History of Kuala Lumpur - A Walk Through The Capital City's Freedom Strife

It is indeed hard to believe that 200 years ago, the city of Kuala Lumpur did not even exist! What is more surprising is that one of Asia’s richest cities had such a devastating and gory beginning to it, that no one could have even fathomed its prosperity and popularity today. In fact, the town was founded when some Chinese miners discovered the area because it was naturally rich in tin. The word ‘Kuala Lumpur’ translates to ‘muddy confluence’, which comes from the intersection of the Gombak and Klang rivers; which are the significant getaways to the city. It was at this spot where it all started, where settlements after settlements grew and flourished; and the result: Kuala Lumpur as we know today!

Read on to find more about the brief yet interesting history of Kuala Lumpur, and how it transformed from the tin town to the city of towers.

The Tin Mining Days

Tin Mining in Malaysia
Tin Mining in Malaysia (Source)
In the year 1857, way back into the history of Kuala Lumpur, when tin was in high demand especially by the British Empire and America; 87 Chinese miners began their journey up Klang in search of the same.  Luckily, the miners found huge reserves of it in Ampang, and they built a small village and started settling at this spot, taking advantage of the dual valleys of the rivers Gombak and Klang. They named this spot as the ‘muddy confluence’. 

But as fortune would have it, 70 of them died due to malaria; but more people followed soon despite the malaria-infested location; and the area soon became a flourishing community. It was, however, a hoarse environment; dominated mostly by the men, and without any central authority keeping a check on peace and order, fights broke out often between members of the clan. The miners began to organise themselves into families and warring groups called ‘secret societies’, and even the minutest of drunken disputes led to grave consequences.

The Growth and Development of Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

A theatre on Pudu Road which was then converted into an amusement park and
later demolished in 2009 (Source)

The British authorities finally decided to intervene, and the post of a Chinese captain, called ‘Kapitan’ was introduced. The role of the Kapitan was to look after the area, administer it and ensure law and order. Yah Ah Loy was the third Kapitan to take over this role, and no longer had he stepped into this position of responsibility that Kuala Lumpur began to witness considerable changes and transformed into an essential commercial hub in Selangor.

This period in the history of Kuala Lumpur also saw a Chinese population increase, as well as the settling of Malay farmers nearby to make food provisions for the miners. Under his able leadership, the first-ever school and shelter for the homeless were also established in the area, and traditional attap houses were replaced with brick and tile after a massive fire in 1881, to prevent any further mishappenings.

In 1887, the city became the capital of the province Selangor, and later in 1895, it was chosen as the capital of the newly formed Federated Malay States. During this period, the city also became the confluence for people from different cultures and backgrounds, though different people naturally drifted to settle in different areas. The Malays and Indians settled along the Java Street, the British around Pedang; and the Chinese around Chinatown and the commercial sector.

Following the death of Yah Ah Loy; Frank Swettenham, the British Resident of Selangor, took over; and Kuala Lumpur continued to grow and prosper well till  World War II.

WW II & Its After-Effects

Japanese Surrender in Malaya, 1945
Japanese Surrender in Malay (Source)
During World War II, the city came under Japanese occupancy from 1942 to 1945. However, once the war ended, Japan surrendered, and Kuala Lumpur came under the British again. However, this time; the city decided that it had already dealt with enough oppression, and now the people wanted to regulate themselves and gain independence. The post-war years saw a communist rising, and under a resettlement programme, new villages sprang up on the outskirts of the city.

Gradually, the British lost their control over the whole country, and Malaysia was now open to newer experiences. So the country waged for their rights and independence in 1957, the British agreed and left the country.

In 1963, Kuala Lumpur became the capital of the independent Federation of Malaya; and in 1963, it became the capital of Malaysia. Interestingly, though Kuala Lumpur was the capital all this while, it did not have its own administration for a really long time. It was only in 1972, for the first time in the history of Kuala Lumpur, that the city indeed became independent and got a government for itself.


The Making of an Independent City

KL 50th Independence Anniversary
The 50th Independence Anniversary Celebration (Source)
With its great independence also came significant problems and significant transformations (in fact, some of the greatest the city had ever witnessed)! During the mid-1960s, the population grew to about half a million, and this population explosion and consequent congestion brought along its own set of administrative issues.

During the same decade, the city witnessed some of its darkest days. Due to the feud between the Malays and the Chinese, a full-fledged civil war broke out in 1969. During the 13 May incident, 200 people lost their lives, and nationwide reforms took place to reduce the Chinese monopoly over the city. This eventually led to a stage of emergency that lasted for two years, but thankfully, tensions were reduced in want of a better economy and a peaceful life.

Finally, in 1974 the city was given the status of a Federal Territory.

The Contemporary Kuala Lumpur

The contemporary Kuala Lumpur
KL Tower (Source)
Ever since 1981, the city has witnessed growth at a rate like never before in the history of Kuala Lumpur, and a lot of credit for the same goes to the then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir. With his ‘Vision 2020’, he managed to transform the country into a modern one, and the capital very well bears testimony to that. The Petronas Towers are the proud symbol of the city, and Kuala Lumpur is a metropolis in the real sense now. Today, Kuala Lumpur is one of the top 10 business centres and industrial towns in all of Southeast Asia, and the city also hosts important international events all year round. There are also high hopes from Cyberjaya, which will hopefully become the Asian version of the American 'Silicon Valley' very soon.

Thanks to the 87 miners who gathered the courage to venture into an area totally unknown, the world has now been gifted with one of its most beautiful cities today: a city that epitomises phenomenal growth and monumental development. It offers humanity with lessons not just in history, but also for the individual self. Over time, the city has earned for itself the reputation of being one of the most modern and sophisticated cities in Malaysia. It attracts tourists to it in large numbers all year round for its grandeur and charm.

This post was published by Muskan Ahuja

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