Day 21 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife through Asia and beyond. Join us as we explore history and culture. And after thirty years in Asia, we are now back in the UK. What next?

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 21 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

So, how did Kuala Lumpur come to exist?


We now travel on to Kuala Lumpur which is a bit of a bonkers city. All roads lead to it and as a result one gets the feeling that all roads lead in and none lead out. Its name is suitably crazy enough, that is, Muddy Mess, or more politely Muddy Confluence though I cannot imagine any Englishmen using that word. Like a lot of Malay names they come about through thumbnail descriptions of where one stops the boat. Say a Chinese miner has an inkling to dig up some tin and he asks a passing Malay where he should take his shovel? Said Malay scratches his head and points up the river and says something like, well, take Ahmad's boat up there for a few days until you see a big muddy mess filled with Chinese making an even bigger muddy mess of the place.


One often says that a place will be nice when they finish it, but in KL's case one really does not think they will ever finish it. As the country develops, more roads are put in and more cars descend upon the city, then there will be more toll road booths, shopping malls and building sites. Thus continuing the muddy tradition.

The city is so bonkers that the government decided to leave it and build an entirely different city to house their capital and thus avoid the traffic. Though whether Putrajaya can be considered any saner depends upon your experience of visiting a city entirely devoted to bureaucratic activities fed by travelling food vans carrying all the favourites of Malayan office workers. It is a mixture of fountains, offices and plastic food containers.

As is the case with all bonkers places, the inhabitants of KL cannot imagine why anyone in Malaysia would want to live anywhere else and love its eccentricities. Just as the British complain about the UK weather, the Kuala Lumpan bitch about the traffic, and use that as the perennial excuse for being late.

The original eighty-seven Chinese prospectors that ventured into the Klang Valley in 1857 ended up with sixty-nine of them becoming very Late Chinese Prospectors. They must be buried in the mud somewhere. Seeking out their resting place might well be a nice little vlogging project. Graves in Malaysia are often scattered about in odd places and one finds history lurking unsung, forgotten but somehow still visible if a little underwhelming. Anyway, the pestilential jungle is now a slew of motorways and the mosquitoes have retreated to my balcony in Johor Bahru, if the amount of dengue laden bites I have are anything to go by.

The history of KL is, if nothing else, colourful. It is a city that has seen fires, floods, gang feuds and wars. Those troublesome Triads, the Ghee Hing and the Hai San fought over mining rights, brothel rights, opium rights, gambling rights, drinking rights, and built up a nice back log of grudges that must still exist to this day. Certainly their relatives are around and if you ask a few pertinent questions, family photographs of rather grand looking Chinese Kapitans come out of the drawer.

In their day, the Ghee Hin, who I think were perhaps the rougher lot, and the Hai San, managed to murder each other in impressive numbers and set off wars in Perak and Selangor. The Godfather of KL in the 1870's was Yap Ah Loy who was the third Kapitan Cina, that is the royally appointed enforcer of discipline among the Chinese community. In return for keeping the Chinese from each others throats, largely unsuccessfully, lucrative monopolies were handed to Yap Ah Loy and his associates, who just happened to be Hai San members. The secrecy of secret societies is always moot.

This did not quite work out as there were always others who thought they should have the monopolies, if monopolies there were going to be. The rivalry between Chong Chong the headman of Kanching, a Ghee Hing stronghold, and Yap Ah Loy managed to heat up with the murder of twenty of Yap Ah Loy's supporters. That was small meat compared to what was happening in Perak and what would soon happen in KL.

Down here in Johor Bahru the Sultan sensibly built a Chinese temple where all the various deities of all the Chinese communities had to be housed and he deigned that all disputes had to be settled within the walls of the temple, or else! This seems to have been a brilliant idea because although the Cantonese from the right side of the Segget river were not exactly best of friends with the Hokkien on the left bank, we see an amicable divvying up of the benefits from the Great Opium consortium and despite the imposition of an enormous police station on the Cantonese side, or because of it, brothels and gambling managed to lure the highly desirable Singapore dollar from across the causeway, to everyone's satisfaction. Of course, they were all merely simple planters of gambier and pepper, or traded in fabric and soft furnishings and all that other disreputable stuff was someone else's great grandparents, you know, the great grandparents of the ugly kid's you were warned about.

JB still has a reputation, though one has to look very hard nowadays for dissolute behaviour. In 1918 when the British finally got a resident installed in Johor, they disbanded the Ghee Hing faction, called the Ngee Heng here and confusingly run by the Teochew. Chinese secret societies come in all shapes and sizes and are not all based upon the same rules of membership. And by 1918 the Ngee Heng had become quite respectable and founded one of JB's most prestigious schools. People still gather to honour the association, as part of the deal behind the financial set up of the school.

Meanwhile back to KL! The defining era is lumped in with the Selangor Civil War. As was so often the case among the ruling Malay families, everyone wanted to be Sultan and nobody quite knew how to decide who was best fit. One can trace the war's origins to disputes among the Negeri Sembilan communities over the Lukut area and the tin mines there. Essentially the Sultan of Selangor, Muhammad Shah, took the opportunity of political strife over the Lukut area to send in his man, Raja Juma'at to seize the mines there. This he did, built a nice big fort, complete with Malayan football pitch, and impressed the British with his astute management of both the business and the infrastructure of the town. So impressive that they considered the place as well run as any white man could run it. Praise indeed. And his son was promptly enrolled into an English school in Melaka.

Raja Juma'at paid off the debts of Raja Sulaiman, who was running the Klang valley mining ventures into the ground, and Juma'at's brother, Raja Abdullah was then given the job of running the place. The son of Raja Sulaiman, Raja Mahadi, was now disinherited and looked on as Raja Juma'at and his brother Raja Sulaiman, set to making tons of money out of opening up KL to sell more mining licenses to more and more Chinese miners. In short, they had a licence to print money.

When Sultan Muhammad died in 1857, Raja Mahadi saw his opportunity to get back in the game and so the two sides, Abdullah on one, Mahadi on the other, hired mercenaries, raised levies, and made their promises to the warring clans of Chinese who were already at each others throats. Then made each other offers they could not refuse.

Raja Mahadi, as son of the departed Sultan, had a good claim and was offered the support of the Batu Baru Malays, a group of settlers from Sumatra. All the better, they had a grievance with Abdullah over his preferential treatment of a fellow Bugis who had managed to murder one of their people. So together they laid siege to KL, that is the fort now known as the Raja Mahadi Fort.


This did not go well for Abdullah, who ran to Malacca and died there. His sons Raja Ismail and Raja Hasan continued the fight but not very successfully. And Yap Ah Loy found himself in a precarious situation with his men slaughtered by the Ghee Hing of Kanching who were backing Raja Mahadi. But despite Chong Chong of Kanching's influence, Raja Mahadi wanted Yap Ah Loy as his Kapitan Cina!

Then a mysterious supposedly accidental meeting took place between a Kedah Prince, called Tengku Kudin, and Yap Ah Loy and somehow after being informed as to what Tengku Kudin was up to, Yap Ah Loy saw his future as siding with Raja Ismael. (I hope you're taking notes. There will be a test.)

Now once again the machinations of Royal Families kick into another gear. Raja Mahadi's supporter, Dato Dagang, expecting to be given land in return for his support, found instead that all he got was grief. Among the Malay Rajas and their entourages, there was always a habit of resorting to the kris at the slightest pretext and so one of Raja Mahadi's entourage, kills one of Dato Dagang's. And then Dato Dagang demands blood money and is told what he can do with that and so he swaps sides and does a deal with Tengku Kudin.

raja Ismail and Tengku Kudin and Captain Powlett

Now, and one suspects this was the information that Yap Ah Loy was aware of, there was a nice little arms deal done in Singapore, which could not possibly have had anything to do with the British. Oh, and in the photograph standing beside Raja Ismael is Captain Powlett of HMS Avon. Just a coincidence no doubt.

Tengku Kudin, armed to the teeth and with a few mercenaries of the British variety, then kicked Raja Mahadi out of KL and Mahadi retreated to Kanching with his Ghee Hing supporters. And, because of piracy, so the story goes, the British navy moves in on Raja Mahadi's men in Kuala Selangor and occupy the port. As a reward, the now Sultan Ismael, gives Tengku Kudin 858 sq kilometres of prime real estate called Langat.

Tengku Kudin was a bit of an upstart from Kedah who married into the Selangor Royalty and now was doing very well for himself. Too well. Consequently other members of the Selangor Royal Family decided to throw their support in with Raja Mahadi! And they launched an attack on the fort, now held by Tengku Kudin and various mercenaries, both European and Malay. All the soldiers are captured and ruthlessly executed. Yap Ah Loy runs for it as KL is subsequently burnt to the ground and even Kuala Selangor is recaptured by Raja Mahadi's forces.

Phew! This is what the British military call a bit of a SNAFU.

Now things get really serious.

Yap Ah Loy and Tengku Kudin have one big advantage: Money! And so they do a deal with the Sultan of Pahang and a thousand men plus sundry others, backed by Sir Andrew Clarke the British colonial administrator, march on Kuala Lumpur with vengeance in mind. Nobody is in much of a mood to do a deal and Raja Mahadi's defences collapse, sending everyone running for cover. Raja Mahadi runs first to Johor where he was nervously taken in and then persuaded that Singapore was his safest haven. The British suggest he stays in Singapore and accept the situation. I'd make a guess that money changed hands. And in 1882 he dies.

And Mr J. G. Davidson, a Singapore lawyer, and others who had purchased the arms for Tengku Kudin, are given lucrative mining concessions in Selangor. Tengku Kudin moves to Penang. Oh and Mr J. G. Davidson then becomes the first British Resident of Selangor, responsible for all things barring traditional Malay matters like religion and royal marriages.

Meanwhile over in Perak, Sir Andrew Clarke and his team, push Ngah Ibrahim onto the floor of the steam powered gun boat moored in Pangkor, along with all the other minor chieftains, and extol the virtues of Perak taking J. W. Birch as their Resident. And you know what happened to him.

Or at least you do if you have been following the story and our journey around Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Yap Ah Loy looks upon the smoking remnants of Kuala Lumpur and wonders if this is an opportunity, or the end of the line. Cue Frank Swettenham… but that's another story for another day.

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