Story of Two Flowers and the Making of Downtown.

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Britain and China, went to war over two flowers: the poppy and the camellia.” Could this actually have been the case? Were tea and opium of such great importance?

Centuries ago, England’s Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558-1603) gave the East India Company a monopoly of all British trade in the Far East. That included the control of India and all things produced there such as opium. For two hundred years thereafter the Company exported this addictive product from India to China. History records, the Chinese, who had an almost complete monopoly on the production and processing of tea, exchanged this mild stimulant for the addictive opium.

Sarah Rose, author of “For all the tea in China”, stresses the importance of this trade to the British Empire. She tells us that it made the East India Tea Company immensely wealthy and by extension supported the essential activities of the British government through the taxes paid on the tea trade. So when the Chinese took steps to stop the sale of the addictive opium to its citizens and closed the port of Canton to the India Tea Company, the British reacted with violence.

British navy was sent to keep the opium-for-tea trade open. In fact, the treaty that ended the short Opium War not only restored the trade in Canton, but also expanded it to five additional Chinese ports.

From the map here, you can see that from the port of Canton the navigation route  between India and China along the South China sea towards the Indian Ocean, travellers by-passed the Straits of Malacca on the way to India. History tells us they stopped over at the Klang estuary brought Chinese and Indian migrants to Malaya’s shores in search of better prospects.

This period witnessed the Chinese diaspora and external migration outside China. They came from maritime provinces of Southern China who migrated southwards to the South China sea to the Nanyang region and landed themselves in parts of the Malay Archipelago during the late 19th and early 20th century.

These Chinese immigrants brought with them knowledge and methods of house construction from their towns and villages in South China and adapted to the shophouse form which became their basic abode.

During the British colonial period of late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a sudden demand of labour in the tin mining and rubber production activities in Malaya, prompted by the rubber boom and advent of the motor car in Europe many Chinese coolies arrived from four maritime provinces ie, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangxi.

Yap Ah Loy left China via Macau for Malaya in 1854.  He was a Hakka and born in Guangdong on 14 March 1837.  In 1868 he became the third Chinese Kapitan of Kuala Lumpur, emerging as a leader responsible for the survival and growth of this town. During the early times, Kuala Lumpur was beset with many problems, including the Selangor Civil War which devastated the town. It was also plagued by diseases and constant fires and floods. Kuala Lumpur was destroyed several times, but each time Yap rebuilt the town. He strove to develop Kuala Lumpur from a small, obscure settlement into a booming mining town. In 1880, the state capital of Selangor was moved from Klang to the more strategically advantageous Kuala Lumpur.

A view of Kuala Lumpur in 1881. Houses were built in wood and attap structures.  
Picture courtesy of Moving Mountains published in 2012

In 1881, a flood swept through the town following a fire which engulfed it earlier. These successive problems destroyed the town's structures made of wood and atap. The British Resident of Selangor, Frank Swettenham required that buildings be constructed of brick and tile. Hence, Kapitan Yap Ah Loy bought a piece of real estate for the setting up of a brick industry which would spur the rebuilding of Kuala Lumpur. This place was located in Brickfields. Destroyed atap buildings were replaced with brick and tiled structures. Many of the new brick buildings mirrored those of shop houses in southern China, characterized by ‘five foot ways’ as well as skilled Chinese carpentry work. This resulted in a distinct eclectic shophouse architecture typical of this region. Yap Ah Loy also expanded the road access in the city significantly, linking up tin mines with the city; these roads include the main arterial roads of Ampang Road, Petaling Street and Pudu Road.

This row of shophouses is located along Jalan Lebuh Ampang, one can find a combination of Straits Chinese Eclectic style (1880s-1910s), Baroque and Neo-classical style (1890s -1930s), Art Deco Transformation (1930s - 1950s) and Pre-Independence modern style (1950s -1970s) standing side by side.

Kuala Lumpur’s Shophouse Typology

Every township in Malaya established during the 19th century had utilitarian, multi-functional buildings known as shophouses. They were typically built in rows, with a commercial/retail space at the front of the ground floor, with private residences to the rear and upper floors. The rear or centre of the building often had an air well depending on its length. While shophouses are fundamentally similar throughout Malayan towns, there are different typologies and regional variations. They were influenced by a varied combination of construction techniques, cultural practices and beliefs, and regulations.

The early Straits Chinese influenced facade had a simple utilitarian form. This transformed significantly when government and European-trained architects introduced classical elements overlaid with Chinese-inspired ornamentations. The increasing presence and influence of the British marked a change in the style and construction technique of the Kuala Lumpur shophouse, with tendency towards classical form and proportions with Neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Palladian motifs introduced. In later parts of the early 20th century the facade design became more simplified, before entering an Art Deco and then Pre-independence modern style.

These unique shophouses are still with us today and are a testimony of our past. Downtown KL has become a hotspot for the millennial and the older generation and its success is simply due to the appreciation of nostalgia in today’s fast changing pace.

   Baroque and Neo-classical style shophouses (1890s -1930s) along Jalan Ampang
Art Deco Transformation (1930s - 1950s) along Jalan Sultan
Art Deco Transformation (1930s - 1950s) along Jalan Ampang. The multi-storey building behind the row of shophouses were probably added on in the 70’s.
Combination of shophouses typology of Straits Chinese Eclectic style (1880s-1910s ) leading to Pre-Independence modern style (1950s -1970s) located along Lorong Panggung
Straits Chinese Eclectic style (1880’s – 1910’s) on ‘Kwai Chai Hong’ , Lorong Panggung.

Extracts from this article are taken the following sources:-

- From all the Tea in China by Sara Rose published by Penguin Books 2010
- Moving Mountains published by Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, 2012.
- Kuala Lumpur Creative and Cultural District (KLCCD) Strategic Master Plan by Think City, 2020.

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