What the beautifully restored Old Malaya says about Kuala Lumpur

A new lick of paint

Cities, in general, always look forward. The old is always replaced by the new, as the urban environment undergoes constant rejuvenation to keep pace with modernity. But there is value in looking back. It’s a concept that’s been valued in Western cities for long – preserving decades, sometimes even centuries or millennia of history. In Asia, it’s a somewhat newer, but gaining pace as cities begin to eschew the anonymity of modern architecture and design to revel in their past. Which is why a city like Kuala Lumpur needs a place like Old Malaya.

Denizens of Kuala Lumpur travelling regularly down Jalan Raja Chulan will be familiar with the buildings that now form Old Malaya. Dismissed as dilapidated and a nexus for seedier, supernatural elements, it now commands impressed stares after it underwent a transformation earlier this year. Spearheaded by founders Kana Theva and Datuk Syed Mustaffa Shahab, the row of structures has now been restored to a state reminiscent of its glory days with the assistance of architects ZDR. It was not an easy task; years of neglect meant structural integrity was compromised, requiring a comprehensive fundamental restoration while preserving as much of the distinctive structure as possible.

It worked. Named Old Malaya to harken back to the old days when Malaysia was Malaya, a rich, romantic colonial atmosphere unites the complex. A unique façade that opens out to the main square at an obtuse angle greets visitors, a mix of a restrained Georgian style with elements of early Art Deco in the twin pediments. The colour scheme is Tudor – predominantly white with the sole colour accents being black. This first building is home to the Pampas steakhouse, introducing visitors to the rest of the complex that stretches further back into Lorong Raja Chulan as a contemporary cuisine enclave.

The kitchens at Old Malaya serve a dizzying variety of menus. Pampas celebrates the best of meat, while Manja aims for culinary hybridisation with Malaysian accents. Isadora Chai’s Antara is heartwarmingly traditional with occasional unconventional twists, while Chettiars Café brings the fire of Indian recipes. Italy, a perennial favourite culinary genre in Asia, is represented by Luce, with seafood specialist Pier 12 rounding out the sextet. The menu may be diverse, but the restaurants at Old Malaya are all united by the common colonial aesthetic; which occasional flashes of personality, like the maritime riggings at Pier 12, the kontemporary kopitiam furniture at Antara or the exposed brick walls flourished with art at Manja.

Built in 1919 as military quarters for colonial and Malay officers, the buildings (and the area) later became a prominent residential area for Malaysia’s Eurasian community. In fact, many of the old dwellings are still visible (and in continuous residence) from the first storey balconies of Old Malaya, a place to enjoy a glass of wine or a cigar, or both. Also visible from the first floor terraces, is a spectacular view of one of Kuala Lumpur’s distinctive sky protrusions – KL Tower. It is quite possible the only place in KL to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the spire, notching up another unique aspect of Old Malaya.

What is old is now new again in Old Malaya. And perhaps it marks a turning point in the way Kuala Lumpur is attempting to define itself. Because as much as a city is driven by gleaming towers of offices and gargantuan malls of familiar international brands, a city is also driven by its history. And it is the latter that makes a city unique, worth visiting or worth residing in. American author Steve Berry once said that ‘a concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational and economic legacies – all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.’ In other words, it marks the point where a city matures from an unfocused child into an adept adult. Old Malaya is a necessary node in this transition, a successful attempt of heritage restoration with commercial savvy that will hopefully encourage more of the same.

Old Malaya

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