Tin Mining in the 'Muddy Estuary' (1857-1869)
150 years ago, 87 miners, mostly Chinese immigrants, came to the area where rivers Klang and Gombah converge. In present day, this exact location is marked by Masjid Jamek, but in 1857, it was a dense tropical jungle. They were looking for tin and they found plenty of it here.
Almost 70 of the initial group died of malaria but the survivors managed to establish a small tin mine. The modest tin mine soon flourished, so that by the time 1862 rolled around, KL had shed its jungle look and was beginning to acquire the facade of a growing village. I write 'KL' now but back then in 1862 they were just beginning to think of a name for the place, and decided to settle on the Malay term for 'muddy estuary'. So Kuala Lumpur it was.
At that time, tin was in huge demand, especially by America and the British Empire, who needed the durable, lightweight metal to help fuel their industrial expansion. As a result, the village grew rapidly. And when there is progress, there is also vice, which attracts trouble. This initial period of growth was fraught with conflicts and gang wars between local Chinese gangs (and sometimes Malay gangs) about mining rights and control of drinking water. As brothels, gambling booths and opium trade flourished, wars were waged over the control of these profits.
The Reign of Kapitan Yap (1869-1885)
Colonisers of Malaya, as Malaysia was then known, were the British, who witnessed the success of this group of tin miners. Before long, the British felt the need to appoint an administrative leader to ensure the area continued to thrive and protect their interests. They chose Hiu Siew to be the first Kapitan Cina (leader of Chinese comunity), but it was not until the rule of the third Kapitan, starting in 1869, that KL transformed from a sleepy town to a prominent commercial hub in Selangor. His name was Yap Ah Loy, also known as the founding father of Kuala Lumpur.
These were turbulent times with no shortage of conflicts. Escalating, especially, were the conflicts initially between Malay chiefs but later involving Chinese secret societies for control of tin-rich districts in Selangor, such as Kuala Lumpur. And so the Selangor Civil War (1867-1873) erupted. The Selangor Civil War also involved local sultans fighting for the throne of Perak, which was just north of KL in the state of Selangor. Swept up in conflict, KL burnt to the ground.
Enter Kapitan Yap. He successfully rebuilt the settlement – with the help of the British – and, moreover, attracted more Chinese labourers to the area in an attempt to expand the mining operation. But the master stroke was probably his initiative of bringing in Malay farmers to the surrounding land so as to ensure a ready supply of food for the growing workforce.
Kuala Lumpur's Growing Importance
In 1880, Kuala Lumpur superseded Klang as the capital of Selangor thanks to the success of Kapitan Yap's measures. He established Kuala Lumpur's first school and a shelter for the homeless, besides building up commercial activities. After a massive fire in 1881 (yes, another one), Yah Ah Loy replaced traditional attap houses with brick and tile as a safety precaution.
But despite his initiatives and resourcefulness, Kapitan Yap was no Gandhi. He profited from other illicit businesses and licensed casinos, brothels and drinking saloons. After the death of Yap in 1885, Sir Frank Swettenham was appointed Resident of Selangor. Swettenham was the man responsible for turning the city into the administration centre of the province. Kuala Lumpur became a modern town when the British representative developed the first city plan and rich miners built large, expansive colonial houses. As there was no central planning involved in the growth of the settlement, Kuala Lumpur expanded organically with winding narrow streets and a unique mix of Chinese and European architecture.
In 1896, the Federated Malay States (FMS) were formed by uniting the Sultans of four states under one umbrella. KL was chosen as the capital of FMS because of its central position. And so, the city became a classic centre of British colonialism. British officials and bureaucrats played cricket in the Padang. For their exclusive patronage, they built the Royal Selangor Club, where only whites were allowed. Soon, the club became a symbol of British imperialism, oppression and arrogance.
Japanese Invasion (1941-1945)
The dreams of independence were fanned even more when Malaya was deserted by its colonial master during the Japanese Occupation, leaving millons of Malayans to suffer under the Japanese rule. Chinese Malaysians were treated especially harshly due to their support for China during the Sino-Japanese Wars of 1895 to 1937. Food rationing, hyperinflation and two atomic bombs later, General Seishiro Itagaki surrended Malaya to the British.
Independence - Present Day
On April 1, 1946, the British declared the Union of Malaya and appointed Kuala Lumpur its administrative capital. The city held its first elections in 1952, where the Malaysian Chinese Association-United Malays National Organisation coalition party won nine out of twelve available seats.
At midnight on August 30, 1957, among a crowd numbering in the thousands, British soldiers finally lowered the Union Jack for the last time in front of the Royal Selangor Club. In its place, the Malayan flag was raised. Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first Prime Minister, declared the nation's independence after a long history of colonialism.
The Kuala Lumpur that we see today, with its skyscrapers and huge shopping malls, was developed mostly during the Asian economic boom of the 1990s. KL's phenomenal growth was not merely economic. Its population had grown 50%, for which the city and surrounding suburbs underwent a dramatic overhaul. Motorways, express-ways and basic transportation had to be built and provided for to deal with the sudden, rapid increase in traffic which the antiquated roads could not cope with.
In November 2007, a total of 60,000 people took to the streets to demand electoral reform in the country and equal rights for the composing factions that comprise the diverse socio-political make-up of the city. In other words, the Chinese and Indians demanded for equal rights, as the Malaysian legal system discriminates against non-Malay nationals. Besides prompting political demonstrations, the Malaysian government's affirmative action has also invited criticism from international bodies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.