No part of Kuala Lumpur retains such a link to colonial times as Merdeka Square, the one-time hub of British Malaya. Unlike much of the city, where heritage has lost out to development over recent decades, the square is still ringed by historic buildings.
The open green space was once the Padang, or Parade Ground, in colonial times, echoing both to the sound of pomp and ceremony, and rather more charmingly, to (cricket) bat on ball. Dominating the square now is a 100-metre tall flag pole, supposedly the largest in the world; a not-so-subtle reminder of who is in charge now.
Of more aesthetic interest is the art nouveau Victorian Fountain, which dates back more than a century. It was made (in pieces) in England before being sent out to KL to be put together. Presumably the instructions came in the box.
Facing across Jalan Raja is the former administrative headquarters of British Malaya, the Sultan Abdul Amad Building, with its distinctive clock tower. It’s named after the Sultan of Selangor at the time of its construction in the late 1890s. Apart from the name though, this structure took its influences from much further afield, mostly from the hybrid architectural style imported from colonial India known as Indo-Saracenic.
A couple of hundred metres to the right, on the corner of Jalan Pasar Besar and Jalan Sultan Hishamudin, is a distinctive red-and-white brick building, which once housed the Selangor Works Department. Built in 1905, it is a another fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Now it’s open to the public as the moderately diverting National Textiles Museum. Directly opposite it is the elegant former home of the National History Museum — the collection is now part of the National Museum. Since 2007 it has been a restaurant, Restoran Warisan.
Next door is another colonial edifice which has served several functions in its life, both before and after independence. Built in 1899, its neo-Renaissance architecture is much more European in style than most of its contemporary buildings. It now houses the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, which is well worth a visit.
Back in the square itself is the mock-Tudor Royal Selangor Club, but not unfortunately the original structure, which was gutted by fire and flooding 1970. The club, which was founded in 1884, was once a bastion of the British colonial elite. Since independence, it has swapped one privileged clientele for another.
In stark contrast to the grandeur of many of the historic buildings around Merdeka Square is diminutive St Mary’s Anglican Cathedral. Looking more like a rural parish church than a cathedral, it can seem overwhelmed by its surroundings.
But if visitors give St Mary’s a chance to reveal its quiet charms, it can be evocative of an era now long gone.
By Pat Fama.
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