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What Was Kuala Lumpur Like in the 1970s?
15 July, 2013

This post was written by Kenneth Smith

Malaysia's capital has been innumerable changes in the last generation, but for a look even further back, we turn to global expat and KL resident, Author Kenneth Smith, whose recollections bring to life a city markedly different from the KL of today.

It was a Saturday morning during my first month in KL. We had rented a furnished house, but my wife wanted material for curtains, so I drove down Batu Road* and parked outside Globe Silk Store. While she was there, I walked up to a rattan shop just before Campbell Road*. I showed them my pictures from Casa Vogue of Italian designed cane furniture. “No problem” was assured. Price agreed and replicas would be made. Life in KL in the 1970s had begun for this Brit abroad. Later, I discovered where to get my shirts and shoes made on the other side of the road.

Eating Like A King

Campbell Road was famous for one thing: the open-air hawker centre that spread halfway along the road. All Malaysian cuisine was there. Satay was 10¢ a stick for chicken and beef, 15¢ for mutton. You only paid for the sticks you had eaten. Young boys came skidding around to the tables to sell you murtabak, chicken rice, char kuey teow, chicken porridge and on and on. Ais kacang later. mister? The handle was turned on the cast-iron ice shaving machine. Eating like this in the cool of the evening was one of my great pleasures in KL.

For a more restricted menu but heightened elegance it was hard to beat Le Coq d’Or on Jalan Ampang, with its outstanding Hainanese cooks. The road had once been lined with elegant houses of wealthy families. A will stipulated that the Bok residence was to be preserved as a restaurant. At the top of the wide, impressive staircase you passed an opium bed to find the ornate toilets. What a great casino it would have made! Iremember a New Year’s Eve Dinner. Orchestra for dancing. Seven courses!

Elegant Expat Living

Newly arrived Brits were requested to register with the British High Commission to be informed of their nearest British official in case of emergency. Memories of the 1969 riots were still fresh. It also meant that you would be invited to a cocktail party at Carcosa, still the High Commissioner’s residence. It was all frightfully elegant with people being nice to one another.

The Lake Gardens below were much bigger without the bird park and other constructions… a place to stroll in the evening or sit on the grass and watch a Wayang Kulit show. Easy to walk to without highways of traffic roaring past.

When the big plan to build the new highways was being discussed, rumours were common. For the upper-income expat crowd, a horror story set the bush telegraph on fire: “They are going to build a motorway right through Kenny Hill*.”

I was thinking of taking up golf when I first arrived, but in my second week a 10-foot python was caught on one of the greens of the Royal Selangor, so I put the decision on hold.

Entertainment

There were many cinemas in KL, although no one would have understood the word multiplex then. We would often go as a group of friends to the Odeon. Walk down the concrete floor, find minimally padded seats and watch an English-language film subtitled in Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. Sunday nights at the Lake Club there were poolside films projected onto a temporary screen. But nearby Petaling Jaya boasted a real drive-in movie show!

Television was terrible. RTM1 in Bahasa Malaysia and RTM2 for the others. The arrival later of TV3 was eagerly anticipated. I only bought a TV once VHS cassettes arrived.

Hotels were the main evening venues for eating, drinking, and dancing. Many have their own stories but the arrival of the Hilton* in the ’70s was quite an event. The first restaurant to open was the Planter’s Inn. Hilton International managed the hotel, hiring and training the staff, but also provided costumes. The waitresses were dressed in sarong kebaya. The material used had a silk-like finish and was cut on the bias. That meant it fitted exactly where it touched. Word went round the town like lightning. The restaurant was a great success with, unsurprisingly, a strongly masculine patronage. Sadly, however, the people who pronounce on such things, pronounced and the kebayas changed cloth and cut.

This was the era of discotheques. The Hilton engaged Juliana’s of London and the Tin Mine opened as a members club. Among highlights was a visit by dancers of Les Folies Bergeres undressed as in Paris.

Transformation

It is good to see the Majestic Hotel restored to match its name. I went there quite often in its heyday. The RM10 four-course lunch was excellent.

The great transformation in KL was, of course, the PETRONAS Towers and the whole concept of KLCC. When I ceased to be a resident but just a visitor to KL, I used to look out the window of my hotel onto the race course, for that was what KLCC was. If that is a change that is hard to imagine, may I offer you The Bukit Bintang Girl’s School, elegant, gentle, whitewashed buildings and simple gardens? You know it today as Pavilion KL Mall. How about a massive collection of railway sidings, engine sheds and trains themselves stretching from the railway station right down past the turning to Bangsar? That is KL Sentral and all those offices and hotels that have followed the tracks.

KL was never great then as it is today for what is called “high-end” shopping. You went to Singapore where there was no tax, or Penang where tax was lower. I know a lady who was a passenger in a car from Penang to KL. She wore a baju kurong with a pillow underneath. It was obvious to the customs officials that she was pregnant so she could remain in the car. Back in KL, she gave birth to some new hi-fi equipment! When Ampang Park was going to be built with over 300 shops, people questioned the need for so many in one place!

Port Dickson was the weekend getaway. You could drive down to Seremban and turn right. For more fun, we’d take the back road, winding through rubber and palm oil plantations, climbing up, roaring down, shifting gear constantly. Don’t go looking for that road now. It disappeared under KLIA. Sunday was the day to spend at the PD Yacht Club. I never saw any yachts, but the beach was good, the curry tiffin above average and the sea was shallow even when the tide was in, so great for the children.

I have mainly talked about changes in the centre of KL, because that is what KL was, a town surrounded by plantations and tin mines. There was a winding road that made its way through dense trees. People were loath to take it at night as stories of ghosts were frequent. It was known as the back road to PJ. Today it is called Sprint Highway, the E23.

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*Notes: Batu Road, now Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman; Campbell Road, now Jalan Dang Wangi; Kenny Hill, now Bukit Tunku. The building of the original Hilton today houses the recently closed Crowne Plaza.

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Source: The Expat June 2013
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