonely now. We need more cafes and shops here.”

Laman Kreatif Mural by Jaie Ramlee.

An elderly duo selling numismatic antique souvenirs nearby are also enthusiastic about the possibilities of a revival in Kluang’s old town. “We’ve been here just three months. We’re both retired, and we wanted to find something to do. Since we already share the same interest in collecting numismatic antiques, we opened this shop,” says Tong Tek Shin.

“This heritage area used to be very prosperous when I was a boy. I hope this street can be turned into a cultural market, with more activity, then we’ll see more people,” says his friend Hee Chun Cheng, still sprightly and wide-eyed in his seventies.

In 2017, Laman Kreatif Kluang won Gold in the Built Environment and Architectural Heritage category at the 2017 International Green Apple Awards in London. It’s a nod to the fact that it’s part of a larger municipal plan to conserve the architectural and cultural heritage of Kluang’s old town.

“There are about 260 units of these pre-war buildings around Jalan Ismail, Jalan Lambak, Jalan Mersing and Jalan Station. Most of them are in disrepair, and people want to demolish them and build modern units in their place,” Shahrudin says. “We want to avoid that. We want to control the development in this area.”

“Some people came to us saying they wanted to make a Chinatown or a Little India, but we don’t want that in Kluang. We don’t want separate areas. We hold to the idea of bangsa Johor and muafakat Johor,” he adds.

The municipal developments of Kluang’s old town don’t stop here. Future plans include improvements to the city’s landscape and communal facilities, such as Laman Pesona—another alley-turned-public space that has been livened up with murals—and at Taman Merdeka, a public park.

“We are developing Laman Kreatif Kluang and the old town primarily for the Kluang people, not tourists. But when the people who live here like it, then naturally they will tell their friends about it, and word will spread,” Shahrudin says.

By Emily Ding
Photos by sidekickprojext

Follow Laman Kreatif Kluang on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lamankreatifkluang/

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