Its name literally means “muddy confluence” in Bahasa Malaysia but through its progress over the decades, Kuala Lumpur has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s most populous cosmopolitan city, home to the world’s tallest twin towers. Here is a brief history of how it all began for this capital city.
The year was 1857. A group of 87 Chinese tin miners was brought from Lukut to Kuala Lumpur by the Malay Chief of Klang, Raja Abdullah bin Raja Jaafar and his brother Raja Juma’at. Their purpose? To open up new tin mines in a settlement that was slowly thriving as the most important tin-producing settlement up the Klang River. The miners set up camp at the meeting point of the Klang and Lumpur (now Gombak) rivers, naming the spot Kuala Lumpur – in Bahasa Malaysia, it means “muddy confluence”, an apt description of the settlement of that time. The spot where it all began is overlooked today by the city’s oldest mosque, Masjid Jamek.
The discovery of tin in the area further attracted other miners. Soon, tin mines were established in different locations: Ampang, Pudu, Batu. By then, Kuala Lumpur emerged as a boomtown of opportunities, attracting not only opportunists but also a network of criminal gangs. Inter-gang rivalry between the Chinese settlers threatened to destroy the mining town. There was also the constant threat of flooding. And between 1867 to 1874, a series of conflicts – known as the Selangor Civil War – caused by the struggle for the control of the revenues from the tin mines as well as political power further destroyed the town.
To maintain order, the local sultan appointed a Kapitan China (Chinese Captain). It was the third Kapitan who made all the difference to the prosperity of Kuala Lumpur. Yap Ah Loy (Kapitan China from 1868 to 1885) and his tenacity kept things in check – he kept peace with help from the policemen; he helped rebuild the city a few times after being burnt to the ground and destroyed by floods.
While many of the heritage buildings have evolved over the decades, a few in the area – now known as Petaling Street – still retain the architecture of that time, including several temples like Chan See Shu Yuen, Sze Ya Temple, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, and the popular Hainanese coffee shop Sin Seng Nam (now Kafe Old Market Square), which is perhaps Kuala Lumpur’s best example of the pre-war years located along Medan Pasar. In 1888, Central Market was erected in the area, and originally used as a wet market. But today, it is a landmark for Malaysian culture and heritage.