Sultan Street: A look at its changing character


Jalan Sultan, (detail) watercolour by Victor Chin

Jalan Sultan is one of the early streets of Kuala Lumpur. In the 1900s most of the buildings were mainly shophouses, whether single- or double-story. This confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers which we now know as Kuala Lumpur soon became the commercial centre of the then-Malaya which was under British rule.

The largest group of residents were the Chinese from China followed by the Indians from India. These groups of workers worked in the tin mines and later, the rubber estates. Many of these migrant workers later set up homes here.

The local Malays were mainly happy in their kampongs but soon many of them became civil servants in the colonial government offices in the towns.  Lumpur is like many of the other Malaysian towns, built mainly on the wealth of the tin and rubber industries which were mostly owned by the European companies, the Sultans and a few local Chinese at one time. Most of the streets in the old business district were built between the two World Wars (1915 and 1945) when Malaya was the world’s largest producer of tin and rubber.

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The writing (or decorations) is on the wall


No 17, Jalan Hang Jebat, Malacca. This is one of my watercolours done in the 1990, from a collection of 64 paintings of the facades of early shophouses in Penang, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. These watercolours were my way of contributing to the documentation and conservation of our architectural heritage.

As the legend goes, Malacca was founded by Parameswara, the fugitive with his group fleeing from Singapore, about 500 years ago. Later he went on to establish the first Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century.

At that time Malacca was a natural port that sheltered the sailors from the north-east and south-west monsoons in this region. The monsoons were one of the keys to the success of Malacca as a trading port in the early sailing years. The winds brought the Arabs, Indians and then the Europeans from the West and the Javanese, Bugis and Chinese from the East.

As years went by, due to its increasing strategic and commercial importance, Malacca became a battle ground as the colonial world powers and the local warlords fought to control it.

But despite all the wars and violence in the waters of the Malacca Straits, many of the early sailors, traders, pirates, warriors and labourers of various races established their new homes in Malacca.

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The slow death of Tasik Chini

The area and community of Tasik Chini was what attracted a group of Asian Public Intellectuals (API) to gather there this year. This group of about 30, with two members each from Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and Thailand with the remaining number from Malaysia, was there as part of their regional project based on the common element — water.

Tasik Chini was their last stop. Since 2008, this group has visited the Kali Code River in Yogyakarta; Biwako Lake, the largest lake in Japan; the Tapee river in the Khiriwong community in south Thailand and the Batanes islands north of the Philippines.

Hezri Adnan was the leader of this site visit. He is an academic at UKM and also a visiting Fellow at The Australian National University. He said, “We are here to develop networking and collaboration within the API fellows in response to regional environmental challenges. The gathering here is to learn, document and promote local community knowledge and how they come to terms with the degradation of their traditional habitat — the water, lakes, forest and their communal life. We hope to learn from the indigenous Jakuns and then later frame an Asian perspective to mitigate these common and urgent environment issues.”

A chance to see another world

The Orang Asli’s customs and way of doing things may seem “strange” and often given the derogatory label “primitive or uncivilized” by many even today.

This is simply because many of us are not familiar with their cultures. The Orang Asli too, in return, would look at city folks and wonder why we go about doing things the way we do.

However, if we were to take the effort to get to know some Orang Asli, as friends and fellow citizens, we might perhaps see that their way makes perfectly good sense in terms of their own culture and environment.

There are three main tribal groups found in peninsular Malaysia – Negrito, Senoi, and Aboriginal Malay. They are divided into 18 sub-ethnic groups all with their own languages and customs.

Their communities of about 148,000 people make up about five per cent of the total population in Malaysia (compared this to the sizable 17 per cent of the Indigenous population of Sabah and Sarawak).  Most of them prefer to live in the forested areas but many younger ones are making their way into the cities.

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Making a life in art on Langkawi

The Langkawi art group meeting at their regular home for inspiration and aspiration.

Langkawi island is not as well-known for its artistic and cultural heritage as the Indonesian island of Bali. It also has a long way to go to catch up with the tourist industry of Phuket which is a little to the north of the Andaman sea. But what these three islands have in common is their 550 million-year-old geological heritage, their surrounding seas and unique tropical landscape and weather.

However, neither Bali nor Phuket (so far) have been awarded the geopark status by Unesco. Langkawi was given the world geopark award in 2007. With joint research between LESTARI of UKM and LADA, the island’s ecotourism concept fulfilled all the international requirements of a geopark.

Artists from all over the world have been making  their way to South-East Asia, especially Bali, for over 60 years and many never left. One of the most famous early European artists, Walter Spies (1895-1942) was living and working in Ubud, Bali, from the 1930s till his death in 1942. He and his artistic friends helped put Bali artists and art in the Western art market.

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