Why Brickfields’ heritage should be preserved

Balan Moses sheds light on the origins of Brickfields and why the suburb should be preserved at all costs for future generations.

Little India, a street chockful of restaurants and retailers, is a hive of activity any time of the day and on any day of the week.

PETALING JAYA: Many Malaysians have shopped or enjoyed a meal at Brickfields, one of the city’s most vibrant suburbs. However, only a few know that Brickfields was established in the wake of twin disasters that occurred in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1881, a major fire and severe flooding prompted a British Resident in Selangor, Frank Swettenham, to order the construction of buildings made with brick and tiles that could withstand extreme heat and strong water currents.

He sought the assistance of Kapitan Yap Tet Loy, a migrant of Hakka descent from China, who went on to play an instrumental role in developing Brickfields.

Yap bought a large piece of land there and established a bricks kiln on it. According to historians and academicians, that is how Brickfields got its name.

The bricks introduced a new dimension to the architecture in Kuala Lumpur.

Pastor Balan Moses, holding the book he authored titled ‘Brickfields: a place, a time and a memory’.

Growing up in the late 1950s, Balan Moses, author of “Brickfields: a place, a time and a memory”, said Brickfields was a melting pot of faiths and ethnicities.

“Brickfields is special to me. I had my worldview set in Brickfields which means I learned multiculturalism, multireligious characters and a lot of languages.

“Our neighbours came to our house for Christmas, we went to their house for Deevapali or Hari Raya or Chinese New Year, so there was great interaction between the races in Brickfields and it impressed me to such an extent that I carried those memories in my mind and in my heart – right until today,” he told FMT.

The 67-year-old, who is a pastor, talked about the many houses of worship erected within this one locality, something not often seen in bustling Kuala Lumpur.

The Zion Cathedral, located in the centre of Brickfields, was founded in 1924.

“You have the Zion cathedral, which was built in 1924, perhaps the fourth oldest concrete structure in Brickfields. Behind the church is the Buddhist Maha Vihara temple, built in 1894.

“Then, you have the Sri Kandaswamy temple which came in the late 1800s (down the road from the Zion cathedral) and Madrasah Gouthiyyah, which is on Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad,” he said.

The Buddhist Maha Vihara temple was founded by the Sinhalese community in Kuala Lumpur in 1984.

Moses recalled how food those days was sold to the people very differently from how it is sold today at roadside stalls and restaurants.

Back then he said, food was brought into the area and delivered to customers by men on foot, who carried baskets and metal containers hanging on either end of a kandar (wooden) pole.

He said these food traders would walk around the neighbourhood, calling out, in either Tamil or Malay, what they were selling such as mee rebus or rojak.

“So, you will stop him (trader) and he will carry a little table that he will place on the ground and cut up his vegetables and make mee rebus for you which comes with a soup that was hung on the kandar stick,” Moses explained.

Moses added that long before coin-operated laundromats were commonplace, the dhobi of Jalan Kandang Kerbau in Brickfields, was where dirty laundry was washed.

This dhobi was famed for its use of tall bamboo sticks on which bedsheets, trousers, shorts and sarees were hung to dry in the hot sun. He said the dhobi structures made for a particularly pictorial landscape.

Moses has fond memories of the dhobi in Brickfields and says the Lido cinema here was one of the few in Kuala Lumpur that screened Tamil movies.

Moses said Brickfields was home to the Lido cinema, one of the few in Kuala Lumpur that screened Tamil films. It’s no wonder that it soon became a famous landmark.

“That’s where we saw Tamil films for 25 cents matinee shows on Sundays at 8am. That’s also where fights between gangsters, who ruled Brickfields, took place and they would schedule their fights according to screen times,” he said.

Moses said that he advocated the preservation of Brickfields simply because it was a suburb with an amazingly rich history.

He said a heritage centre should be set up in Brickfields as it was important to preserve memories and artifacts from the past, particularly at a time when superstructures and skyscrapers were taking over the landscape.

“My fingers are crossed. I hope that the government will exercise wisdom in retaining houses of worship at least, and some of the schools.

The Vivekananda Ashrama was constructed in 1904 in honour of Swami Vivekananda.

“It is vital that Malaysians at large and the younger generation know about the heritage of Brickfields. There is so much one can learn from the past.

“The younger generation from all sectors of life can learn from the multiculturalism of Brickfields that is still evident today. They can also learn about the multi-religious nature of Brickfields so that we don’t have views that are monocultural.

“That is going to be very dangerous for the city and the nation. Brickfields is a place one can learn from,” he said.