Reviving a state of mind that can save our urban legacy

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In KL, it’s high time we pause the modernisation process and embrace the past, discover our rich history and pursue the peculiar story of a missing mushroom.

One Sunday morning, I got up at the break of dawn to head into the heart of old KL with my parents. I had been hearing about a volunteer group called Rakan KL that has been organising weekend heritage walks in my city. I thought it would be a nice experience to revisit the past together with my folks and clear the cobwebs in our minds.

After a simple breakfast of plain chee cheong fun (which has been operating in the same spot at the corner of Jalan Hang Lekir and Jalan Petaling for more than 50 years!) we walked up to Jalan Hang Jebat to meet our guide, Adrian Yeo. Other participants slowly filed in at 9am, and as we got ready, the illegal morning flea market operated by migrant workers for migrant workers on the pavements of Jalan Sultan slowly ebbed away, giving way to daylight traffic.

Deep into the muddy confluence

Formed in September 2012, Rakan KL is a non-profit gathering of citizens and civil society advocates concerned with urban planning, heritage and land-use policies in KL. Unearthing the history of buildings, clans and famous personages in KL, they have churned out reams of stories for volunteers to share during walking tours. Done in a simple show-and-tell fashion using photocopied old photos humbly tucked into a plastic binder folder, Yeo peppered the tour with his sense of humour, sound effects and mini quizzes which kept our merry band of “tourists” wide eyed and bushy tailed.

For the entire month of August, Rakan KL organised the KL Merdeka Walk to commemorate the anniversary of our country’s independence. The two-and-a-half-hour heritage walk began at the bus stop on Jalan Hang Jebat, sandwiched between Gospel Hall of Kuala Lumpur (one of the oldest churches for the KL Chinese community) and BP House (the headquarters of the Malaysia Scouts Association). From there, we made a loop covering Chin Woo Stadium, passing the site of the former Merdeka Park (also fondly known as Tunku Park), up the hill along Jalan Hang Jebat to Stadium Negara, turning right into Jalan Stadium past the illustrious Victoria Institution, and ending at Stadium Merdeka.

Throughout the walk, we were entertained with amusing anecdotes that I wish had been taught during history lessons in school. For example, we didn’t know that on May 2, 1956, Mr E.M. McDonald, who was the president of the Olympic Council of Malaya, climbed the 52-foot high clock tower of Chin Woo Stadium with then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to look for a site to build a new stadium. Here’s another interesting titbit: what do the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, St Mary’s Church, Selangor Club Building, Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur Library and Carcosa have in common? They were all designed and built by A. C. Norman, a senior government architect attached to the Public Works Department in Malaya from 1883 to 1903.

Adrian describing the excitement of the 1992 Thomas Cup Finals at the doors of Stadium Negara.

During the walk, it was revealed that Merdeka Park, which also went by monikers such as Yap Hon Chin Hill, Petaling Hill and People’s Park, was home to a cluster of schools since the 1890s. The once verdant hills and proximity to downtown KL made it an ideal location for the broadening of young minds, and, later, for a sports centre at Stadium Negara to train the country’s budding athletic talents before the Bukit Jalil National Sports Complex was completed in 1998. Today, seven schools still stand in the vicinity, namely Methodist Boys School Secondary & Methodist Boys School Primary, SRJK (C) Jalan Davidson, Confucian Private Secondary School, SMJK Confucian, SM Stella Maris and Victoria Institution.

A landmark has disappeared from Merdeka Park.

As we stood at the corner of Jalan Hang Jebat and Changkat Stadium, Yeo unravelled the story behind the “Merdeka Wall”, a plain construction board plastered with a cacophony of posters: old images of Merdeka Park, written exhortations to save the park from a government-backed conglomerate and symbolic green patches. A huge black and white poster of a hand holding up a mushroom proclaims: “Ruang ini untuk Cendawan bukan Hartawan!” Nearby, a tree was humorously tacked with “Missing Mushroom” posters.

Starting the tour at Jalan Hang Jebat.


We learned that this corner has been adopted by the Pertahankan Taman Merdeka Negara (PTMN) group (ptmnmalaysia.wordpress.com) in an ongoing campaign against the planned commercial development of a 118-storey tower, announced by the Prime Minister during Budget 2011. I couldn’t decide which was scarier: the impending mega-structure blotting out the sky above Petaling Street like a dagger stuck into the ground or the government-sanctioned sacrilege on the country’s most important moment in history – the well-deserved declaration of “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” by an unconventional prince.

Through documents publicly filed to KL City Hall in June 2013, PTMN discovered that the developer has applied for a change of land use and provided a layout plan of the entire project site, affecting the buildings on the entire hillock. On July 1 and 2, community residents and NGOs submitted letters to the Mayor of Kuala Lumpur to oppose the project. Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor responded by saying the Stadium Merdeka area is “dead” and the Warisan Merdeka project will revitalise the area. He was quoted in the press saying, “As far as we are concerned, development is development but the heritage, aesthetic value of surrounding place will definitely be kept for sure, don’t have to worry.”

Folks from the walking tour sharing their visions.

On August 19, the posters I saw had been torn down and painted over in blue. On August 24, Rakan KL and PTMN volunteers promptly carried out a “reclamation” exercise by re-plastering the wall with more artwork and handing out flyers for the 56th Merdeka Day celebration. Two days later, the posters were all removed again.

How far does heritage go?

The KL Merdeka Walk opened my eyes to my surroundings. I wondered about the heritage areas in other old cities in Malaysia – if there was no “Rakan Kluang” or “Rakan Bentong” to put these cities under the sepia spotlight, would our children and their children realise the latent histories witnessed by the ground under their feet? When I hear of individuals struggling to raise funds to set up mini museums in their hometowns, I wish that the relevant authorities would put their money where their mouths are and recognise the social impact these places have on ordinary Malaysians. Heritage is, after all, a state of mind.

Veronica Liew is a freelance communications consultant and writer based in KL, and was happy to know that fresh posters have mushroomed on Merdeka Wall on August 31, 2013. The “Reclaim” saga continues.



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