KUALA LUMPUR: Petaling Street is probably the best-known street in Kuala Lumpur among both Malaysians and foreign tourists. As the main thoroughfare of Chinatown, it is usually bustling with activity.
But Covid-19 has taken its toll on this attraction and the place is notably devoid of foreign tourists today. It is still however a great place to mooch around, looking for lip-smacking street food and trinkets of every kind.
But there is more to Petaling Street and Chinatown than eating and shopping. It has a fascinating history, and tucked away close to the arch at the entrance to the street is a place that tells the story.
At first glance, Lost in Chinatown looks like a women’s clothing boutique. But if the big signs touting “free admission” does not catch your attention, perhaps the life-sized statue of Bruce Lee in his iconic yellow jumpsuit, wielding a nunchaku, will.
The ground floor of the shophouse is indeed a boutique, but the upper floors are home to something quite special.
Lost in Chinatown is a cultural centre dedicated to telling the story of Chinatown and explaining Malaysian culture to inquisitive foreign tourists.
It is not a museum, for there are no artefacts to be found, but its six sections are a photographer’s and Instagrammer’s dream come true.
This place is the brainchild of Angus Ng Kah Ang, the 42-year-old owner of the boutique downstairs, who set up shop here about four years ago.
When he was establishing his business, it dawned on him that there was no place for tourists to learn about the history of Chinatown. Other than eating and shopping, there was nothing else for tourists to do in Petaling Street.
“That’s the reason I wanted to start this. So, when tourists come to Chinatown, they can not only shop but also learn about its history,” he told FMT.
After getting the support that was needed, Lost in Chinatown opened its doors on July 12, 2017. The cultural centre consists of six sections. The first is a gallery exhibiting over 100 portraits of cultural icons with quotes.
Little tiles with portraits of historical figures and pop culture icons adorn the walls of this section, presenting perfect photo opportunities. These remarkable portraits are all the work of a single Thai artist who was involved in setting up the centre.
The next section is a gallery displaying Chinatowns all over the world, including in countries where one would least expect them.
While showing FMT around the centre, Ng said the oldest Chinatown is in the Philippines – it was established in 1594.
Visitors will be intrigued by the oversized abacus on display in this section, and the beads actually move. Talk about doing big sums.
Foodies would love the next section as it is dedicated to Malaysia’s world famous, multicultural cuisine.
Panels of photographs of Malaysian delicacies provide the perfect backdrop for food lovers to take pictures, and foreign tourists are often astounded by just how much food Malaysia has to offer.
In addition to food, places of interest throughout the country are also highlighted and information panels offer insights into the history of Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, George Town and Melaka.
One might wonder why the fourth and following section is shrouded in darkness, but there is a perfectly good explanation for this once you get past the door.
Glowing in the darkness is a beautiful dragon, its long body stretching across the wall with scales glowing green.
This section is filled with glow-in-the-dark art and it is amazing to see such beautiful creations in a different light, literally.
Catch as many photos of these glowing art pieces possible and have a go at beating the Chinese drum in the corner of the room.
Walking into the next room will probably be a blast from the past for many older Malaysians, for black-and-white photos documenting the good old days are everywhere.
The walls here appear to be aged, cracking in some places, but brush a hand against them and you’ll discover it is all an illusion. The walls have been deliberately painted to look beaten and battered and are so brilliantly executed, they are truly deceptive.
The final section consists of tongue-in-cheek explanations of Malaysian culture and practices, such as slang words and weird habits.
Ever wondered what “kiasu” means? Or what people mean by “gancheong”? Or why Malaysians show their palms while crossing the road? This section explains it all.
Descending downstairs into the boutique, be sure to check out the attractive clothes, all on sale for a reasonable RM20.
Angus says, prior to the pandemic, Lost in Chinatown could easily see hundreds of tourists and tour groups from Taiwan, the Middle East, Hong Kong and India on a daily basis. Now, it is considered a good day if the centre receives 100 visitors.
“We feel very sad as all the stalls here, their business is suffering … I hope we can survive.”
With this drop in numbers, Ng hopes Lost in Chinatown will weather the storm and continue to help visitors understand the history and culture of Chinatown and Malaysia.
Lost in Chinatown
22, Jalan Petaling
50000 Kuala Lumpur
Business hours: 10am-7pm
Contact: 012-207 9155 (Ng)