A walk through Kuala Lumpur’s heritage sites

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 30, 2021 - September 05, 2021.
A walk through Kuala Lumpur’s heritage sites
-A +A

In conjunction with Malaysia’s 64th Independence Day, and Malaysia Day, we will explore the heritage trails of several major cities in the country over the next few weeks, starting with Kuala Lumpur, or KL, as it is fondly known. 

KL may have gained popularity with its impressive modern megastructures, but historic landmarks are the main reason why tourists love this former mining town. We take a look at the Dataran Merdeka Heritage Walk, which includes famous colonial-era landmarks clustered in a compact area surrounding Merdeka Square. 

1 Kuala Lumpur City Gallery

The Kuala Lumpur City Gallery (KLCG) is housed in a historical building that was once the Selangor Government Printing Office. The latter started out as a small printing office in the early 1890s at the instruction of British colonial administrator William Maxwell. It was built to meet the administrative needs of Kuala Lumpur, the newly founded capital of the Federated Malay States.

With a staff of compositors and machine operators, the first gazette for Selangor was produced. Other printing materials included government official books, reports, newsletters and train tickets. In 1986, Kuala Lumpur City Hall bought the building and renovated it to house KL’s first public library. Now, the Kuala Lumpur City Library sits in a separate building next to the KLCG.

Photos by Shahrin Yahya/The Edge

According to klcitygallery.com, architects from the Public Works Department, Arthur Charles Norman and Regent Alfred John Bidwell, designed the building based on neo-renaissance principles, with exposed bricks, plastered columns and large semi-circular windows decorated with keystones.

The KLCG is an interesting tourist information centre, where one can find out more about the city’s history in an interactive and fun way. The gallery tells the story of KL’s past and present as well as future plans via a vast collection of old maps and photos, along with miniature mock-ups of famous city landmarks. It is strategically located in the heart of Dataran Merdeka, fronting the 100m flagpole, according to visitselangor.com. 

2 Merdeka Square

Merdeka Square, also known as Dataran Merdeka, is located opposite the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and adjacent to the Royal Selangor Club.

Despite numerous changes to its landscape over the years, Kuala Lumpur has retained its majestic charm, with Merdeka Square and its colonial surroundings at its heart. The beautifully tended field, formerly known as Parade Ground or Padang, is the most famous stretch of green in the vicinity and was once the Royal Selangor Club’s cricket pitch, according to kuala-lumpur.ws.

Since 1957, Merdeka Square has been the regular venue for the annual Merdeka Parade and serves as a tribute to Malaysia’s independence. Today, the landmark is an iconic attraction in KL, and soaring above it is the 100m flagpole, reputed as one of the tallest in the world.

3 The former Union Jack Flagpole

The historic flagpole is located at the West side of Dataran Merdeka fronting the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. It was the site where the Union Jack or Union Flag — the national flag of the UK — was lowered for the last time on Aug 30, 1957, at midnight to mark the end of British rule in Malaya and immediately thereafter, the Malayan flag was hoisted for the first time to mark the independence of Malaya, according to Rai.

4 Victorian Fountain

The Victorian Fountain sits in Merdeka Square. Built in 1904 and featuring attractive Art Nouveau tile work, it was brought in from England and assembled in KL. It is said to have been built in memory of an inspector of the Selangor Military, and at one time, horses drank water here. Mosaic portraits of Malaysia’s prime ministers line a wall next to the fountain, according to visitkl.gov.my.

5 National Textile Museum

Situated within Merdeka Square along Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, the National Textile Museum is housed in the century-old Federated Malay States Central Railways Offices. The building in Mughal-Islamic architectural style, completed in 1905, was designed by the English architect and soldier Arthur Benison Hubback.

According to muziumtekstilnegara.gov.my, the museum is unique and traces the development and trend of textiles that have characterised and shaped the lifestyle of the people of Malaysia as early as the prehistoric era right up to modern times. Comprising four distinctive galleries — Pohon Budi Gallery, Pelangi Gallery, Teluk Berantai Gallery and Ratna Sari Gallery — on two floors, it showcases the process and technology involving textiles and houses exquisite collections of traditional apparel, accessories and textiles in Malaysia.

6 Sultan Abdul Samad Building

One of the earliest Moorish-style buildings in KL, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is home to the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture and sits adjacent to KL’s first railway station. Though it no longer serves an official purpose, it remains one of the most important tourist attractions and a historical landmark in the city centre.

The heritage building was originally used as the secretariat for the British colonial administration and was simply known as Government Offices in its early years. It was officially opened on April 3, 1897, by the Federated Malay States resident-general Frank Swettenham. In 1974, it was renamed after Sultan Abdul Samad, the reigning Sultan of Selangor at the time of construction from 1894 to 1897, according to freemalaysiatoday.com.

After independence, it was used to house the superior courts of Malaysia — the Federal Court of Malaysia, the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Malaya. The Federal Court of Malaysia and the Court of Appeal shifted to the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya in the early 2000s, and the High Court of Malaya moved to the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Halim (formerly Jalan Duta) Kuala Lumpur Courts Complex in 2007, according to kuala-lumpur.ws.

The building is constructed entirely of brick and features strong gothic, Western and Moorish-style influences with an imposing porch, graceful arches, curved colonnades topped with shiny copper cupolas and a prominent clock tower. It is often seen as the backdrop of the annual Merdeka parades.

7 Panggung Bandaraya (City Theatre)

Completed in 1904, Panggung Bandaraya is a historical theatre hall located opposite Dataran Merdeka. It was built during the British colonial era by English architect and soldier Arthur Benison Hubback.

According to visitselangor.com, the building was the former headquarters of Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council and the office of Tan Sri Yaacob Latiff, the second mayor of KL. The theatre is the oldest in KL and has been gazetted as a heritage building under the Antiquities Act, whereby its Moorish façade has been preserved. The venue is used to host theatrical productions, including operas, musicals and plays.

8 The Cathedral of St Mary

The Cathedral of St Mary is the first brick church in the Federated Malay States and one of the oldest Anglican churches in the region. Its pipe organ is a masterpiece believed to be created by Henry Willis, a well-known English organ player and builder in 1895.

According to stmaryscathedral.org.my, the original St Mary’s church was consecrated by the Bishop of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak, Rt Reverend George Frederick Hose, on Feb 13, 1887. The structure, which was initially built of timber on Bluff Road, on top of a hill now known as Bukit Aman, where the Royal Malaysian Police headquarters is currently located, served as the centre for worship and spiritual life for a small group of Anglicans in KL during that period.

In 1893, a decision was made to erect a new building to house the growing congregation, and a new site was found next to the Padang, now known as Dataran Merdeka, of the Royal Selangor Club. The amount raised by the congregation for the construction of the new church was supplemented by a gift of five thousand Straits dollars from the government of Selangor on a suggestion by the governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Cecil Clementi Smith.

9 Royal Selangor Club

The Royal Selangor Club — one of Asia’s oldest sporting institutions — was established in 1884. It started out as a tiny wooden building with an attap roof and was a meeting point for the educated and high-ranking members of privileged British colonial society. Membership to the club, however, was primarily determined by high educational and social standards and not by race or citizenship, according to rsc.org.my.

According to expatgo.com, the club’s building was replaced by a two-storey structure on the West side of the Padang, now known as Dataran Merdeka, on the present site of the club in 1890. Cricket, rugby, hockey and football matches were often played at the club’s Padang. The building was later redesigned and rebuilt in 1910 in a mock Tudor styling, with two additional wings on either side of the main building.

The club was granted a royal charter by the Sultan of Selangor in 1984 and thereafter came to be known as Kelab Diraja Selangor or Royal Selangor Club. It has since expanded to the prime residential district of Bukit Kiara with the opening of the Royal Selangor Club’s Kiara Sports Annexe in 1998. Today, the premier club continues to provide members with sporting and social facilities.

10 Kuala Lumpur City Library

Formerly known as the Kuala Lumpur Memorial Library, the Kuala Lumpur City Library was built in 1989 and was housed in the former Selangor Government Printing Office.

The library changed its name to Kuala Lumpur City Library in 2000. It is now the main library in Kuala Lumpur, comprising a variety of books and resources in printed, digital and audio-visual format that are compiled for the benefit of the city. The library is managed by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall and located next to the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, according to visitkl.gov.my.