A village amid skyscrapers: how long can Kuala Lumpur’s enclave hold out?

In the heart of Malaysia’s towering capital lies tiny Kampong Bharu. But its markets are being razed and its residents evicted

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A traditional Malay house in Kampong Bharu, overshadowed by high-rise apartment towers
A traditional Malay house in Kampong Bharu, overshadowed by high-rise apartment towers / © Kate Mayberry

For decades, the weekend night market was the heart of Kampong Bharu. The people of this ethnic Malay enclave would wander through the stalls, catch up on the local gossip and settle in front of the stage to watch a dance or a shadow puppet performance. It was a world apart from the march of glass-walled skyscrapers across the rest of Kuala Lumpur.

But in 2014 the stage, along with the simple homes around it, were razed to the ground.

“When I was a child I loved this place,” says Maizan Ariff, 43, who grew up in Kampong Bharu. He still lives there, but has seen many of his neighbours forcibly moved to apartments on the city’s outskirts. “I’d go over to the weekend market and there were so many things to do. I could see wayang kulit (shadow puppets) and dancing. It was so lively and there was such a community spirit.”

Kampong Bharu is a village seemingly dropped into the centre of Malaysia’s capital. Life here is lived not in the air-conditioned, glass-walled towers of the modern city but on the streets, among family and community. But those skyscrapers now surround Kampong Bharu, dwarfing the traditional houses and looming over the corrugated roofs and gardens of banana trees and frangipani. The village’s borders are no longer defined by the river in which children once swam but by a tangle of elevated highways. The centre of the modern city – Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) and the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, the symbol of Malaysia’s ambition – is just a kilometre away.

Now, with the night market demolished in order to build a high-rise complex of offices, luxury apartments and a shopping mall, locals are worried that Kampong Bharu can only hold out so long. […]