Why do a Brickfields Heritage Walk?
It has to be said that Brickfields is not the most fashionable area of Kuala Lumpur. This predominantly Indian enclave lacks the grand heritage buildings found elsewhere in the city. Also parts of the district are rather run down.
But the streets known as Little India have had a major facelift and elsewhere in Brickfields there are interesting churches, temples and shrines to liven up the rows of pre-war shophouses.
A convenient point to start the tour is KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur’s main transportation hub built in 2002.
Clay pits and brick kilns used to line the railway tracks here which gave the district its name. There is not much heritage in evidence in this modern building so exit the terminal on the south side and make your way to Jalan Tun Sambanthan.
The first attraction is the Vivekananda Ashram constructed in 1904. This elegant whitewashed building with Moghul-style embellishments was named in honour of the Indian spiritual leader Vivekananda who visited Malaya in 1893. His statue stands in front of the entrance.
There was a move in 2004 to build a condominium project on the grounds but protesters demanded it be protected as a heritage site instead.
The building is still used for spiritual education classes, prayer meetings and so on.
The neighbouring streets of Jalan Rozario, Jalan Chan Ah Tong and Lorong Ah Tong are lined with neat rows of terraced housing known collectively as The Hundred Quarters.
These 100 houses were built in 1915 for civil servants (some sources say railway employees), who were brought over from India by the British.
Continuing the Brickfields Heritage Walk along Jalan Tun Sambanthan, past florists selling garlands of fragrant jasmine and other colourful blooms, brings us to the brightly painted Little India District.
The makeover of this area included the construction of an elaborate fountain supported by elephant statues, a grand entrance archway, brightly coloured pavements, ornate street furniture and a gaudy paint job on the buildings lining the two main streets. The overall effect is quite distinctive and pleasing.
The area is full of the sights, sounds and smells you find in other Little India districts elsewhere in Malaysia. There are parlours offering bridal beauty treatments, general stores brimming with incense sticks, kitchenware and other products sourced from India, shops selling saris, jewellery, Pooja altars, Bombay Mix and sweetmeats, internet cafes, curry shops, sugar cane stalls and more.
Brickfields is often called a Divine Location and seems to have more than its fair share of places of worship from different faiths. After leaving Little India, the Brickfields Heritage Walk passes a whole succession of them.
First up is the Orthodox Syrian Church’s Cathedral of St Mary the Theotokos. As it was Sunday the congregation was gathering outside dressed in their colourful saris and Sunday best.
What a complex world we live in – Malaysians originating from southern India worshiping in a Syrian church with Greek saints!
A short distance away is the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic church and, further along Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, the Evangelical Lutheran Church which dates from 1924. This church would probably have been established to compete for the souls of the area’s Tamil community.
Nearby is the Tamil Methodist Church, established in 1896 though the present building dates from the 1960s. There are services in Nepali, Indonesian, Telugu and English as well as in Tamil here.
Jalan Berhala means Shrine Street and on this road the Brickfields Heritage Walk passes more places of worship. The Maha Vihara Buddhist Temple was founded by the Sinhalese community in 1894 but many of the devotees today are Chinese.
In the grounds of the temple is a Bodhi tree grown from a cutting taken from the sacred Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
Opposite the temple is a magnificently preserved traditional wooden house in Malay architecture. It is a pre-World War II house and the whole street was once that design. The house was occupied by the parents of a Malaysian tycoon who has since restored it and keeps it for private use.
On the next corner is the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), an imposing modern building completed in 2008. The role of the TFA is to help keep the younger generation of Malaysian Indians in touch with their Southern Indian cultural roots and traditions.
It houses function rooms and performance venues. On the ground floor is a smart Indian restaurant called Annalakshmi and a shop selling Indian gifts and handicrafts called Lavanya Arts.
Taking the next right down a slightly scary-looking alleyway is a modest Chinese temple called Seng Hong Tokong and the adjacent Shri Krishna Shrine.
The humble Seng Hong Temple grounds include another Hindu shrine, Om Sri Maha Kaliamman Alayam, side-by-side with a Buddhist shrine (only in Malaysia).
The temple also advertises a herbal steam bath – a tiny sauna room where herbal-infused steam is said to cure ailments such as arthritis and skin complaints.
Further along Jalan Berhala, located next to a night market venue, is yet another Hindu Temple Sri Sakthi Vinayagar Temple.
The Brickfields Heritage Walk rejoins Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, passing the Madrasathul Gouthiyyah Surau, a mosque and madrassa built in the 1980s catering mostly to Indian Muslims.
Across the street is the Methodist School which apparently dates from 1950 although some of its buildings look much older.
On the opposite corner is the Malaysian Association For The Blind complex. There are many blind people who walk unaccompanied around Brickfields aided no doubt by those yellow bumpy tiles set into the pavements as well as their familiarity with the neighbourhood.
A number of them must find work in the many Blind Massage Centres which can be found in Jalan Thambypillai particularly.
Apart from the Blind Association, there are others in Brickfields serving the deaf, mentally handicapped, paralympians and so on. This must be a side effect of being a “Divine Location” with so many public spirited religious people around.
From here Jalan Tabing tracks alongside the Klang River and underneath the monorail tracks. At the end of the street is the impressive Sri Kandaswamy Temple, built in 1902 by Ceylonese Tamils in a design inspired by the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple In Jaffna.
Turning onto Jalan Scott is the Sri Veera Hanuman temple. Further up the street is the Wei-Ling Art Gallery which is closed on Sundays but open every other day from 10am to 6pm with the exception of Saturday when it closes at 5pm.
If you head back towards KL Sentral, pass along Jalan Padang Belia (where the YMCA is located) before turning into Jalan Thambypillai, you will notice the 1950s era Sam Kow Tong (three teachings) Temple sited right next door to some squalid-looking red-light establishments.
Despite being a “Divine Location” it would seem that immoral activities still thrive in Brickfields, an area which also has quite a number of betting shops and more liquor shops than usual selling extra-strength beers (12% alcohol) of brands you have never heard of.
In Brickfields, as in life, vice and virtue live side-by-side.
For food there are, as you would expect, a large number of Indian restaurants on the route of the Brickfields Heritage Walk.
Restaurant Nagas and Restoran Chat Masala, both on Jalan Tun Sambanthan are supposed to be good. If you prefer home-cooked Chinese food, opt for the highly rated one-dish-meals at Sin Kee Restaurant, 194 Jalan Tun Sambanthan.
That completes the Brickfields Heritage Walk, covering a distance of 4.75 km, which will take you about three hours to complete.
This article first appeared in malaysia-traveller.com