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.
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.
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
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.