Merdeka Square may have, and justly so, the spotlight for the beautiful colonial heritage area : a full diverse architectural showline of Indo-Saracenic inspired buildings, English church, Dutch Renaissance mansions and vernacular English bungalow style. Even so after strolling in Brickfields, I have to say that this neighborhood still bears the imprint of how and when Kuala Lumpur was made.
The name itself comes from the kilns to fabricate the bricks for the town in making after the 1880 fire. That was the first development step. At the time of Kuala Lumpur first days, it was still possible to travel to Damansara by boat and then reach this area by cart, the Chinese community used to call the 15th mile.
There was business to be made from the clay in this area, a bit like today many developers use ciment to make money.
Brickfields was also the area where the railway and depot workers were lodged: they worked across the street at KL Sentral.
The Central station is a tentatively ghoulish parade of chatris (rajput- mughal kiosks) that instead of turning gothic came out as a happy sight in the night.
Most of the workers were brought here from the colonies by the British and that was probably not a nice story.
Today Brickfields neighborhood is still separated by the station by a wall of glassy high rise buildings: the neighborhood of the workers has not been allowed to merge into the rest of town. May it be that Brickfields with its busy street lined with sari shops and Indian restaurants is still perceived as the downstairs of Downton Abbey?
Yet it is not so simple: this may have been the once workers’ area but if you walk around the neighborhood, you will find there are beautiful bungalows discretly tucked in between the flats.
Some of them, like this on top, echo the traditional Malay house, other have an art deco twist that may reflect the fashion of the time when they were built.
The Hundred Quarters are the railworkers housing: they are unfortunately going to be demolished soon to make way for high rises. Their two storeys line three streets and give back tranquility and a kampung (home village) feel to this part of town, thanks to their languid easy way to catch the light and their occasional banana plants ready to be plucked just now, in this sunny afternoon.
The Chinese Temple started as an attap thatched roof house, it then moved into a futurist ciment polygon to become back a simil swallow tail temple. It is actually a crazy mixture of styles but it has nice pieces here and there with effort to reproduce some good quality ceramics (at least not as hideous as the dump of painted ciment that is Thean Hou Temple).
If you walk behind, you are going to stumble upon a Ganesh Temple that started from a squat and has a statue made from butter and banana, (the best materials at hand at the time it urged to make that statue, obviously).
In front there is a sacred ficus that has grown attached a Kali Shrine.
Religion is still in the making in Brickfields, it grows from dust and discarded leaves, from the earth to the branches into temples and shrines.
There are also very important associations like the Buddhist Maha Vihara,which celebrates Wesak day (Buddha’s birthday) with a lovely festival congregating all Buddhist associations around, and the the Vivekananda Ashram. The latter is sadly going to be engulfed into a high rise since its association cannot afford the upkeep anymore.
After this, you can close your eyes, travel back and hear them walking around you, workers and businessmen, British , Chinese, Indian and all, trotting around, coming home after spending their day building the city, on the other side of the high rises.
Time lets grow and shatters, sometimes in the same season.
Time flies and leaves layers here in Brickfields, pieces of this and that that it forgot to sweep away. Those business men seem to have trodden here not too long ago, to have mingled with others immigrants. Everyone left a little bit behind.
Time is easy to fly and distracted on the traces it leaves behind: it is nice to float on this light, sit down for a dhal and naan or an ice kacang, leave the rush to tomorrow, business is done for today. And yet anytime soon those big high rises could step forward and crash these little specks of the past and bring us all into the dull uniformity of tomorrow.