Friday, November 20, 2009

Kuala Lumpur’s ‘French Quarter’

Mention ‘French Quarter’, and the Spanish and French-influenced mansions of New Orleans will no doubt come to mind. Most of the structures in the French Quarter of New Orleans were constructed after the great fires of 1788 and 1794. The buildings before the Great Fires were heavily influenced by French design and architecture, and sported peaked roofs, wooden siding and ironwork balconies and galleries. The Spanish overlords rebuilt the Quarter after 1794 and replaced the damaged roofs and sidings with flat-tiled roofs and fire-resistant stucco walls. In the early 20th century, the French Quarter of New Orleans attracted a large artistic and Bohemian community. The colourful walls and elaborate ironwork balconies and galleries of the French Quarter are still around today to be admired and gazed upon by tourists and history buffs. Since the 1920s, the buildings of the French Quarter have been protected by law and cannot be demolished. Any renovations and new construction in the Quarter must be done according to the regulations to match the period’s architectural style.

How delightful it is, then, to find that Kuala Lumpur has buildings that evoke the Old World charm and colonial appeal of the New Orleans French Quarter!

My father was driving past Wisma Fui Chiu (more popularly known as the puzzlingly named S&M Shopping Arcade) with me one evening in 1996 when he pointed out the ironwork balconies of the Neoclassical/Art Noveau shophouses along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Lebuh Pudu.

“Look,” Dad exclaimed jocularly, “French Quarter balconies!”
And so they were!
I have been fascinated by the architecture and history of the 1920s shophouses in downtown Kuala Lumpur ever since, and have lamented the destruction and ‘renovation’ of each heritage shophouse as I would the departure of an old friend.

This shophouse along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock now houses a ‘Jukebox Shoe Shop’ on the lower floor. The upper floor opens up on the side to a colonial-style balcony with lace-like ironwork railings. I say ‘balcony’ and not ‘gallery’ despite the size, because this particular balcony is suspended off the ground by means of support extending from the walls, and not by means of poles and pillars extending to the ground. Note the Art Moderne / Art Noveau portholes and swirling decorative moldings that defined much of 1920s architecture!

Fah Num Textiles Sdn Bhd used to have the same architectural details as the other Pre-War shophouses in the area, before its renovation. However, I am glad that they retained their ‘French Quarter’ balconies, if nothing else. I am not sure of the correct terminology, but I call these ‘gratuitous balconies’ because they are purely decorative and do not have doors that open up from the inside to the balconies. However, even the flowing organic shapes of the original ironwork balconies have been replaced with plain geometric ones.

A gentle reminder of the opulence that once defined Lebuh Pudu, this turn-of-the-century shophouse, with the writhing plants in the ironwork of its balcony, hyperbolas and parabolas in the windows, and nature-inspired stucco moldings, remains beautiful despite the state of disrepair that it is in.

It would be praiseworthy indeed if City Hall and the tourism authorities could look into the restoration of the pre-War buildings in Lebuh Pudu, Medan Pasar, Petaling Street, Jalan Tun H.S. Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock to at least half their former glory. These historical buildings exude such grace and quiet pride that it would be a terrible loss indeed if we were to replace them with sterile structures that lack history and character.

There is so much we can do to improve the state the area is in. We could, for instance:
1. Make it compulsory for all food and beverage operators in the area to install grease and rubbish traps;
2. Clean up and cover up waste disposal and wastewater discharge structures to control the vermin and disease vector population;
3. Institute stormwater management measures to reduce the incidence of flash floods;
4. Repaint, restore and maintain old structures that they remain serviceable and tenantable; and
5. Monitor new construction and any renovation projects to ensure that the architectural and design style of the particular historical period is retained or at least replicated.

With a little effort and the participation of city-dwellers, the heritage areas of downtown Kuala Lumpur could be as attractive and as worthy of visitors as the New Orleans French Quarter.


Keats The Sunshine Girl said...

It's easy to miss the architecture as the place is not spruced up. It certainly would surprise Kl-ites there's French Quarter here!

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

Thanks for dropping by, Keats! Much of the 'Quarter' has been demolished. Maybe it's a one-eighth now. :o(

Patricia said...

The facades are beautiful, but I hear the insides are decrepit. These buildings have mostly been used and abused - because they're old, and people felt that they'd be eventually torn down.

I've walked about, and shopped in almost all the places you've mentioned. Thennnn, lah. Not nowadays. The traffic and the jams are more than I want to brave.

'Torn down' you say - well, that's just so us, isn't it? These beautiful sites could so easily be preserved and become part of a heritage park. But, noooooo. We'd much prefer some cold, steel and glass monstrosity that sticks out into the sky.

And the old buildings are not just about charm and nostalgia. They speak of our history and our roots, and they tell of the many cultures that helped make us who and what we are today.

As always, thanks for the trip!

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

Thanks for your kind feedback, Pat, and for taking a walk with me! You remember so many more interesting things that I do. Everything that has character seems to have been torn down. Isn't that symptomatic of our society? Someone I know in the KL courts told me that the chandeliers, wooden furniture etc from the old KL Courts in Jalan Raja have all been looted and destroyed. And the saddest part is that there are people who look at Medan Pasar and Pudu Jail and say that these buildings should come down anyway because they are not part of our history, but of the colonialists!

Anonymous said...

Interesting - I have ALWAYS thot that the balcony at the Jukebox shop looks out of place. Never thot I'd see French Quarterish type of architecture here in Malaysia. Nice blog by the way, stumbled upon it while I was looking at old/heritage buildings in KL/Malaysia. And you are right the government and all these money hungry developers should learn the word 'adaptive reuse'. :)

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

Thanks for visiting, Nacio. Adaptive reuse is the way forward, but the developers always use safety as an excuse not to preserve historical features of buildings. It is unfortunately a Malaysian thing. You don't hear such excuses in relation to Shakespeare's 16th-century cottage or the original New Orleans French Quarters, although they are centuries older.