Kuala Lumpur: culture, arts and identity around the capital city
The Merdeka 118 Tower, which opens this month, can be seen around the vicinity of Petaling Street displaying the contrast of modern and vintage architecture in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

I lean in to catch Jane Rai’s anecdote about Yap Ah Loy, Frank Swettenham and the stench of fish. Our small group is standing in front of The Pacific Express Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, once the site of Kapitan Yap’s old home.

KL Unscripted offers free weekend walks for those with a quizzing gaze to the past. As one of their volunteer guides, Rai connects her clients to KL’s many stories with an “unscripted” walk filled with delightful details, observations and love.

Who might have been here before you? We are made aware that tiny spaces hold infinite stories about the ordinary and extraordinary people who shaped the culture of KL.

Who do we create for today and who advocates for KL?

With a pandemic now quietly rumbling out of view, what makes a city appealing to both visitors and residents? It’s obvious that investing in creative industries must be part of a fashionable future. That proximity to recreation facilities is important to today’s youth and influences their decisions about where to live.

Rai (right) leads KL Unscripted, which offers free weekend walks for those with a quizzing gaze to the past. Photo: Jane Rai

Evidence also suggests that a vibrant culture scene brings purposeful growth. It is a catalyst for economic regeneration.

Countries around the world are investing in new artistic institutions. The “Bilbao effect”, the phenomenon created by the Bilbao Guggenheim and copied globally, demonstrates that cultural investment combined with iconic architecture may well result in a striking upswing in visitor numbers and the economy.

Incubating culture

In recent years, KL’s success stories have happened more organically. Like-minded communities have sprung up in enclaves like the Zhongsan, Kampung Attap, REXKL, The Godown and GMBB – repurposed as an arts community mall housing theatre groups and championing everything from alternative art forms to traditional shadow puppetry and indigenous art.

These independent spaces share a vision of doing what thriving communities do best – doing more together. Showcasing what ground up activation, a collective movement, can result in.

And with all this taking place around them, the emerging generation – spirits in their own digital worlds, might just look up from their permanently attached devices.

The Klang River Festival

Enter the Klang River Festival as a placemaking event that was about to celebrate only its second opening at the time of writing. For two weeks last September the festival reclaimed the significance of our main city waterway by honouring its riverside communities.

Joseph Foo, one of the festival’s main organisers, describes the KRF as embracing the spirit of “kongsi” – the Malay word for sharing. It is a collective effort by the people, for the people.

KongsiKL, established on the Old Klang Road in a derelict steel factory with texturally raw versatile spaces, encourages the sharing of talent, time, knowledge and resources to serve the community through its own culture, and incubates the younger generation through its programmes.
A contemporary dance performance at the KongsiKL venue during the inaugural Klang River Festival in 2022. Photo: Klang River Festival

This inspired space serves as the festival headquarters. Communities who live or work on the riverside are encouraged and empowered to revitalise the river through good stewardship and river preservation. They are reminded how to enjoy the river and smartly use it.

Cross promotions with the Godown and REXKL offered festival activities that included guided walks, dialogues with local water and municipal authorities, exhibits, installations, performances, light projections on underused buildings and curated markets.

About inspiration

Ilham Gallery is a small public art gallery that’s proving to be a big player on the KL cultural scene. A five-minute walk from the Petronas Twin Towers, it was established in 2015, and has since partnered some of the most prestigious institutions in the world (Singapore National Gallery, Singapore Art Museum, Le Centre Pompidou in Paris and Para Site in Hong Kong to drop but a few names) to showcase the best.

It is an art museum that sets a thought-provokingly high standard for our city, providing a national service to inspire the public, whilst creating its own community.

Rahel Joseph, gallery director, believes we must make museum and theatre-going a regular part of popular culture.

“If you want to build a cultural city you have to start with the young. This mindset is not something you can transplant. It takes long term investment and planning,” says Joseph.
Young art lovers join an outreach programme designed by Ilham Gallery last year for Yee I-Lann’s 'Lift The Tikar!' exhibition. Photo: Ilham Gallery

To coincide with its main exhibitions, Ilham holds weekly public talks and regular programmes for children. The Ilham Student Council is a platform where students across Malaysia can engage in discussions around art and ideas on a weekly basis. You get to know other students, gain work experience at the gallery and are given leadership opportunities.

The gallery also comprises a resource centre with a dedicated space for research and a wittily curated gift shop of the best creative craft in the country.

Joseph is gratified to see young people viewing sometimes challenging contemporary exhibits with bemused parents in tow. Or a couple enjoying a better date than they may have had in a mall.

The gallery is gearing up for a “KL In The 90s” show to be held this year. It will be a visual exhibition across several mediums of popular culture.

“You don’t have to want to be a curator or artist to come. You should just want to have a good time.”

The Merdeka Effect

What might distinguish the Merdeka 118 tower from being just the latest sky high erection with a luxury hotel and acres of retail space, is the four level standalone cube perched at the end of the linear park facing it.

Slated for a late 2024 opening, the much anticipated Merdeka Textile Museum will make its gracious home here, with the Look At 118 rooftop bar a predicted crowd-puller for selfie-seekers wanting that spire backdrop.

Our “Merdeka Effect” might see the regeneration of our Merdeka district – the historical “stadium cluster”, where independence was proclaimed at the Merdeka Stadium, also reopening this year.

Merdeka Textile Museum is set to celebrate Azah Aziz, a cultural icon and one of the first women in Malaysia to publish books on poetry, games and songs for children. Photo: Filepic

The Merdeka Textile Museum will present the complete collection of the late Malaysian cultural icon Sharifah Azah Syed Mohammad Alsagoff.

Also known as Azah Aziz, this pioneering journalist and activist was the wife of the late Royal Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid and the mother of former Bank Negara Malaysia governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz. Coming from an illustrious and aristocratic family of intellectuals and politicians, Azah Aziz was lauded for her life-long dedication to preserving the nuanced elegance of a fascinating Malay world culture.

Suryani Senja Alias, project director of the Merdeka Textile Museum, says classical Malay poetry, which will include hikayat, syair, pantun, gurindam, ungkapan, risalah and makalah, will be an important part of the textile storytelling. Taken from Azah’s seminal book, Rupa Dan Gaya Busana Melayu, these lyrical insights into how textiles were indicators of codes of behaviour, power and social hierarchy, are not found in conventional history books and as such our knowledge of this ancient world is richer because of her.

The museum will be the first in the world to link textile storytelling this way.

The public can look forward to deciphering the unspoken language of textiles through symbols and patterns found on batik, songket, songket limar, telepok, keringkam and tenun.

On view will also be two outstanding and rare pieces of Indonesian batik by Dutch batik artist Eliza Van Zuylen.

The state of the art storytelling will be multisensory, immersive and interactive. Recorded excerpts from Azah Aziz’s book will enable an inclusive tour for the visually impaired. Augmented Reality technology will offer creative playtime in a “Changing Room” and the opportunity to experience the bustling port of a global Malay world. There will also be areas dedicated to research, reference and restoration.

Culture clubs

Our muddy estuary is fertile ground for creativity. Young artists like Bayangan and Behati are producing entertaining, interesting, innovative work in the worlds of music and fashion. Applause please for the exquisitely bound books (and bold content) of architectural publishers Suburbia and independent bookshops like Riwayat.

One of my favourite films last year was Imaginur by the talented Nik Amir Mustapha. Beautifully structured, dreamlike and poignant, Imaginur achieved an appeal that was at once local and universal, with everyday themes of love and memory handled so delicately. Extraordinarily for a Malaysian film there was no mention of race, politics or religion.
A digital art exhibition is seen at REXKL in downtown KL. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

The effortless fluency of our polyglot culture runs through veteran theatre director Zahim Albakri’s first foray into filmmaking Spilt Gravy: Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah. It earned seven awards at the Malaysian Film Festival in 2022.

It was for this KL girl truly heartwarming to watch a well-trodden KLscape with locations from Kampung Baru to Panggung Bandaraya and a community she’s journeyed through. It was for me that celluloid homage to KL that’s been missing. Think Woody Allen and New York City. Richard Curtis and London. Love letters to your city.

KL-based writer Viji Krishnamoorthy thinks the cultural pulse in KL can be found in many spots around the city.

“KL is full of personality. Perhaps a creative, cultural centre isn’t immediately obvious. But we do have informal zones. Clusters have almost organically self-created. From a flower district to book-reading in parks to The Refugee Festival seeking to engage with refugee communities through music, dance, art, food and storytelling.

“The problem is often times we read about these events only after the event.”

And the winner is ...

We do quite simply have the best food in the world. Malaysian food is what brings us as a nation together; literally seated round the same table, eating family style. We arrived here from an interiority that is historical, interwoven and still evolving.

Everyone has their favourite street food: neighbourhood roti canai, the best satay, sworn-by char koay teow. But flourish and ingenuity has been added in recent years by eateries as varied as Dewakan, Yarl or Chocha Foodstore
With the festive season around the corner, downtown lanterns look set to light up Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Shireen Zainudin

Open House is reopening soon in what promises to be a spectacular structure on the grounds of Badan Warisan. A modern take on heritage food. Tradition reignited once again in an iconic structure.

So where will we go with our vivid culture collage?

Pauline Fan of traditional arts organisation Pusaka believes that we need to mindfully develop our pulsating past while embracing all our communities as a whole. Jahabar Sadiq, a journalist and photographer, suggests a calendar of festivals will better frame an intentional weaving together of these enclaves of creativity.

Support and structure might indeed be needed to further develop an emblematic, modern and self-aware city.

We want to inspire and educate our audience but even more importantly we should want our audience to share a sense of pride, ownership and belonging. This is a collaboration process. Everyone has a part to play. There may be a little more to fix but there’s also much to celebrate.
Source: The Star

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