From Tin Town to Tower City



Near the center of Kuala Lumpur, the Klang and Gombak rivers flow quietly together, their confluence barely noticed amid the dwarfing skyline of gleaming new hotels and office buildings. A few feet from the place where the rivers meet, the Jame Mosque rests in the middle of it all like a piece of beautiful antique furniture, curiously left behind in a living room renovated for the space age. Walk to the rear of the mosque, and you will come to a small grassy field; walk to the southernmost edge of the field, and you can stand at the exact point where the rivers join. It is a strange place to stand. Overshadowed by the crowded skyline, the spot feels improbably humble and empty. It seems impossible that the entire city sprung from this one spot. 

Yet in 1857, this is where it all began. A group of 87 miners, all of them Chinese, poled their way up the Klang in search of tin. At that time, tin was in huge demand, especially by America and the British Empire, which needed the durable, lightweight metal to help fuel their industrial revolutions. In Ampang, few miles to the east, there were huge reserves of it, and this spot was the highest point where the prospectors could land their supplies. They named it "muddy confluence," built a ramshackle, thatched-roof village, and within a month all but 17 of them had died of malaria. It was a devastating beginning to what would become one of Asia's richest cities. 

More tin prospectors, however, soon followed, and within a few years the village thrived. Like all mining boom-towns, it was raucous place, populated almost exclusively by men.




Near KL are the world's largest reserves of tin. The lightweight metal, which is used in the alloys bronze and pewter, was the foundation of KL's early economy.  

They spent their days in grueling labor, crouching over tin pans or digging the earth, returning to the town at dusk to console their loneliness in bars, gambling halls, and brothels.   ...the Chinese miners organized themselves into clans and warring factions called "secret societies." 

Few got rich, but throughout the peninsula the mania for tin inspired fierce rivalries and claim disputes. As they did in the gold fields of California, the Chinese miners organized themselves into clans and warring factions called "secret societies." Without a centralized Chinese authority keeping peace, order in the mining areas was nearly impossible. Whole clans could be swept up in fights that started over little more than a drunken dispute between two men. In 1868, needing a solution to the chaos, the headmen of the local clans elected a man named Yap ah Loy as "Kapitan China," or leader of the Chinese community. With the support of the local sultan, he built prisons and quelched revolts, quickly establishing an infamous reign over the entire Kuala Lumpur mining area. If KL has a "founding father," it is Loy. 

Loy had barely established control, however, when the Malay Civil War broke out a few years later. Local sultans were fighting for the throne of Perak, and KL, swept up in the conflict, burned to the ground. The merchants of the Straits Settlements, concerned that the war would ruin their prosperity, asked Britain to intervene. Britain was initially reluctant to get involved with internal politics, but rumors that the merchants would turn to Germany instead sparked a fear in London that Britain could lose its tin interests in Malaya. London sent in a new territorial governor, Andrew Clarke, to apprise the situation. Clarke gathered the feuding princes aboard his ship off the island of Pangkor, and convinced them to sign a document known as the Pangkor Agreement. The Agreement ended the war, established a new Sultan of Perak, and -- most significantly -- called for the presence of a British Resident "who must be asked and acted upon on all questions other than those touching Malay religion and custom." This was the beginning of a dramatically increased British involvement in Malaya, one that would eventually place Kuala Lumpur at center of history. 

swettenham.JPG (22586 bytes)The British residential system quickly spread. Frank Swettenham, the Resident of Selangor, chose Kuala Lumpur as his administrative center and oversaw the rebirth of the city, ordering the construction of new buildings using brick. In 1896, Swettenham convinced the Sultans of four states to unite under the umbrella of the Federated Malay States (FMS), and Kuala Lumpur was chosen as the capital. The city became a classic center of British colonialism. Sharply uniformed officers and bureaucrats administered the FMS from beneath the distinctive copper domes of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. In the off-hours, they played cricket on the field of the Padang and sought liquid comfort in the Selangor Club, where only whites were allowed. Unsurprisingly, the club became a symbol of British imperialism and oppression and fueled the ever-growing dreams of independence. At midnight on August 30, 1957, amidst a crowd of tens of thousands, British soldiers finally lowered the Union Jack for the last time in front of the Selangor Club. Interestingly, the old British watering hole would become the meeting place of the new Malaysian elite. 

With independence, KL was poised for its greatest transformation ever. One of the city's darkest days came in 1969, when civil unrest - spawned by racial tensions -- swept through the city, sparking a state of emergency that would last for two years. Bolstered by a growing economy and a sincere desire for cooperation between Malaysia's ethnic groups, the tensions subsided, and in 1974 the city was given the status of Federal Territory. The last 20 years have seen Kuala Lumpur undergo phenomenal growth, with a population explosion of almost 50 percent, not to mention development on a monumental scale. One of the world's tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers, now rise above the city of 1.4 million. If those 87 Chinese miners could have poled their way 140 years up the river of time, they probably wouldn't recognize the legacy that began where the two muddy rivers met. 





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