Repurposed Heritage: Jalan Sin Chew Kee
Jalan Sin Chew Kee is one of the last heritage rows in KL that has seen some rejuvenation, with many buildings repurposed for commerce. However, the threat of encroachment from new developments remains real.
Story by Ling Low & Maya Tan
Jalan Sin Chew Kee is one of the last bastions of colonial architecture in Kuala Lumpur. Boasting a short, quiet row of colonial houses, the buildings have mostly been left untouched, their 1920s architecture neither gutted nor painted with garish colours. Stepping onto the street feels like falling into a time warp.
The good news here is that some of these buildings have been repurposed for commerce, targetting the worldly urban dweller (or traveller), meaning that the buildings have had their lives extended. However, the threat of encroachment remains very real.
Just a few metres away the sleek grey towers of the Swiss Garden Residences look down on the street. Across from there, a construction site is carrying out works for the new MRT line. Another hotel, meanwhile has just been finished on the next street, Jalan Galloway. As modern development closes in from all sides, this small haven of heritage residential buildings has been dwarfed and endangered; blink and all this could be gone.
The Inner City Conundrum
The quaint houses on Jalan Sin Chew Kee, which are still mostly residential, give way to a block of low-cost flats further down. To say the area is “mixed” would be an understatement. Many lodgings are now rented to migrant workers, who work at building sites nearby while the modern complexes attract affluent expats.
This is not uncommon in most of KL’s inner city areas. While it is impossible to imagine the absence of people living within the city of New York or London, here, it is difficult to imagine living in the core of KL unless you are of a certain income level − either very high or very low.
If you stroll for a few minutes, admiring the façades and pretty gardens at the start of the street, you will suddenly come upon a house with a front yard that looks more like a junkyard. In it, we meet an older woman, who prefers to be addressed only as ‘Makcik’.
Makcik has called Jalan Sin Chew Kee home for over a decade. At the time of our visit, she’s stitching a pair of denim jeans. Leaning on a motorcycle parked within the gates, she’s talking as she sews. All around her, there is discarded evidence of other people’s lives: old clothes, mattresses, towels and even a retro keyboard. Another man is dismantling a rice cooker as we speak.
Originally from Kedah, Makcik is a long term tenant of the house, which has no less than 16 rooms inside. She has left her children in the kampung to accompany her husband, who is employed in the city. Along with some of the other tenants, she sorts recycled ware and prepares them for sale as a means of extra income.
Between hip establishments such as Barlai, a speakeasy for KL-ites who want something different, to VCR Cafe pandering to coffee connoisseurs on the next street, and Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, a boutique guesthouse bringing a different breed of inhabitants to the area, there is clearly a gap between the intended audience of rejuvenation and people such as Makcik, or her migrant neighbours, who also have every right to be there.
Rejuvenation, gentrification or modernisation are some of the words used to describe the changes in this neighbourhood, depending on who you ask. But the changes are happening, and happening now.
According to Michael Fong and Christina Foo, who have lived on Jalan Sin Chew Kee for the last 20 years, as the street’s older residents move away or pass on, the houses are rented out to people who “may not look after the place very well.”
The couple started Sarang Vacation Homes as a means of income for their retirement about 8 years ago, but business has been good and so it has become a full-time occupation for them, even resulting in a new offspring − Sarang Cookery − on Jalan Galloway, serving a menu of local favourites.
As Michael explains, the homestay provides a more unique travel experience to tourists than a five-star hotel or backpackers’ lodge. “The character of the area has remained almost the same,” Michael says. “It’s a forgotten oasis in KL.”
“In the last couple of years, people are beginning to discover the place as a cheaper alternative to Bukit Bintang. It’s still not really ‘happening’ yet but there’s been more take-up in the last few years.”
Michael adds that he’s not concerned about new commercial openings unless they interfere with the “ambience, environment and feel of the place.” According to him, there were plans to open a convenience store on Jalan Galloway but these were shelved after opposition from locals. The mom-and-pop convenience store, Pasar Mini Superimas, stands proudly next to a mamak restaurant, however, which bolsters hope for the community spirit to thrive.
“It’s one of the very last places of its nature in KL and I hope it won’t change but as with most cities, it's quite inevitable that budget hotels and high-rises will come,” he says. “There has been little attempt to sell KL as KL − as it really is − beyond malls and foot reflexology.”
“It’s a forgotten oasis in KL.” - Michael Fong, Sarang Vacation Homes
Another champion for the community on Jalan Sin Chew Kee is Tony Yeoh, the proprietor of the No Name Wanton Mee stall (it’s on Google maps), which operates in the back lane between Jalan Sin Chew Kee and Jalan Galloway. We find the stall sheltering quite a sizeable crowd of residents and office workers from the sun, filling up the limited seating at the stall. When we ask for coffee, Tony offers a gentle warning: “We only have normal coffee.”
Perhaps this caveat is due to VCR Cafe, which opened three years ago − a chic place which takes its beans and brews very seriously. We assure Tony that “normal” kopi-O is fine. As he prepares the wanton noodles, he points out that everything is cooked over charcoal − a rare method that he hopes to sustain.
The stall was first started by Tony's grandmother, but he tells us that it was closed for about eight years before he decided to open it again. “I wanted to get the community going, to keep local culture alive,” he says.
He still remembers the time before the Swiss Gardens was built, when the site housed an army barracks and shares his concerns for the possible rise in congestion − of both traffic and people.
Another resident of the street has a more pronounced pessimism about its future.
“The sense of community is fast disappearing. I don’t know where we’re heading,” says Lim In Chong (a.k.a. “Inch”), a landscape architect who has lived there for over 30 years.
The house that Inch lives in dates back to 1928. He has converted it into a partial office for his design team, Inchscape, while he continues to live upstairs. The renovation has created a spacious sense of airiness inside, while the front gate is concealed with a cascade of plants that give way to a serene garden.
For those who are renovating carelessly in the area, Inch has short words: “It’s not gentrification, it’s coarsification.” He laments that the neighbourhood is losing its residential character and notes the increase in crime, as well as the congestion. “There used to be a lot more owner-occupiers who were here since after the war.”
For Inch, the wider commercial developments in the area are part of a worrying trend of tearing down old buildings. He cites Pudu Jail’s shopping mall development as an example: “You end up with a city with no face. Our identity is the Twin Towers. What can I say?”
“The sense of community is fast disappearing. I don’t know where we’re heading.” - Lim In Chong, Inchscape
VCR Cafe occupies a handsome black building on the corner of Jalan Galloway. Apparently this colour was what first caught the attention of the coffee shop’s founders. They then teamed up with the existing tenants (Used Tape, a design agency) to renovate the interior and turn it into a cafe. At lunchtime, there is a steady flow of customers (corporates, expats from the nearby condos and tourists) including regulars who drift in to chat with the baristas. Against a soothing jazz soundtrack, the latest coffee contraption whirs, gleaming on the counter.
The aesthetic here balances industrial edge with heritage details, giving a cosy but polished effect. If it seems familiar, this might be because it's the work of the design group, Studio Karya, who are behind the look of Butter + Beans in Section 17.
Joachim Leong, a full time barista at VCR says “I’ve been travelling around and you see this happening quite a lot.” (He is also the creator of Cafe Hop KL, a project that maps independent coffee shops in KL.) “Burps and Giggles in Ipoh, China House in Penang − converted heritage houses. You don’t see so much of that in KL. There are a few in Jalan Mesui, but it’s harder in KL. There’s less heritage to sell.”
“So far we’ve had good relationships with the locals. We do our best to be part of the community.” Despite admitting that he has mixed feelings about the area’s rejuvenation, Joachim feels that the business is ultimately a good thing because it brings investment into the existing buildings: “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.”
Ng Seksan, the architect who converted 3, Jalan Sin Chew Kee into guesthouse retreat Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, believes that mixed development could help preserve some of the buildings in the area. “I don’t see a conflict in mixing residential with commercial,” he says. “Our old shophouses are built on this model − residential upstairs, and business downstairs.”
Seksan hopes that the Jalan Sin Chew Kee area will not go the same way as the Asian Heritage Row in Jalan Doraisamy prior to its ‘relaunch’, with “no life in the daytime.” The troubled row of heritage residences had recently undergone a revision in its commercial mix, creating more diversity in restaurants, shops and cafes on the street, as opposed to the majority of nightclubs that had previously reigned.
Seksan adds: “I’d like to see a thriving mix of social entrepreneurship, unplanned and spontaneous; from recycling shops to ‘chi chi’ cafes.” His fear would be to see the old houses torn down and replaced with “homogenous bores”, as seen in other parts of the city.
Barlai, a pseudo-speakeasy bar and music venue, housed within Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, is cheekily named after the huge police complex on the hill opposite Jalan Galloway. The interior is hung with old street signs − thoughtful details which claim a stake in the surrounding sense of place. Owned by the BIG Group, it’s certainly not a replica of one of the group’s chain restaurants, yet the giant metal sculpture outside stands out sorely amidst the neighbouring houses.
“It’s an amazing space that is rich in its historical vibe,” says Benjamin Yong, CEO of the BIG Group, when asked what attracted him to the venue. “What we are trying to create is something off the beaten track, the unconventional. We are looking to craft a hidden gem of a place that patrons can readily retreat to in the heart of the city.”
The BIG Group has made forays into residential areas, such as with the defunct Hit & Mrs (now replaced by Bakar and Mario & Luigi’s) in Lorong Kurau, Bangsar.
“There are of course, the conventional and inevitable concerns such as noise and parking [in locations such as these],” says Benjamin, “However, there is a symbiotic arrangement that enables us to overcome these concerns.
“For example, the restaurants’ hushed ambience works to both our and the neighbours’ advantage. Our deliberate small seating-capacity works well in retaining the exclusivity of our premise, whilst hardly encroaching into the residents’ space either. This is the similar experience we looked to recreate with Barlai.”
“I don’t see a conflict in mixing residential with commercial. Our old shophouses are built on this model − residential upstairs, and business downstairs.” - Ng Sek San, Seksan Design
Back to the Future
Cause and effect in urban development is rarely as simple as the beat of a butterfly’s wings. Jalan Sin Chew Kee stands on prime city property, and some might say that it’s a matter of time that the street will soon be lost to high-density buildings in the style of the Swiss Garden Residences.
Yet new businesses can also breathe hope into the neighbourhood. These businesses rely on the neighbourhood’s aesthetic and nostalgic charm to attract clientele. Their interest could rejuvenate the area − giving outsiders a reason to fight for its preservation against modern high-rise hotels.
On the other hand, if the balance tilts too much towards commercialising existing buildings, this could also force out locals who have lived there for generations. Inevitably, each landowner holds the power to decide whether to raise rent, sell the property or build something new. Incoming property owners and tenants also influence the area’s demographic.
Perhaps it is not as simple as a butterfly’s wings, but each decision matters and the neighbourhood’s future depends on the individuals whose lives are tied to it: from the tenant to the entrepreneur, the architect to the property developer. For now, the streets remain a link to the past: a pocket of forgotten heritage where people continue to eat, sleep, work and play.
This story was produced in collaboration with Poskod.my