KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — Walk past 53 Jalan Sultan — an old corner double-storey shophouse in Chinatown — a mere six months ago and your first instinct might have been to cross the road, away from it.
Abandoned but for the drug addicts who roamed its dark corners come nightfall, “heritage building” was the last thing you’d associate with the space.
Yet fast-forward half a year and the formerly decrepit building is now bustling with more wholesome activity. Tourists and hipsters alike are dropping by for coffee and fusion fare at its ground floor café; backpackers are already making reservations for the homestay located upstairs. People are using the building again, breathing new life into it.
How did this happen? The answer lies in carefully restoring the building, albeit for a new generation of heritage lovers that is only now rediscovering our capital’s Chinatown.
Many of the historical buildings in Chinatown are dilapidated and cost a lot of time and money to restore, hence few owners are willing to undertake such a mammoth project. Truly, as civilisations and empires rise and fall, so do buildings.
The more fortunate landmarks have a shot of being resurrected. Enter Mingle, a group of heritage enthusiasts that has undertaken the task of restoring 53 Jalan Sultan.
Mingle is founded by engineer Ng Sin Leong, accountant Ng Siew Khim, marketing man Ferenc Ip and two other partners based in Singapore. Leong, who is also an enthusiastic property investor, has experience in refurbishing old buildings while his cousin Khim’s talent lies in managing the group’s finances. Ferenc is the outreach guy, networking not only with other heritage building operators in the neighbourhood but also the local arts community and NGOs such as Rakan KL.
Leong says, “It’s a shame when old businesses in Chinatown close. We ask ourselves what can we do, in our own way, to help preserve the history of this area, so that the next generation may appreciate it too. Young people do care about heritage, don’t let anyone tell you differently. From almost-lost arts such as traditional Chinese paper cutting to calligraphy, these are all part of our heritage too.”
Khim recalls her student days spent in Chinatown, when the area was livelier. She says, “Growing up, I’ve always found Chinatown to be full of character. Over time though, I noticed that it has lost much of its identity. Many heritage buildings are not taken care of. Their original beauty is still there, beneath the surface, but the lack of care has taken its toll.”
53 Jalan Sultan was built in the early 1900s by Cheong Yoke Choy, who co-founded Kwong Yik Bank, Malaya’s first local bank. Originally a mess hall, it later became the site for Kwong Yik Finance. Over the years, many tenants passed through — from a pharmacy to a Chinese lantern maker.
Ferenc shares, “In its heyday, this was where Cheong Yoke Choy used to entertain his business partners and affluent tin miners. In the past decade, the area has become very run down. The verandah outside isn’t a sidewalk, really, but part of the house; when we first viewed this place, though, there were drug addicts sleeping along the verandah.”
When we first found out about the Mingle team’s plan to restore 53 Jalan Sultan, we had the rare opportunity to come in and capture the building in its initial ramshackle state, before the many months of restoration work. This is truly a labour of love.
Khim says, “This has been truly a meaningful journey for all of us. We learned so much along the way: what we could do and what we couldn’t. For example, due to DBKL regulations, we were unable to keep the original staircase in the middle of the building but had to move it so that it opened out directly to the front.”
According to Ferenc, this was to ensure it wouldn’t be a fire hazard. He explains, “Similarly we made sure we fireproofed the building, it being so ancient. Moving the staircase was a good learning lesson; we managed to preserve most of the wooden steps. It’s not easy but good work never is. It’s better than taking the easy way out and just demolishing it outright, and losing such a precious piece of the past in the process.”
In the 1950s, there was even a “literature room” (or Wen Yue Kong Guan in Mandarin) upstairs. Leong says, “We bought some old-school terrazzo tiles from our supplier in Salak South and the lady who sold them to us told me she used to hang out in the literature room as a teenager. It was heartwarming to learn that folks, especially those in their 60s, still have so many good memories of this building.”
More than half a century later, the old literature room now has been rejuvenated as a book lounge. Ferenc says, “In addition to books we’re personally adding to the lounge library, we discovered a few old books in the ceiling during the renovation. Some even had Chinese writing — very beautiful brushstrokes you hardly see these days. What a treasure trove!”
The team has envisioned the refurbished building as a mixed-function complex. The ground floor houses a café called Leaf & Co. (perhaps a nod to Khim’s effort to bring Nature indoors). The upper floor has been converted into a two-level homestay with a mix of private and shared rooms; the latter targeting budget-conscious backpackers who enjoy experiencing Chinatown’s raucous ambience first-hand. The rooftop is still a work-in-progress and may feature a bar in the future.
“The view from the roof is quite spectacular,” says Khim. “From the leafy branches of the tree behind, in Lorong Sultan, to the other old buildings in Chinatown — there aren’t many places like this. It’s about breathing life back to this building. We want people to use it and not for it to be a lifeless landmark.”
The central airwell has become a miniature garden infused with the subtle fragrance of herbs such as basil, pandan and lemongrass. A solitary golden rain tree reaches dramatically for the skylight. Other changes include installing a concrete floor for the second storey and corresponding columns to reinforce it.
“In essence, we’re building a building within a building!” says Leong. “We try not to do too much because the building is already so beautiful in its own way. Even during the demolition process — required due to the additions different tenants made over time — we try to restore as much as we can. These walls have decades of history that peels away in layers of paint. Look closer and you might see some ‘lucky numbers’ too!”
There is a flow throughout the spaces that is maintained even with the necessary changes to comply with safety regulations. The atmosphere remains authentic: a nod to nostalgia rather than a 100 per cent recreation that would not be sustainable; the building has to pay for itself, after all, hence the café and the homestay.
Ferenc believes Chinatown should be heralded as an iconic area for Malaysia. He says, “I wonder, however, what tourists think when they come here and see how it has changed. We need to work harder at promoting local arts and crafts here, the artisans who used to be part of this neighbourhood.”
The team hopes to be a catalyst for change. Khim says, “It’s a very long and expensive process. We can’t do it alone. The small steps we take do count, however. Through our networking and use of social media, we reach out and do as much as we can. Restoring a heritage building is not merely about having a dream but taking action too. We welcome the local arts communities, for example, to come to this space, for events, to showcase their works and wares.”
Some may argue that heritage buildings should be left as they are. Others may feel it’s easier just to demolish them and start from scratch. The former creates abandoned structures that become infested with vermin; the latter conjures up visions of soulless modern constructions.
The best path — to painstakingly restore them, not entirely to their former glory but into an icon of the past that has use in the present — is far from the easiest. The good folks behind Mingle remind us that we have the strength and the passion to choose this path less taken.
Mingle Kuala Lumpur
53 Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2000 8888
Leaf & Co. (café): Open daily 11:30am-9:30pm