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Text and photography by Alessandro Carboni

Location:  3° 8′ 8.52″ N, 101° 41′ 16.8″ E

Published for Abitare Magazine

Kampung Baru is a urban village in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Over the years it has become a major urban area not only for the interest of large construction companies, but also for its political and religious value: in the area live the oldest Muslim communities in the nation. A urban exploration of the the Klang River where the oldest mosque in Kuala Lumpur is located and reflection on the changing Muslim identity.

I arrived in the Malaysian capital after about six hours bus ride from Singapore. I am in Kuala Lumpur for the second stage of the project Overlapping Discrete Boundaries (1) with Dickson Dee, musician from Hong Kong and Liang Guo Jian, Chinese calligrapher and documentary filmmaker. It ‘s almost night. Like all Asian megacities, it never sleeps. The city is always moving, there is always someone who has something to do, transport, work; most of the times there are people who are awaiting. Through the window, I see the streams that flow fast and elusive in the grid of the city. The periphery is quite extensive, it begins where the night is really frightening, the forest. While travelling, I saw endless expanses of land full of trees and vegetation. In this dense area the city has begun to expand and illuminate the night to day. The bus enters the city at night, drawing a continuous line between the myriad of buildings, signs, alphabets and colours The fragmented landscape changes continuously: the red of the Chinese, the brown of the Indians, the blue of the Malays, and many other overlapping colours create a jagged, complex and kaleidoscopic urban texture. It is late night already, 2 in the morning. We’ve arrived at the last bus stop. The journey starts.

In the morning I meet Lee Kwang Goh, independent sound artist, manager of the music label Herbal Life and organiser of our residence at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. One of the most interesting aspects I wanted to analyse was the ethnic, cultural and religious stratification of Kuala Lumpur. According to Lee Kwang in reality there is no real stratification, but rather there are many ethnicities, cultures, languages, separate groups living together in the urban area. Bahasa Melayu (commonly called Malay) is the national language, but each ethnic, religious group, continues to speak their own language, an important sign of recognition that identifies the origin of every single inhabitant of the city. Taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur are amazing! They can speak, in addition to Malay, also English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Tamil. Lee Kwang, tells me that the rapid development of Kuala Lumpur has created a huge influx of foreign workers from Indonesia, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Vietnam. This phenomenon has further fragmented the communities within the city. The Chinese are the second community, after the Malays.

They are approximately 33%, mainly of Cantonese origin. The 10% instead are Indians and mainly come from Tamil, but between them they also speak other languages such as Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu and Pashtu. Historically, the majority of Indians were brought in during the British colonisation The state religion is Islam, practised mostly by Malays and Indians. Other major religions are Hinduism (especially among the Indians), Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism (mainly among Chinese) and Christianity. To better understand the jagged ethnic and religious fabric of the city, Lee Kwuang used a map of Kuala Lumpur. He divided and defined the various communities, ethnic and religious groups in the various neighbourhoods and roads. The map of the city became a grid of signs, lines, fences, boundaries within which settled the various communities, ethnic and religious groups that Lee Kwang had so far described. Notwithstanding the substantial and clear language, ethical and religious differences, the cultural mix, however, had created an eclectic society, but also a very interesting urban and architecture style, perhaps the most dynamic in South-East Asia. In the evening, I have an appointment with Voon Phin Keong, director of the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies. The Centre is not far from our apartment, so I decide to walk. I cross the city until I reach the border of the Chinese area. A large sign crosses the street from side to side: Welcome to Chinatown. After about 10 minutes I arrive at the Centre and meet the director.

Prof. Voon Phin Keon is a smiling person, very helpful, so I let him tell me everything. Born and raised in Malaysia, he says he is completely Chinese. In fact, his distant ancestors were Chinese. Many like him, despite being born in Malaysia, state they are in effect Chinese. For years Voon Phin Keon has been studying the Chinese villages and settlements in Malaysia. “My studies will help demonstrate that in reality, before being invaded by Asian nations, Malaysia was uncontaminated land, full of vegetation and above all without men”, the director tells me.

He continues, arguing that the proto-Malay originated from the region today called Yunnan, in China. In fact, also some anthropologists (2) think the same as him. Others instead think that the first to arrive in Malaysia were Indonesians. So, according to the theory of Prof. Voon Phin Keon, Malaysia would have Chinese origins. At this point, Prof. Voon Phin Keon wants to speak specifically about the history of Kuala Lumpur. “It is a muddy city, because it was born in the Klang Valley where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet”, he says. The city was founded in 1857 by a group of tin miners. Later, after the arrival of Chinese immigrants attracted by the opportunity to make their fortunes in the tin trade, the city grew and developed very quickly. He tells me that in 1870, the British arrived in the city to end the conflicts that broke out between the various communities within the city. Many of the buildings were burned and badly damaged. In 1882, Kuala Lumpur was rebuilt by the English themselves. Since then, the British did not leave until the country gained independence in 1957. Even now the oldest part of the city is pretty much made up of mosques and colonial buildings.

During the reconstruction of the city, the British colonial administration built the village of Kampung Baru. The village had the function to protect, preserve the culture and the way of life of Malaysians. Since then, continues Prof. Voon Phin Keon, Kampung Baru has become more than a village, a political symbol of Malay culture. In fact, in the village were born the first pro-independence movements after World War II. In addition to the anti-colonial protests, the founders of UMNO (United Malais National Organisation), the dominant political party still in office in Malaysia, held their first meetings there. On 13 May 1969 violent race riots exploded in the village between Malays and Chinese. Prof. Voon Phin Keon, also says that the riots were caused by the non-recognition, by the government, of the election victory of the Chinese opposition parties (3).

The next morning I visit the village. Kampung Baru is a territory surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic that covers almost a square kilometre I arrive up to Chow Kit station by tube, the remaining stretch of road on foot. I decide to start exploring not from the main entrance, but from the east side, where it has recently been built a wall and a large highway. This wall separates completely and physically the village from the rest of the city. In fact, from this point it is possible to see all the skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers and the centre of the city, but to be able to reach it it takes a very long stretch of road.

So the villagers prefer to never move. The wall is made up of several modules of reinforced concrete that rise to about 6 meters high and extend for about one kilometre. The incessant noise of cars, trucks, buses on the highway, dominates everything else. Beyond the wall, the city is a collage of writings that are reflected in the mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers. The Petronas Towers (4), continuously present in the scenario of the city, from within the village, seem to disappear in a cloud of smog, moist and heat. I enter the village, I am beyond the wall. It seems that the villagers have appropriated it integrating it with their activities. Along the wall there is a swarm of people, small stalls, outdoor restaurants that come to life especially at night.

At times the wall is also used as a screen on which to write, denounce, narrate and write down phone numbers for some kind of business. I read “punk is not dead”. When I enter through the narrow streets, the scenery changes rapidly. I enter an area known for small crime and drug dealing. In fact this area is dubbed the Dark Side. Calmly, without attracting too much attention, I walk through the area. To my right a mosque. The entrance is crowded. On the lampposts, speakers begin to play the muezzin I enter the mosque. Hundreds of massed shoes and hundreds of bodies in prayer. I sit, watching. I continue my exploration. The wooden houses are on stilts. Space is very limited, in fact, they rub elbows with other junk shops and street restaurants. Most of the houses are still in excellent condition, others are completely abandoned. Some houses have been rebuilt with recycled materials, metal and plastics. There is a lot of green, some animals in the street, others in a cage. Few people around, the flows are quite rarefied.

“The quality of life must be protected. The land must remain in the hands of the Malays so that the spirit of community in the village can still live”, Shamsuri Suradi bursts, one of the village chiefs, met by chance while walking in the area. He says that despite being an asset for the city, the village is seen by the local government as a punch in the eye, in contrast with the modern image of Kuala Lumpur.

Hamsuri Suradi tells me that since 1970, Kampung Baru had to face several pressures from the government who plan to sell the area to real estate companies. In reality, he says, the government intend to repeal the law that dates back to colonial times that, not only gives the right of veto to the village elders on any major development of the village, but allows only Malay origin citizens to purchase areas of the village. “The government think they can take the land and turn it into whatever they want. We do not want that to happen, we want a proposal that can meet the needs of the residents of Kampung Baru”, he added. The old Malays fear that the disappearance of their village, cancels even the traits, relationships, architectures and traditions. I think that any government action against the village would be deeply unpopular with Malay voters and the risk is to create new tensions that might lead to violent clashes. But I think that the government will choose to negotiate with the residents.

There is no doubt that the government wants to use the land to build a more systematic development in the city centre, but undoubtedly this will mean the acquisition of land and forced transfer of the villagers in other parts of the city. The muezzin accompanies me until the end of my exploration. The short but intense journey into the village allowed me to relate the Kampung Baru case with Long Jiang (5), another similar case I had previously visited, where politics had played a decisive role in the urban, social and relationship transformation of the inhabitants. Kampung Baru is not an ancient village, but was built by the British administration. The village is a fence and the inhabitants who were secluded inside, over the years have appropriated it. Today Kampung Baru, become the most important land-mark in the city, not only is tempting large construction companies, but it represents one of the most important political issues in Malaysia: identity. The concept of identity became the central focus of my research in Kuala Lumpur. Identity had an urban form and recognisable borders. In the following days I reworked the data collected and tried to elaborate new forms, through visual arts and performance, of relationships between urban space, body and identity in Kuala Lumpur. I was looking for shapes and objects that could tell the idea of border. At first I analysed with the Urban Proximity Detector (6) flows and spatial arrangement of Kampung Baru mosque, a place of worship with strong identity in Kuala Lumpur. Also in this mosque praying in bare feet is a very important ritual practice: before entering the place of worship one must remove his shoes. Therefore, inside the mosque, the shoes are always in the border. Subsequently, I bought 20 pairs of second hand children shoes.

With the shoes, I studied the first shapes, creating ordered or completely chaotic compositions. I used the shoes as modular elements, to create boundaries, walls, etc… I walked around the streets, positioning the shoes outside closed doors, so to imagine the presence of someone in prayer in a room or building. I wanted to create a limit, a clear boundary that was linked to the strong religious identity of the city.

I noticed that in some places where I had placed the shoes, some people before entering the room, took off their shoes. After these experiments, I decided to make a urban route and use the shoes in the strongest identity place of the city, where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet. On the estuary of the river stands a mosque, perhaps the most important in the city. One after another, I placed the shoes in a row, like a long wall or as a border landmark. In parallel, I started collecting clothes, shirts, trousers and any dress of the persons with whom I had relations during the residence in Kuala Lumpur. I managed to collect more than 200 pieces. With these I created different sets starting from simple subdivisions in colour, shape, fabric, etc… During the performance I tried to recreate the forms that I had created in my mind during the Kampung Baru explorations. If the shoes, represented the urban boundaries, clothes metaphorically represented the different communities of the city. The complex and kaleidoscopic urban texture of Kuala Lumpur became a jagged coloured map composed of indelible signs, boundaries and limits.



2) “Phylogeography and Ethnogenesis of Aboriginal Southeast Asians.” Oxford Journals – November 11, 2008.

3) May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 is a book published in 2007 and written by activist and scholar Dr. Kua Kia Soong about the accidents of May 13 1969. It was published by Suaram, a group of Human Rights militants, on the occasion of the 38thanniversary of the worst race riot in the history of Malaysia, which took place mainly in Kuala Lumpur. The official death toll was 196, but independent journalists and other observers estimated it up to ten times more. Three quarters of the victims were Chinese Malays, after the clashes 6000 of them were made homeless. As the title suggests, the book is based on declassified documents, now available only at the Public Records Office in London.

4) The Petronas Twin Towers were the tallest towers in the world from 1998 to 2004, until their height is been overtaken by Taipei 101. However, the Petronas Twin Towers remain the highest twin towers in the world.

5) Longjiang, a small village in the district of Shunde near Foshan, China.

6) Urban Proximity Detector: the Urban Proximity Detector is a urban kit developed in collaboration with Riccardo Mantelli, media artist, already used for the exploration of Foshan. 

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