Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Alternative City Guide
By Lam Seng Fatt
(Times Books International)

ALMOST everything you want to know about the ancient side of KL but don't know where to start is found in this book. It is a neat little tome that contains some interesting facts about a city that was founded on tin back about 130 years ago. KL has a rich heritage that was and still is a melting pot of the best from the East and West.

IMAGINE riding on the Light Rail Transit from Kelana Jaya to the Central
Market. As the LRT approaches Bangsar, a sweet voice over the PA system
announces "Abdullah Hukum". Like many of your fellow commuters, you
mentally ask, "Who is he?"
If you, like me, have puzzled over the identity of this mysterious man,
wonder no more. Lam Seng Fatt will enlighten you on Abdullah's background.
Lam's Insider's Kuala Lumpur is the product of a lot of homework and
legwork on KL and is a real pleasure to read. It has lots of interesting
bits of information that any KL resident would be thrilled to receive.
For example, Loke Yew Road, near Merdeka Stadium, is named after a man
who came to this part of the world at the tender age of 11. Like all the
other notable greats, he started life almost penniless but ended up owning
tin mines, rubber plantations and properties.
For 20 years in the second half of the 19th Century, Loke Yew ruled over
Kuala Lumpur. He was so rich he even issued his own bank notes. By the
time he died, his fame and fortune had spread to Hong Kong and Singapore.
Kuala Lumpur's history is as rich as the alluvial soil upon which it is
built. Lam, our intrepid journalist, has done a commendable job of
foraging and ferreting out remnants of past events which are significant
and relevant to present-day KLites. Many of us will no doubt find the
insider stories of famous buildings and prominent names rather charming,
perhaps even amusing.
A case in point is Carcosa Seri Negara. The mansion was built in 1898 at
the cost of $67,000. Frank Swettenham, who built it and subsequently lived
there, gave it the name Carcosa, which actually originated from a book of
horror stories called The King in Yellow, by Robert Chambers.
It would be great if Insider's Kuala Lumpur came with zero defects, but
I have a minor grouse to make. There are no photographs of the famous
personalities mentioned - people like Chow Kit, Loke Yew, Abdullah Hukum,
Thamboosamy Pillai, Dr E.A.O. Travers, Choo Kia Peng, Chua Cheng Bok, etc.
Photographs would have allowed for much-needed identification with the
There are pictures of established buildings like the Bangunan Sultan
Abdul Samad and the KL Railway Station, but even these are a trifle too
small. Perhaps Lam should display bigger pictures and add portraits or
photographs of the said personalities in the second edition, regardless of
cost to the publisher.
There is a nice mix of ancient and modern in this book. The Petronas
Twin Towers are given above-average coverage, with details on construction
and what went into them and how they compare with buildings of near
similar height in other parts of the world. The KL Tower gets the same in-
depth treatment.
The origins of Kampung Baru and its humble beginnings will delight many,
to be sure. So will stories about the city's more notorious criminals like
Botak Chin and Bentong Kali.
Overall, Lam Seng Fatt has done a marvellous job. In a bright and breezy
fashion, he has proven rather convincingly that Kuala Lumpur is really
quite a great city with a very rich past.

No comments: