My ability to get lost is incredible. Not only do I get lost driving in KL but walking around KL turns out to be too difficult for me, too.
If you have read my post on Week 2 of UnRepresented KL, you will remember that I mentioned this week’s session will involve a walking tour and us trying to be amateur ethnographers. That did not happen, unfortunately. Previously, we had been facing unusual weather conditions such as prolonged drought and the haze that follows after series of bushfires. On that Sunday morning, IT RAINED. I know, I shouldn’t complain, the rain was for the greater good, etc. But I was really looking forward to that tour.
Turns out, I had my own unofficial walking tour because I got lost on the way to our venue. Typical. Unlike previous weeks, this week was held at a place called Petaling Street Art House, tucked away in a corner shophouse in Jalan Sultan. Basically, I held up this week’s session (I was 45 minutes late) because I ended up somewhere I wasn’t supposed to (this deserves its own post) and Adriana had to pick me up. When we finally arrived, everybody cheered, probably because they are grateful that I am not lying unconscious in a ditch somewhere.
Petaling Street Art House is everything that you would expect of an independent artistic space that values heritage art: it is eclectic, fascinating and houses many valuable vintage items, many of which were donated by the residents of Petaling Street themselves. There were a number of displays showcasing different types of old media and vintage items. There is a Chinese opera costume propped across the room. Old black-and-white photos on the walls, reminding us of a bygone era. Vintage mugs repurposed tastefully as lamp fixtures.
The man of the hour is Chong Keat Aun, a DJ for RTM in the day and an enthusiastic preservationist of Petaling Street’s culture and heritage every other hour. When I came in, I immediately noticed how dark it was and there were rows of benches placed in the middle of the space, almost church-like. For UnRepresented KL’s Week 3, the space morphed into a dark auditorium for Keat Aun’s picture presentation about Petaling Street back in the early 1900s and the people who built the foundation of what it is today.
The heart of Keat Aun’s presentation was the Too family, whose contributions and life story are something that you can’t possibly fake. Let’s try: imagine Wes Anderson creating a movie about a Chinese family escaping from the oppressive nature in pre-revolution China to building their own name in pre-Independence Malaysia. This piece of history has been recounted orally, backed with photographic evidence, by the surviving 91-year-old Dr Too Chee Cheong, who is still practicing medicine to this day. That’s right, he’s still giving out medical advice and medication even when he’s 9 years shy of being a century old.
His father, who made the leap of faith to move to Malaya? Not only was he invested in mainland China’s political development then, he also had ties to Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the Republic of China, when the political leader was in exile. Keat Aun even said that he was one of the body guards for the prolific figure when Sun Yat-Sen was in Malaya. Another fun fact, he also founded the first society of hypnotists in Malaya. Yes, you read that right: hypnotists. At that time, the Chinese community was plagued with the problem of opium addiction and Dr Too’s father was convinced that hypnotism was able to cure the drug abuse. Keat Aun showed us a grainy black and white photo of a man levitating in front of Dr Too’s father, indicating the powers of hypnotism. Levitation equals a drug-free life?
Get in touch, Wes Anderson. We’ve got a movie in our hands.
Throughout the presentation, the soft-spoken Keat Aun expanded the life of Too’s family and the influence of China onto the Petaling Street community. Before Kuala Lumpur became the metropolitan behemoth that it is, Petaling Street was the centre of attention. As most of the traders in Petaling Street were Chinese nationals, they brought in elements of China into the area. Keat Aun showed us old pictures of provocative (well, provocative enough in 1900s) dancers from Shanghai, coyly named the “Blossom Dance Troupe”. There was also a faded picture of a group of men gathering in an unknown open field; this open field was where the politically-inclined Chinese nationals would watch Western films about the French Revolution, fueling their desire for the Chinese Revolution. Their deeply-entrenched nationalism towards their motherland made me wonder when did the community began to shift their loyalty towards Malaya/Malaysia. Dr Too’s father even signed up to be a volunteer soldier for China during World War 1 but it was reported that he was never enlisted.
If we had the walking tour, we would have been introduced to the old buildings that are still in use to this day, some probably fighting to remain relevant in a city that changes form constantly. For example, the Gospel Hall was previously used as a space to discuss the Chinese Revolution; Dr Too’s mother even founded the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) here. Dr Too’s father, despite his somewhat bizarre idea to battle addiction, turned out to be a firm believer of equality. He supported the education for Chinese women and this is very progressive for somebody who lived in the early 20th century. And yes, the female students played a big role in his campaign against opium addiction: he founded a girl group choir that would sing anti-opium songs in different parts of Petaling Street. Let me know when you’re ready, Wes Anderson.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: where are these incredible details in our history textbooks? I don’t recall any of these bits and I used to highlight every inch of my books. At first, I thought sadly that this could simply be the work of racial politics. But then, I also realised that Malaysians are generally not keen in preserving historical information, artifacts or sites. How many of our heritage sites have been demolished to be replaced by a shiny shopping complex in its place? We are so in a rush to “develop” ourselves that we are scrambling to escape from our past. Nobody cares about Petaling Street anymore, not as it used to be, and this sentiment was echoed by Keat Aun himself.
There is a reason why Keat Aun and other facilitators of PSAH created the community initiative to keep the history of Petaling Street alive. The surviving family members of the Chinese community no longer see the area as a conducive place to live, preferring suburban areas such as Petaling Jaya. From a person who grew up in the suburbs, I can’t blame them. Further, the growing population of foreign workers living and working in Petaling Street spurned away the locals, making them claim that Petaling Street now belongs to these immigrants. I could sense bitter sentiments there and Keat Aun quickly gave his opinion that these immigrants shouldn’t be shunned or blamed. After all, Keat Aun reasoned, they moved to Petaling Street to find opportunities for themselves, just as the early settlers of Petaling Street did.
This conversation about preserving the history of Petaling Street is a relevant one, thanks to the MRT project. Some people welcome the development of the MRT project, having a hub for the public transportation will definitely make this area more popular than ever. However, for Keat Aun and his comrades, the MRT project will further change the landscape of the area, whittling the history of it in the shadow of development.
It seems that preserving the historical sites of Petaling Street might be a losing battle. I do commend the voluntary efforts of Keat Aun and others who have contributed into this initiative. If you’re interested in the walking tour that we were supposed to have, you can query them at Petaling Street Art House official Facebook page (although it is currently written entirely in a Chinese language, unfortunately). In fact, if you want to meet the awesome Dr Too, you might have a shot for that chance! PSAH is planning to have a walking tour led by the man himself. No date proposed yet but keep a keen eye on the Facebook page if you’re interested!
I will be honest and admit that I have no clue about the general Chinese community in Malaysia. Even saying “Chinese community” sounds offensive in my mind because not every Chinese person in this country belongs to one group like a monolith. Our multiracial population gives our singular national identity many vibrant shades but there are certain parts of this identity that does not necessarily belong to each Malaysian. I never knew about the historical Chinese community, almost a century ago, in Petaling Street. It is interesting to see Malaysia, a place I call home, through another person’s history. It is like visiting another country altogether. But instead of eroding my sense of identity, it only enriches my understanding and appreciation for this country.
There is so much more to Malaysia than it seems. We just need to pause and look.
- Throughout the entire presentation, Keat Aun spoke in Malay, even though there were foreigners among us. To me, this strikes as a very interesting choice, even though he said that he’s just more comfortable speaking in Malay than in English, preferring to have somebody translate his speech instead. It expands his character even more, especially in light of his efforts in preserving local history.
- All the information you see above has been informed to me through this picture presentation by Chong Keat Aun. And so, my own knowledge about Petaling Street is still quite limited. If you’re curious to know more or to confirm the facts within this post, do contact Keat Aun through the Facebook page linked above!