The other day, my colleagues and I were given the chance to visit Kwai Chai Hong, accompanied by one of its five owners, Zeen. Zeen was kind enough to walk us through the whole place and told us the backstories of every nook and cranny, without leaving out a tiny detail. I feel it is only fair for me to share with you what we were told and prepare you with the necessary knowledge prior to your visit.
Located at Lorong Panggung, the history of Kwai Chai Hong stretches far back into the 19th century, where the area was a hub for Chinese migrant workers for a tapioca mill. Initially started as housing areas for the migrants, the alley expanded into a small, sketchy neighbourhood, offering illegal entertainment.
The name itself is derived from multiple origins by the stories of the long-term residents. “Kwai Chai,” literally translated into ghost children, is said to be a nickname given by the senior citizens to the mischievous kids running around during the day. Another origin is related to the gang members who monopolised illegal businesses and were referred to as “Kwai Chai”. Hong, on the other hand, is a Cantonese word for lane or alley.
Between the cracks of the walls, one can find trees crawling up, running their own course. “They were here before us,” Zeen would say as she explained why they choose not to get rid of them. The owners of Kwai Chai Hong intend to keep the originality and rescue every remnant possible. Here are some of the things that they did and that you should take note when you come to visit:
Striking blue and yellow! The row of shops is painted in yellow while the windowpanes are painted blue. The reason behind the choice of colours goes back to the original form of the building: If you look closely at the unpainted, worn-down walls, you can see a fading yellow layer that was indeed the original paint, as well as the fading blue colour of the original windowpanes that you can see below.
Zeen and her partners try their best to preserve every piece of the alley. Some windowpanes, while no longer sturdy enough for use but still in their full form, are kept and displayed as a backdrop for one of the walls.
Beside the newly painted buildings, you can find a small bridge that will lead you inside Kwai Chai Hong. The bridge is structured with the original wood found there and put to use until it needs replacement. The reason behind the bridge’s existence; as one might think it unnecessary to be above a concrete ground, is a rather hygienic one: to cover the back doors of restaurants that open into the walkway and avoid any messy residue during the cleaning up of their restaurants.
At the bridge, you will find the first mural. A couple back in the 1960s (note the outfits!) on a date on the bridge. You will notice a QR code beside them for you to scan, a unique feature for all the murals at Kwai Chai Hong. What will the code lead you to? That’s for you to find out! (Hint: it brings the murals to life!)
Further inside, you will see a few more murals depicting the residents of Kwai Chai Hong back in the days, from the young to the old generations. First, you will see an ‘uncle’, as Malaysians would call, with an erhu, or commonly known as the Chinese violin. He is the representation of the elders who have retired and spent most of their time at home, and in this case, entertained themselves with music. Just a tad further from the uncle is a couple of kids, representing the “kwai chai”, who would agitate the elders and get scolded. The kids in the mural are playing guli; or marbles, one of the many traditional games local kids used to enjoy, while a little girl sits by the window and watches.
As you walk ahead, you will find a mural of a calligrapher. The backstory of the representation is that, while not many residents were educated and literate, they would rely on a calligrapher to write their letters to their families back in mainland China. Meanwhile, below the mezzanine, you will find a pretty lady by the window, dressed beautifully with a full-face make up. This mural would represent one of the illegal businesses back in the day, where the alley was known for its ‘red light district’.
All the murals at Kwai Chai Hong are the intricate works of five local artists, so look closely and note the different styles of each mural. However, the biggest mural that you will find as you ascend into an open mezzanine, is a combined art piece of all the five artists! It is a mural of the local Chinese community scene back in the 60s, and at the very top, a special homage to Chin Woo Stadium.
Oh, there’s also a mural of a couple of kids playing the traditional skipping rope (made of rubber bands)! It’s an “Instagrammable” corner where you can get creative to get the perfect shot as though you’re playing with them!
Another trick is to locate the green ventilators. Some are more visible than others. What’s so special about them, though? They are the olden-days hand-crafted porcelain ventilators, so one is not like the other.
When you’re there, be sure to stop and stare in awe at the Century-Old Lamp Post, the oldest, still-standing original lamp post in Malaysia that dates back to the 1900s when electricity first arrived.
After you have finished with the short tour around Kwai Chai Hong, quench your thirst and fill your tummy up at one (or all!) of the restaurants and cafés available there. We cooled down at Bubble Bee Café, a cosy two-storey waffle shop with a rustic interior.
Despite the short visit, I went home feeling a bit sentimental after reconnecting with the past, thanks to Zeen’s passionate and patriotic briefing. It sure is different when a place is sincerely taken care of by the ones who love and respect history and nature. This would be the perfect place to spend our Malaysia day holiday! (Or any other day, of course!)
If you wish to come here by using the public transport, stop at Pasar Seni Station if you’re taking LRT/ MRT or Maharajalela Station if you’re taking the Monorail. You’ll have to walk for a bit before you reach Kwai Chai Hong. Did I not mention the entrance fee? That’s because it’s free!
For more information on the selection of cafés and bars, upcoming events, and how to get there, visit their official website at kwaichaihong.com.