History is the new cool thanks to this group of Malaysian activists

KUALA LUMPUR: Ms Loke Poh Lin was greeted like an old friend by news vendor Naina Mohd as she passed his hole-in-the-wall shop in the old quarter of Kuala Lumpur, or more popularly known as Chinatown.

She stopped to chat and buy old-fashioned talcum powder that was also sold by Mr Naina whose family has been running that newsstand for over 50 years.

Ms Loke, 54, is a familiar sight in this part of town, as she’s frequently haunting its streets to document its hidden little stories.

She is part of a group which calls itself Rakan KL or Friends of KL, led by prominent artist Victor Chin who is also a founding member of the Malaysian Heritage Board.

This small group of about 10 Malaysians is fighting a battle to save the old buildings of Kuala Lumpur that are under threat of demolition or careless development.

Their weapon? History.

Since the middle of last year, they have been churning up public interest in these old buildings by unearthing the little stories that give people a visceral connection to the past - stories such as Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman standing on top of the Chin Woo athletic association building to look for a suitable site to build a stadium for Malaya’s independence. Or the story about how the stadium was built in a year.

Their main focus is the hill on which stands Stadium Merdeka where Malaya’s independence was declared in 1957. The stadium itself is not under threat of demolition but many Malaysians are horrified at the plans to build a 100-storey tower nearby.

“This is all the history that we have left – the history of the founding of our nation,” said Ms Loke. “There’s nothing left of the history of the founding of our city. We need to save this for the future generations.”

She said they were not against development but it should be reasonable development. She also stressed that this campaign is not about Chinatown or the history of the Chinese community.

“It’s about the history of the founding of our nation, and Chinatown was part of the scenario at that time. But it’s not all about Chinatown,” she said.

If History is their weapon, their strategy is walking tours for the public. They have charted six routes covering different areas with different stories, but all with Merdeka Stadium as the focal point.

Rakan KL also held a successful two-day festival last year with walks, talks and shows.

Barely eight months since they started, public interest has been growing. More people are turning up for the history walks that are publicised only via social media. And many are young Malaysians in their 20s, contrary to the perception that the young are not interested in the old.

History is the new cool, it would seem.

carolynh@sph.com.sg