A Street Art tour opens Loong Wai Ting’s eyes to the heart of the city
FROM my seat inside the Light Rail Transit train, I can see the gloomy sky slowly part to reveal clear blue sky. It’s a welcoming sight, especially when it had rained the previous night which continued until the early hours of the morning.
My friend Shyam Priah who is also the founder of Yellow House KL, a non-profit organisation that executes transformative sustainable approaches to address social issues such as homelessness, had texted to ask if I wanted to postpone our street art tour which would take place in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
Then, the heavy rain just turned into a light drizzle. By the time we embark on our little tour, it would definitely clear up, I reasoned. True enough, the rain finally stopped and we’re left with cool weather. What perfect time to walk around!
Carrying a light backpack, I hop on another train that will take me to Central Market.
About 15 minutes later, I arrive at the doorstep of Central Market in Jalan Hang Kasturi, a street named after one of the five Malay warriors who lived during the Malay Sultanate of Malacca (1400-1511), located less than 500m from Masjid Jamek that sits at the confluence of Sungai Kelang and Sungai Gombak, the very place that gave the city its name.
And Central Market is not short of its own history and tales too. A favourite meeting place for locals and a must-visit destination for tourists, it started off as a wet market which was built in 1888.
My grandmother would always regale me with stories of how she would always buy her fresh seafood here. “Back then, the floors were wet, with leftover vegetables strewn all over it,” she would relate, about the good ol’ days when she would take the bus from her home to do her shopping.
Today, Central Market is a centre for Malaysian culture, arts and craft. It offers visitors a unique shopping experience where they can bring a bit of Malaysia back home.
Just outside the main building, under a covered walkway, which resembles a Wau Bulan and known as Kasturi Walk, you will find stalls selling handicraft, textiles, souveniers and even collectibles. And if you’re hungry, just pop into one of the many restaurants nearby.
This is where I’m to meet my guide, Iffah. The pleasant young woman from Kelantan who is also a student at a local university, volunteers her time to show eager tourists, both local and foreign, the history of KL through walking tours organised by Yellow House KL. Besides the tour I’m about to take, it also offers the Haunted Tour and the Multicultural Tour.
A multi-linguist, Iffah is able to converse in Mandarin, German, Turkish and even Portuguese. She is also passionate about local heritage and culture. This is evident in the way she interacts with the people around her, always sharing stories about a certain place or a particular building.
As we begin our two-hour plus street art tour that covers about 4.5km, Iffah explains how an initiative by Petronas called Project Tanah Airku about three years ago helped changed the perception of street art in Kuala Lumpur. The company set out to change the perception of street art which was commonly associated with graffiti and vandalism, by promoting patriotism through art.
As a result, 14 homegrown artists took up the challenge and left their messages of independence, unity, multiculturalism and love for the nation in 10 spots around the city.
From the Central Market, we walk across the busy Jalan Hang Kasturi to Jalan Sultan — one of the oldest streets in the city where many pre-war shophouses still stand. It is here that we find the famous art installation by Lithuania-born artist Ernest Zacharevic.
One of Zacharevic’s most popular street arts is his mural depicting two children on a bicycle in Armenian Street in Penang’s Unesco World Heritage Site George Town. The other one depicts a boy on a motorcycle with a nonchalant far-off gaze, also located on the same street.
Going on the same theme, Zacharevic uses a chopped mini school bus for his installation titled Rage Against The Machine. Yes, you guessed it right. It is named after the American rock band of the same name.
The artwork shows a life-sized painting of schoolchildren with an actual portion of a schoolbus propped against the wall. With the familiar “Bas Sekolah” stamped in bold black ink across its yellow-coloured body, this art installation is propped up in a paid open-air car park, where a couple of pre-war shophouses once stood before one of them caught fire and was torn down.
In case you’re wondering what happened to the rest of the bus, well, you can still find it in Penang where a friend of Zacharevic uses it as a serving counter for his restaurant!
However, it is sad to see the beautiful art vandalised by irresponsible individuals. There is graffiti of unreadable words spray-painted in some parts of the bus and some of the windows smashed.
Occasionally, curious tourists drop by to take a couple of photos. The more creative ones squeeze behind the cut-out bus and climb onto the rusty steel and pretend to be sitting in the bus. Although it is not recommended to do so, if you must, do it at your own risk.
For fans of Zacharevic, there’s another spot where you can check out his artwork. Along Jalan Gereja, where it connects Jalan Ampang to Jalan Raja Chulan, you will find his wall mural titled Sampan Boy. Located inside a paid open-space parking with the Roman Catholic St John’s Cathedral in the back, the mural is painted against Wisma Allianz. The Sampan Boy shows a boy sitting in a sampan as it passes by a house on stilts, from which a woman looks out as her cat naps on the stairs.
BRAVING THE UNKNOWN
When we arrive at a spot in Jalan Panggung, a stone’s throw from the tourist hotspot that is Chinatown, Iffah leisurely points to an abandoned building across the double-storey shophouses which used to house the country’s first post office.
“That place is haunted. there are reports of an apparition of a lady on the top floor. It became so bad that it affected the food business downstairs and the tenants were forced to close their business and move out,” explains Iffah.
A sudden chill runs down my spine. At that exact moment, the blinds on the upper floor move slightly. Could it be the wind or are my eyes playing tricks on me? I shudder and turn my eyes away.
Tugging at my sleeve, Iffah then points at a huge drawing on the wall behind us. It is a large mural depicting an elderly goldsmith at work. Partially hidden from view as it is located inside an alley, this is the first piece of street art by the Russian artist Julia Volchkova, in Kuala Lumpur. Titled Goldsmith, it took Volchkova only four days to complete the art in April 2016.
For those who love having their coffee and toast at the narrow alley which is known as Lorong Panggung, you’ll hardly miss the mural. So, the next time you sip that cup of Joe, kopitiam-style, remember to train your eyes upward and you’ll see “an uncle” working away behind his thick glasses.
Further away from Goldsmith, in Jalan Raja Chulan, you will not miss the colourful mural depicting a boy wearing a tiger hat while playing with a handheld touchscreen device, readily embracing the future while proudly protecting his heritage.
Titled Brave, this is local artists’ Yumz and Anokayer’s (of Mediumtouch) take on youth, who seem to be a bundle of contradictions. They are curious about the outside world and yet feel indifferent. They seem to be rooted in traditional values and yet defy orthodoxies.
The artwork is on an abandoned building which will soon be turned into a hotel, located directly opposite the Telekom Museum. Brave is by far the biggest artwork under the #tanahairku project, measuring 26.5m in height and 25m in length, roughly the size of eight badminton courts. It is inducted into the Malaysia Book Of Records for the biggest wall mural in the country.
Before ending the tour, Iffah takes me to the last spot on our itinerary. Located a short walk from the Masjid Jamek LRT station in Lebuh Ampang is a hidden mural titled The Malaysian Model Heart Kit by artists Kangblabla and Reeze. This last stop makes me ponder on the questions of what a Malaysian heart is? What are the qualities that define us as Malaysians?
Set amidst the neo-classical shophouses built in the 1930s, the artwork is simple but thoughtful. At the centre of it all is a heart with colours inspired by our Jalur Gemilang — blue, red, white and yellow. Surrounding the heart are words of wisdom such as berani (brave), intelektual (intellectual), teguh (firm) and azam (ambitious). These are the same words that have defined us as a nation in our 61 years of independence.
The yellow House
Yellow House KL is a non-profit organisation founded in February 2012 by the KL-based Shyam Priah who believes in sustainable help. She believes that to help someone get off the street, we must first provide equal opportunities based on merit.
Not influenced by gender, race, colour, religion, family status, disability or sexual orientation, Yellow House KL aims to endorse a working environment that is free from discrimination and harassment.
It also addresses social issues such as homelessness and urban poor communities through its Unseen Tours KL. The core mission of Unseen Tours KL is to increase the employability of the street people of Malaysia through capacity building.
To achieve this, Yellow House KL provides training to street people so that they can become effective tour guides.
It was in 2015 when the first seed of Unseen Tours KL was planted, but it wasn’t until September last year that the seed finally grew into a blossom. It was at the government-funded rehabilitation camp for the homeless called Kem Pemantapan Jatidiri in Kuala Kubu Baru that Shyam met the tour guide candidates.
So far, there are about 557 volunteers at Yellow House KL and five certified tour guides as well as volunteers like Iffah, who are trained to guide visitors throughout their trail. On average, the tour guides earn RM500 monthly.
For those who want to go the extra mile to help Unseen Tours KL become more sustainable, you can check out the gift store online. Sixty per cent of the revenue of every purchase goes back to the street community while 40 per cent will be used for operational expenses.
The fully-guided Unseen Tour offers three routes —Haunted Tour, Street Art Tour and Multicultural Tour —which all take place in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
As the name suggests, the Haunted Tour takes participants to places and buildings in the city that are allegedly haunted. While the Street Art Tour trails the city’s hidden creative art installation, the Multicultural Tour shows off the diverse cultures of Malaysia.
Yellow House KL
213, Lorong Ikan Emas 2, Kampung Ampang Campuran, Kuala Lumpur 68000, Malaysia
TEL 018-367 4852
HOURS Daily from 9am. Group tour bookings are also available. Booking is available online.
PAY All tours are priced at RM55 per person and price includes a bottle of water.