The city is quieter these days but those who have lived through the ebb and flow of Kuala Lumpur’s history in recent decades might find a whisper of its past in this relative calm.
Founded in 1857, a full century before Malaysia achieved its independence, KL derives its name (“muddy confluence”) from its perch where the Gombak and Klang rivers meet. Initially a settlement built around a booming tin-mining industry, its strategic location meant development and expansion were inevitable, both during the colonial rule of the British and post-Independence. It attained city status on Feb 1, 1972, and two years to the date was ceded by the state of Selangor to the federal government to be established as the first federal territory of Malaysia.
Towers now scrape the skies and the jinrickshaws and bullock carts of old have given way to a gridlock of cars at rush hour, but the Malaysian capital is no less charming for it. Ng Ping Ho spent his childhood revelling in the modern city rising up around him while still appreciating instances, if fewer and far between, of its old-fashioned grace and beauty. So enamoured was he by this coexistence of tradition and ambition that the former director and producer turned a heritage shophouse into the bustling BackHome Hostel and his old production office into the infinitely Instagrammable KLoé Hotel right in downtown KL under hospitality brand Kindness of Strangers.
“I grew up in the heart of Bukit Bintang — this was long before it became the bustling shopping precinct it is now,” he says. “Back then, the shopping haven that is Lot 10 was a wet market, Sungei Wang Plaza had just opened, and the site that now hosts Pavilion KL was the Bukit Bintang Girls School. My childhood home stood where the Grand Millennium Hotel is now located. My sister would walk down over to BBGS, my grandma visited the Lot 10 wet market (before it moved to Imbi and is presently located at ICC Pudu) every morning, and we used to walk over to the Cathay or Pavilion cinemas to catch a movie whenever something interesting was playing. On special occasions, we went to The Ship for Western food. These memories are really special to me because I realise not everyone has the opportunity to grow up in the centre of town. When I look back at those times, it feels as if I’m watching a nostalgic movie.”
Ng paints a sepia-toned picture with his words of a KL that still exists in glimmers amid the outcrop of new buildings and experiences. Medan Pasar, frequented by his grandmother, is one such cherished constant, retaining a vestige of its original old-market atmosphere.
“I used to follow my grandmother to Medan Pasar, where she would shop, visit the gold or fabric shops, and buy fruits from Ah Meng’s fruit stall. That stall is still in the area, and after moving a few times, it is now situated opposite my own café, LOKL Coffee Co, along Jalan Tun H S Lee,” he says.
“Some of my favourite memories growing up are going on night drives around the city after dinner,” he says. “We would be in our pyjamas and our parents would take us to ‘see the lights’. This meant driving around to look at the various fountains around KL, glowing with colourful lights. One still exists around the Chinese Assembly Hall. And once a year, we would drive out to see Daulat Tuanku arches erected all over town, also decorated with colourful lights.
“KL has changed so much since then — it’s so modern now, all steel and glass, almost overwhelmingly so,” he continues. “It feels to me as if our city leaders do not see the value of preserving the old buildings that remind us of our heritage and that make KL special. You used to be able to differentiate between the city centre and the quieter suburbs, but that’s no longer the case. I appreciate that unlike Singapore, KL is not too clean or sterile. It’s rough around the edges, with the new juxtaposed against the old, and that lends to its charm. I just wish KL was more walkable. The best way to explore the city centre is on foot or by train, but otherwise it is probably more convenient to drive.”
Ng’s portfolio of properties — the two hospitality destinations and LOKL Coffee — are all situated around the historic Masjid Jamek. The 1907 mosque, among the oldest in the country, marks the confluence of the two rivers and the area has been transformed into the pedestrian-friendly River of Life, a flourishing commercial zone that still exudes an old-world charisma.
“I love that there’s a lot of energy and entrepreneurial spirit in KL, with plenty of new things to try, as well as big parks with lush greenery,” says the hotelier. “I hope that doesn’t change.”
A DAY AROUND KUALA LUMPUR
My wife [TV presenter and actress Cheryl Samad] and I have two young daughters, ages 7 and 5, and they dictate how my day goes. My ideal start to the day is to have roti canai at the mamak. If we wake up early enough and it’s still cool outside, we like walking over to Bala’s Banana Leaf at Lucky Garden. If I’m at work, I tend to go to Santa’s Chapati House. Someone once said that it is at the mamaks that you really get a sense of Malaysian society with its different races, and I couldn’t agree more. At Bala’s, not only are our local races represented, but also the expats who live in the area. At Santa’s, you will see the people who make up our city: security guards, taxi drivers and children having breakfast with their parents before going to school. It makes for great people-watching.
Prior to the Movement Control Order, we used to make the effort to seek out a weekend market to visit or somewhere new we could explore. Our go-tos are any of the Riuh markets, events hosted at APW in Bangsar, the artistic collective at the Zhongshan Building and, recently, Tamarind Square in Cyberjaya. The only criterion for these outings is that we explore or discover a new destination or experience.
You can never go wrong with bakeries or brunch venues, particularly places that are cosy with ample daylight and friendly people. Our favourites so far are Universal Bakehouse and Provisions for great sourdough sandwiches.
And of course LOKL Coffee and Monroe, the diner at KLoé Hotel. I’m obsessed with two things: comfort food, which I interpret as food that makes you happy, and diners. LOKL Coffee serves fried chicken, pasta and smoked brisket burgers, while Monroe is inspired by American diners and has its own version of America’s melting pot of flavours. Think foodstuff like steak and eggs, a kimchi grilled cheese sandwich, and peanut butter and jelly for dessert! When we’re with the kids, we go literally anywhere with decent food. If we left it up to them, we’d head to Crust at 163 Retail Park for pretzel burgers and pizzas made with a whole lot of love.
If I have my wife to myself for some quality alone time, I usually suggest browsing through books at Kinokuniya at KLCC or finding a nice café to curl up with a book for hours. Alternatively, we might catch a movie at the cinema, which we never get to do with the kids because they absolutely cannot sit still. If the whole family is together, we keep them occupied at bookshops or toy stores, or sit down for cake and coffee.
I love cafés and whenever I go to one, I ask myself if this would be a pleasant spot to spend time with Cheryl or a few hours reading on my own. My personal criteria for a solid contender of a café are that it has to feel warm and cosy, smells of fresh coffee, has lots of daylight, window-side seats, good music and friendly staff. It’s a tall order but I think that’s what makes a place special, and what I try to achieve in the places I open.
My top choices so far are Kopenhagen Coffee at Mont’Kiara for its white floorboards, beautiful ceramic cups and, of course, good coffee, and Alta Café at Bangsar for its European-inspired tartines, omelettes and pasta. There’s also Lucky Coffee at KLoé Hotel, the sister café of LOKL Coffee. My favourite thing about it is that it’s situated in the hotel’s beautiful lobby. It also serves Cereal Milk Lattes — I think we’re the only café that does.
When the weather cools, we often head to a park so the girls can run around or to Acoris at Mont’Kiara, where the girls can bring their scooters and race along the promenade.
When the kids are in tow, we look for eateries that offer rice, burgers or pizza. But if Cheryl and I are on a date night, we like going someplace a little special. We are keen on restaurants with an open kitchen so we can sit at the counter and watch the kitchen staff work. It’s really nice to see people put so much care into preparing food.
We like Studio Sitka for its exciting modern food in a moody, Nordic setting (it also has warm service and cool music, including hip hop!); Playte, which is run by a young team known for its exciting food; and Krung Thep for excellent Thai food with a twist.
We rarely get to enjoy KL after hours because we have to put the kids to bed! When opportunity does come around, say a date night with Cheryl, we make it a point to go somewhere a little sexy to remind ourselves that we’re adults with our own romantic lives.
If I have time to myself, I look forward to sitting anywhere al fresco and breezy, typically a street food setting. It could be a stall that makes a mean nasi lemak, fried noodles or Ramly burger. I like winding down this way, just being outside and breathing in the cool night air and watching people. I think this is something KL does really well.
This article first appeared on Feb 1, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.