Kuala Lumpur: Indie city
With its shape-shifting skyline, Kuala Lumpur is the gateway to a nation whose cultural tapestry is hewn from Malay tradition, laced with Chinese and Indian influences, and lined with the legacy of British rule. High-octane development in the past two decades has created a sprawling capital whose patchwork geography can appear confounding. But a look beyond the Petronas Towers unveils Malaysia’s cultural revival.
Poshtel Mingle on Jalan Sultan is a good place to begin. Derelict until two years ago, this early-1900s building that is reminiscent of a church has housed a mess hall, bank and a Chinese literary club. Painstakingly restored, yet revealing its old bones, this new iteration has two floors of private and dorm rooms, plus a book lounge. Its cafe, Leaf & Co, is a great place to linger over a hot latte and a bowl of chicken-chop spaghetti. Nearby on Jalan Panggong, retro-style Aku Cafe & Gallery pairs gourmet coffee with locally inspired desserts such as pandan panna cotta with red bean. Occasional live music performances, classic film screenings and art exhibitions give this space a bohemian vibe.
Malaysia’s contemporary art scene may still be developing, but this has not deterred Wei-ling Gallery from representing emerging and established local artists at leading art fairs around the continent. Its galleries display experimental works by homegrown artists such as Cheong Kiet Cheng.
And while there may not be many performance arts venues in the capital city, interest in diverse forms of expression has grown over the years. It began with the opening of The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre in 2005.
The capital city promotes itself as a shopping destination but, instead of making a beeline for the brand-oriented downtown malls, follow savvy locals to Publika. This hip hangout boasts independent bars and restaurants, weekend craft markets and homespun brands such as D.D Collective. The label marries European couture with a refined Malaysian aesthetic. A short cab ride away in Bangsar is where themed collections by influential local designer Melinda Looi, including the updated cheongsam (traditional Chinese dress) and baju kurung (traditional Malay dress), can be found.
Ipoh: Mine of creativity
This sleepy town accumulated vast wealth during the 19th-century tin rush – its legacy lies in swathes of grand mansions and a glorious Moorish-style train station. Despite its photogenic appeal, Ipoh draws far fewer visitors than Kuala Lumpur and Penang, but its recent developments easily merit the two-hour drive from the capital city.
Head out to to spy one of Ipoh’s expanding portfolio of murals by Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic, who has created similar mural magic in Penang. Depicting scenes from the city’s past, his works, such as the one with two weary tin panners etched into a muted caramel wall (above), evoke the hardship behind the mining riches that funded Ipoh’s construction boom. This haunting representation marks the entry to Concubine Lane, which meanders through the colourful heritage quarter. On weekends, this narrow walkway, adorned with more street art, buzzes with live music, handicraft stores and art workshops. Stalls churn out local delicacies such as dried pork biscuits, which are best washed down with sweet, milky cups of Ipoh white coffee.
Situated nearby is Kristy Collection, which is known for its custom-made accessories. Ipoh’s creative renewal is also expressed in hotel design – modern decorative themes are integrated with icons of the city’s heritage. With its handsome Art Deco façade, Sarang Paloh has recast the state of Perak’s first Chinese bank. Its rooms and suites are styled with antique furniture and subtle colour infusions inspired by tropical birds (“sarang” means “nest” in Malay). Across the city, in a stately colonial-style mansion, guests at Indulgence get to revel in life’s finer pleasures. Chef Julie Song takes pride in crafting desserts inspired by local fruits, such as the matcha banana cheesecake. For those seeking to stay beyond dinner, there are seven individually designed suites, including one that evokes 1920s shanghai.
Penang: Art harbour
Only a two-hour drive from Ipoh, the island state of Penang is linked to the mainland by two bridges. Its tranquil capital, George Town, arcs around a historic port, which lured Chinese migrants in the 19th century. Many of the shophouses and clan residences built then are now being adapted for artistic pursuits.
Speaking of which, public art is intrinsic to George Town’s morphing persona. A trail of murals depicting local street scenes, by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, wends through the city. The creative epicentre, however, is a 1940s bus station. Hin Bus Depot stood abandoned until local artists exhibited reclaimed junk there in 2014. Following a partial restoration, it now presents boundary-pushing shows. Every Sunday, a pop-up market gathers artisans, whose creations range from illustrated books to T-shirts embroidered with Sarawak-style batik motifs.
Cafe culture is thriving, particularly on Beach Street, where weather-beaten shophouses are being beautifully revamped. One forerunner is ChinaHouse, where three retrofitted buildings house a cafe serving unique versions of South-east Asian street food, a cocktail bar and a Chinese courtyard garden. Opened in 2011, it also features a loft gallery that rotates displays of modern Malaysian art and photography. A few doors along, in bistro-meets-music venue Black Kettle, coffee mavens cradle caffé lattès and fresh pastries in the day. Evenings bring out fusion cuisine plus performances by local bands. If buildings could talk, the eight archways of art gallery The Star Pitt Street would be raconteurs. Used in the early 20th century as an opium dispensary, it has also served as the office of a national newspaper. Now an arts venue, it has an auditorium that hosts classical concerts by the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra.
Nowhere in Malaysia does 19th-century opulence better than Penang. Chic hotels in restored heritage abodes include the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion (above), which was built according to feng shui principles by a rags-to-riches Chinese immigrant. One of the first of its kind to open in the city, the property has rooms that overlook a courtyard embellished with antique chests and Art Nouveau-style stained-glass windows. The passion for conservation among the young people of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh will pick up speed as more of them look to repurpose and inject a new lease of life into heritage buildings and areas, by introducing new concepts or reviving nostalgic ideas.
– TEXT BY GARY BOWERMAN
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.