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#JOM! GO: Historic Malaysian streets

New Straits Times logo New Straits Times 2/9/2021 David Bowden
a car parked on a city street © Provided by New Straits Times

David Bowden consults several books to learn about the back story to Malaysia's historic street

WHILE Covid-19 has added a new chapter in the annals of Malaysian history, many of the country's most famous streets have seen it all before, and no doubt will come out of this pandemic renewed and reinvigorated.

Malaysia's towns and cities have a short history when assessed on a global scale, but they all offer an insightful window to the country's past.

Learn more about the back story to the country's historic streets by consulting books such as Kuala Lumpur Street Names by Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur (published by Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2015) and Streets of George Town Penang by Khoo Su Nin (Janus Print and Resources, 1993).

History provides a direction for us to navigate the future, and we can all learn from visiting these 10 historic Malaysian streets.


Officially named as Lorong Panglima, Concubine Lane as it was known in the past, is one of Ipoh's most visited tourist sights.

Well-heeled Chinese men once frequented this part of the city to enquire of the health of young females here, who proved to be most obliging.

So obliging, it's thought that the adjoining Hale and Market Lanes were also places where other women resided, and who provided mutually beneficial services to lonely and eager male visitors.

Times have changed and now, the lane located in the centre of Perak's capital is a place to visit with stalls selling snacks, beverages and souvenirs.


Any list of Malaysian streets would have to include a few that involve food. Arguably, Malaysia's most famous food street, Jalan Alor in Bukit Bintang, offers a smorgasbord of hawker delights.

Alor refers to a narrow stream that once flowed along the street that is now crammed with restaurants, food stalls and merchants hawking all manner of products. The street offers a sensory overload of sounds, sights and smells.

It's normally crowded after dark as visitors drop by to dine in the established restaurants lining the street, and the pavement stalls that spring up every evening.

Diners and shoppers come for the variety, affordability and colourful open-air ambience.


Jalan Raja is home to one of Kuala Lumpur's most impressive historical edifices, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. The street was once part of Jalan Gombak and probably named so because it led to the property of Raja Laut (it crosses Sungai Gombak at its eastern end).

The street morphs into Jalan Hishamuddin on its western extreme and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (Batu Road) on the eastern end. There was once a post office and the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China located in the street.

Immediately opposite these buildings is Dataran Merdeka, which was originally a vegetable garden and then the Parade Ground.

It is also home to the Victoria Fountain, the Tudor-styled Royal Selangor Club, and one of the world's tallest flagpoles (95m). However, it's the gleaming copper domes, clock tower and arched colonnades of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building that capture the attention of tourists, who stream from buses each day.

Built in a Neo-Mughal or Moorish style, the building opened in 1897 and was initially the administration centre of the British colonial government.


The port city of Kuala Terengganu is one of the country's oldest settlements supposedly dating back to the 13th century.

Located at the interface between Sungai Terengganu and the South China Sea, forest products have been exported through here for centuries, and exotic goods imported from the region.

The original settlers were engaged in lively trade and bartering of Malaysian textiles, metalwork and woodcraft produced in nearby Kampung Tanjung.

Kampung Cina is located in the heart of the state capital and contains a unique blend of the country's cultural heritage.

While the area is called Kampung Cina, it's not entirely dominated by Chinese architecture and shophouses, as the precinct includes Istana Maziah and vestiges of adjoining urban Malay villages. Its eclectic mix of shophouses includes Terengganu-style timber houses and grand 19th-century brick structures.


Kota Kinabalu was so named in 1967. Before that, it was known as Jesselton (named after a vice-chairman of the North Borneo Company) and prior to that, Api Api.

There are very few old buildings in the city centre as many properties had to be rebuilt after being bombed at the end of World War 2. One building that survived was the former post office and now the Sabah Tourism Office.

During the week, Gaya Street is as busy as any other city street in the Sabah capital, but it takes centre stage every Sunday morning. This thoroughfare was known as Bond Street during colonial days.

Each Sunday, a vibrant market extends along the street, and while frequented by tourists, it's very much a market for the locals to stock up on fresh produce and clothes.

The Tenom coffee stall is always popular as are a few selling upcountry produce. Guests staying at the Jesselton Hotel have an elevated view over the umbrellas that provide shade for the shoppers below.

The Jesselton Hotel is one of Malaysia's oldest, dating back to 1954 and still providing guests with refined colonial-styled elegance.


Jalan Tan Hiok Nee is lined with old Chinese shoplots, some of which look like they haven't changed for decades. This street is a heritage oasis surrounded by a sea of ever-rising tall buildings.

This historic enclave located in the heart of Johor's capital is popular with many locals, who come to chat over their richly brewed local coffee or slurp down a bowl of laksa Johor.

Chinese food is popular in several kopitiams with Teochew and Hokkien styles dominating. Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory located here is trapped in a time warp in using a wood-fired oven to bake the freshest breads, richest cakes and tastiest pastries.

This is a JB baking tradition that is over a century old as its blackened interior walls testify. The locals are happy to queue for baked buns filled with kaya, red bean and coconut.

It is also famous for its moist banana cake and like all its products, no preservatives are used.


There have been many changes to Chinatown over the years and an energised renewal is ongoing as smart new coffee shop concepts, street art and boutique hotels are rising among its dusty shophouses.

Commercialisation and overzealous modernisation had sadly changed Petaling Street some years ago, but it still retains its magnetic attraction.

The markets and stalls extend over the adjoining streets, where some old trades and crafts struggle to survive in an ever-changing world.

Daytime activities are subdued, but in the evening, the dining experience extends onto the footpath for patrons to enjoy the tropical ambiance.

Hawker stalls are set up between the food outlets to create a festive atmosphere.


While best known as Jonker Street, Melaka's most historic street is officially known these days as Jalan Hang Jebat.

Melaka was one of the first settlements in the peninsula and being an entrepot, it came under the influence of sea gypsies and merchants from Sumatra, Persia, India, the Middle East, Java, Aceh, Burma, Siam, Portugal, Holland and England.

Melaka and the Straits of Malacca were strategic sites for the spice trade between Asia and Europe.

As a result, historic downtown Melaka is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, and Jalan Hang Jebat is lined with various styles from old two-storey shoplots to garish ceremonial gates.

The street is a popular tourist magnet with its Saturday night market being its busiest time.


Historians remain baffled as to how Penang's popular tourist street was so named. It was originally called Malay Lane after a Malay village located here.

Armenians came to Penang from Armenia — a land-locked Western Asian nation bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan — via Persia and India during the British colonial era.

The street was also settled by Chinese (who called it pak thang-ah kay or copper workers' street) and Acehnese settlers. The street is close to the Khoo Kongsi and the Asia Camera Museum.

The Islamic Museum is situated at the head of Lebuh Armenian near the Sun Yat Sen Museum. In 1910, this Chinese revolutionary figure had plotted the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in China while he was based in Penang.

Many street art and iron caricatures are located on or near the street, including the famous "kid on a bike" painting by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.

Old two-storey shoplots have been refurbished as boutiques, cafes, bars, galleries and restaurants. Nearby, Penang's Arratoon Road is also named after an Armenian family.

The Eastern and Oriental Hotel (and Singapore's Raffles and The Strand in Yangon, Myanmar) was established by the Sarkies brothers — Arshak, Tigran and Aviet — who were Armenians.

As pioneer settlers, the Armenians moved on to Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney in the 1920s. Armenian Street is a must, especially for first-time visitors to Penang.


Sarawak's oldest trading district dates back to the 19th century. Main Bazaar is part of a wider area called Old Bazaar that extends from Sungai Sarawak across a few neighbouring streets and alleyways, including Gambier Street.

The riverfront, known as the Kuching Waterfront, is a popular shaded recreational precinct with several heritage buildings. Here, there is an old shipbuilding yard and a railway track that was once used to bring stones into the city.

Hokkien and Teochew families established godowns along Main Bazaar to facilitate trade, including in local produce like pepper, spices and bird's nest.

Some stores selling these products still exist, but many now sell antiques sourced from across Borneo or mass-produced souvenirs of dubious origin.

A new publication, the Kuching Old Bazaar: Its History and Changes, offers an insight, and information plaques with QR scanning online information have been installed at various landmarks.

Snag cheap rooms nearby popular Malaysian streets with Hotels Promo.

© New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd

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