History of Kuala Lumpur

Mother Earth Travel > Malaysia > Kuala Lumpur > History

Kuala Lumpur's early history started taking shape when the state of Selangor gained eminence in the 16th century as tin deposits, a material much needed by western colonists to build their empire, was found. This brought the Chinese and the Bugis, Malays from Maccassar, into the state's economics and politics. There they established themselves throughout the 18th century, thus forming the Selangor sultanate.

Kuala Lumpur (KL) itself was not built yet until 1857 when 87 Chinese tin miners ran up the Klang River and set up a village at the river's muddy confluence. This soon gave birth to the city's name ' Kuala Lumpur ' which means 'muddy confluence? in Malay. The spot where it all began is overlooked today by the city's oldest mosque, Masjid Jamek, built back in 1908.

With that came the beginning of the growth of KL into a mining town of gambling dens and brothels, and of the infamous Chinese clans or secret societies. The continuous fighting amongst these tongs worried the headmen so much that they elected a 'Kapitan Cina? (Malay for Chinese captain), a man named Yap Ah Loy, to establish peace and order. This was the very man venerated as the founding father of KL.

Unfortunately KL burned to the ground a few years later and Yap Ah Loy's Chinatown today has lost much of its original shacks and buildings. However, a few shops in Petaling Street still retain an air of the old days of the 40s and 50s, especially eateries, incense shops and medicine shops. Several temples that have stood the test of time here include two Chinese temples (Chan See Shu Yuen and Sze Ya Temple) and the highly ornate Sri Mahamariamman Temple. These religious monuments were built between 1873 and 1906.

Visitors to Chinatown can still feel the essence of those days from antiques and artifacts, which resonate with the arts and cultures from other Malay states, like Kelantan and East Malaysia. You can find these items in shops in the Central Market
and National Museum.

Towards the end of Yap Ah Loy's era, the British stepped into the picture in 1874 when a Resident was brought in to stem the fighting amongst the Malays, Chinese and Bugis. 22 years later, during which time the Malay Federated States were formed to consolidate all the Malay states, the British pulled Selangor into the federation and made KL the capital.

It was the Resident, Frank Swettenham, who chose KL as the administrative centre, and ordered the construction of new buildings in brick. During this time the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and other colonial establishments were built. These include one of the country's oldest Anglican churches, the St Mary's Cathedral, and the Royal Selangor Club, once the main communal centre for the colonial society.

Later on in 1910, the city's oldest railway station, the KL Railway Station was built. Though renovated with air-conditioning and restaurants, it still evokes the colonial ambience with its Moorish and Edwardian architectural style. Seven years later, the Malayan Railway Administration Building was erected in a similar architecture just opposite its predecessor.

KL was to become historically significant again in 1957 when the first Malayan flag was raised on the grounds of the cricket field, known today as Merdeka Square, to mark the independence of the country from British rule. Till this day the colonial buildings still remain: Sultan Abdul Samad Building today houses law courts; the cricket field sometimes has foreign cricketers playing on warm evenings, and underneath it is a shopping mall, Plaza Putra; the Royal Selangor Club is a restaurant now, but you can still order Tiger Beer there.