In the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling metropolis lies a rarely discovered oasis of traditional Malay culture and crafts. Culture Trip goes on a journey through Kampung Baru, discovering the heritage among the high-rises.
Malaysia’s booming capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), is a genuine city of the future – a teeming, sprawling metropolis of soaring skyscrapers and state-of-the-art shopping malls, where commuter trains glide ethereally over the never-ending traffic jams on elevated monorails. The first stop for many is the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, which had their 15 minutes of fame as the world’s tallest building until 2004. But just 700 metres (2,300 feet) away, a short but hot and humid walk in KL’s tropical temperatures, lies a neighbourhood that is rarely discovered by travellers. A unique rural enclave in the heart of the city, encircled by soaring high-rise urban constructions. Kampung Baru means New Village, but this traditional Malay settlement will soon celebrate 120 years of history since its official foundation in 1900.
Kampung Baru is a protected settlement where any new development is prohibited. It’s a low-rise oasis of traditional wooden Malay houses raised up on concrete stilts and quiet streets with hardly any traffic. The tall coconut trees, fragrant frangipani, bougainvillea, banana and papaya plants sit alongside kampong (free-range) chickens and dozens of street-food stalls serving a range of delicious regional Malay cuisine that you will find nowhere else in the city. But this is also prime land, and a new Concept Master Plan proposes to buy up all the land and redevelop it, meaning the destruction of almost the whole 196-acre (79-hectare) Kampung and the relocation of most of the 35,000 inhabitants, leaving just a small green “heritage heart” in the middle of more skyscrapers. There is a lot of opposition; nothing is agreed or finalised. But this unique neighbourhood’s days may well be numbered.
Don’t arrive in Kampung Baru with expectations of discovering museums, historic monuments or fashionable boutiques. There is none of that, but rather a unique opportunity to experience a slice of peaceful rural Malay life right in the centre of a modern metropolis. Life in Kampung Baru goes on at the same tempo as a village hidden away in the rice paddies or coconut groves of the Malaysian countryside. Old men sit on wooden terraces sipping teh tarik (theatrically aerated milk tea), kids kick a football about or practice the ancient Malay martial art of Silat, while others tend to pots of multi-coloured orchids and frangipani that proudly decorate the gardens of rickety stilt houses. There is a weekly pasar malam (night market) where you can pick up beautiful batik sarongs, while on weekend mornings, the sprawling pasar karat is a flea market filled with retro bargains.
Although it is quite easy to walk around Kampung Baru alone, for a first time visit, it is well worth seeking out a local guide. Joining a three-hour walk with guide Fuad Fahmy is a unique experience as he gently explains the fascinating history of his own neighbourhood. The tour winds through an overgrown shortcut which emerges in front of a century-old pastel-blue Malay house, then introduces guests to friendly local residents and buskers crooning Malay pop songs. Making numerous foodie stop-offs on the main drag, Jalan Raja Muda Musa, you’ll try satay, spicy curries and sweet kueh cakes. Malaysia’s favourite dish, Nasi Lemak (a heaped plate of coconut steamed rice, crunchy anchovies, fiery sambal sauce, cucumber and boiled egg) can be purchased for RM4.50 (£0.85) at legendary eateries like Wanjo and Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa which have been serving Kampung Baru since the 1960s.
Fuad explains, “I wanted to give something back to my home, my community. I was born in Kampung Baru. Our family has been here for generations. When I retired, I looked at what was being offered for visitors to KL and was surprised to see tours of Chinatown, the old colonial centre, Little India – but nothing on Kampung Baru. So I started my own walks, and it has been a wonderful experience. And at the end we usually end up at my father’s house, drinking tea and singing songs.”
It can be difficult at first for foreigners – and even other Malaysians – to understand the cultural and historical importance of Kampung Baru. Not only is ownership of property restricted to Malays, but non-Malays cannot rent property or even stay the night in Kampung Baru. Liz Tajuddin, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most successful public relations executives, recalls that, “pretty much every Malay who comes in from the countryside to live in KL starts their big-city life right here in Kampung Baru – everyone knows an uncle, auntie or far distant cousin living here, so you stay with them to get yourself started, usually rent free with auntie’s cooking to stop you feeling homesick, before you find a job and your own apartment. These are certainly my first memories of Kampung Baru, and if the whole place gets redeveloped, that will leave a big hole in people’s lives.”
Haji Johari Abbas, whose family was one of the pioneer constructors of modern Kuala Lumpur and who still owns an enchanting traditional wooden house, echoes Liz’s thoughts, reminiscing that, “I have memories of swimming in the river here, my uncle fishing giant prawns from the pristine-clean water, of meeting up with friends and family to celebrate Ramadan, weddings, ceremonies. Kampung Baru was always a hub of activity, and obviously I am deeply sad that it will inevitably disappear with future redevelopment. But eventually we have to move on as a nation, and it is already a miracle that the Kampung has stayed undisturbed for so long.”
Fuad admits that he hopes his father will not accept the ever-increasing offers to buy up Kampung Baru’s land. He is even trying to persuade his dad to open a homestay B&B in the kampung.
Campaigners like Elizabeth Cardosa, president of Badan Warisan, the Heritage Trust of Malaysia, pleads the case that, “development does not have to mean the city-of-the-future fantasy of towering glass and metal skyscrapers. Why not look at more sustainable redevelopment, building on the heritage potential that Kampung Baru possesses? Both for the local community and the attraction it could become for the tourism industry.”
Renowned heritage activist Victor Chin goes further, saying it is the little people, the sitting tenants, who will be the ones to lose out, pointing out that, “the legislation creating Kampung Baru (by the British colonial administration back in 1900) was meant to preserve a Malay corner within the new city of Kuala Lumpur, and never allow this kind of proposed redevelopment to take place. But once the real estate dealers start getting involved, I fear that a very important part of the city will just be wiped out.”
Fuad assures his guests not to worry too much. At the moment everything is still in the talking stage, and even Lillian Tay, president of The Malaysian Institute of Architects and a partner in the consultancy that has drawn up the famous masterplan for redevelopment, admits that this is a 30-year project with little likelihood of any demolition in the near future. So there is still time to discover the delights of nasi lemak on a hot steamy night below a whirring ceiling fan, accompanied by the rhythmic clicking of gecko lizards and the call of the muezzin from the kampung’s mosques.