A GROUP of construction workers decked in dirt-covered boots, faded jeans, tattered T-shirts and solid yellow helmets are completely drenched in sweat. The afternoon sun is so intense they try to seek refuge under the few trees still standing along one of KL’s most historic areas — Chinatown.
In an hour also, the group of men will leave the comfort of that shade to continue building new structures that mark Malaysia’s progress — glitzy hotels and a new MRT nearby.
The tussle between old and new in this area has been a point of contention for a while now. Some inhabitants of shophouses here left their family homes of over 100 years due to stratospheric rates, while others were given eviction notices — their homes would be demolished to make way for new buildings.
On the corner of Petaling Street, however, lies an outlet which embodies a fascinating balance of past and present: Chocha (Hakka for “sit” and “tea”), a café-cum -creative collaborative space catering to a progressive, contemporary crowd, housed in a century-old building.
HOUSE OF PLENTY
If you’re looking for Chocha, there’s a big chance you’ll take a while to find it. The entrance to this space is camouflaged by a faded, peeling pastel green facade which has seen better days.
The old concrete signage reads “MAH LIAN HOTEL”. Electronic wires hang loosely across the signage which is supported by two pillars marred by grime and decorated with big Chinese characters as well as the barely visible words, “RUMAH TUMPANGAN” painted on it.
The outside walls are adorned with tiny vintage tiles and this place looks like it hasn’t been given an upgrade of any sort since 1969, the same year the building was renovated by Mah Lian Hotel.
And it’s the 1960s that you’ll walk into as you push the front doors open. The space, reminiscent of the decade that brought us bellbottoms and lava lamps, will render you speechless.
Small grey and green tiles of old Malaysian kopitiams welcome you in while solitary light bulbs dangle from the wooden ceiling.
A few patrons are exchanging notes over a long, wooden table positioned next to walls with light turquoise Pomona tiles, the definition of sixties chic.
“We didn’t touch anything in here except make the structure of this building stronger by changing the beams to metal,” the owner and creator of Chocha, Shin Chang, reveals after he introduces himself. “Everything else here is in its original form.”
Shin, who runs architectural firm MentahMatter with fellow architect Penny Ng, decided to breathe life into the building that was left to rot 10 years ago.
“When I first came across this building, it was totally dilapidated,” he recalls, referring to the roof which had collapsed and wooden beams which were rotting as result of the rain.
The facade of the Mah Lian hotel was also partially ruined by a fire that devoured the building next to it years ago. A majority of Shin’s work involved cleaning the area and strengthening the structure, a concept he defines as space planning.
SHARING IS CARING
“I was told the women used to line up here,” says Shin, pointing to the narrow corridor. The place, he nonchalantly mentions, used to be one of the more well-known brothels in the city.
“The hotel was a facade, and the real business would be there, at the back,” he adds, directing his gaze toward the end of the shophouse, which spans a good 7.5m in length. But the last business that was running here before it was abandoned 10 years ago was a hostel.
The hostel was partitioned into 14 rooms so Shin and Ng removed the partitions in order to restore the building to its former spacious glory.
The vast space of the ground floor houses a tea shop, a kitchen, a bicycle corner and where the air well is, a dining area.
On the first floor, architecture firms have set up their offices with plywood partitions. On the same level, a cocktail bar called RAY takes up a space at the rear court.
“The whole place was too expensive to buy,” shares Shin, referring to the RM6.5 million price tag. “So, to be able to afford this place we decided the best way would be by renting the space out.”
Sharing resources, he explains, is the only way forward. “We’re a generation in need of capital. Most of us cannot afford to start something on our own. That’s why you see a lot of collaborations. It’s not just a business collaboration; it’s a platform for design, creativity and architecture.”
Chocha, as he reveals, follows the concept of old kopitams, where a few businesses are housed under one roof. The idea of collaborating, Shin confides, also came from a cause close to his heart — the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.
REVIVING RELICS OF A CITY
“Chinatown doesn’t mean it belongs to the Chinese; it belongs to KL-ites and the whole nation because this is where KL started,” remarks Shin, who remembers strolling along Petaling Street’s busy lanes as a young boy.
“So why are we tearing down these strong, long-lasting structures and building new ones?”
Malaysians, realised Shin, had yet to unleash the potential of shophouses, a living space brought in by the influx of Chinese traders to the country in the 1850s.
In other cities such as Melbourne where Shin studied, businesses were already making use of the space in old buildings. The principal of using structures already in place is a common practice around the world.
Los Angeles, a growing urban metropolis, even has Adaptive Reuse Ordinance. The law, which encourages businesses and housing developers to use underutilised historic buildings as spaces for work and living, has enabled the city to revitalise these once significant areas.
Around the world, architects and restoration experts have found that adaptive reuse of a space is not only cost-effective in the long run, but is also kinder on Mother Earth.
When American architecture firm Scott Henson readapted the Knickerbocker Telephone Company’s 1894 building in New York City, they found that a new construction would result in 45 per cent of carbon dioxide production and consume up to 40 per cent of energy and raw material
That said, Shin doesn’t deny that demolishing old structures and building new ones may be cheaper, but the thought of losing the heritage of KL isn’t something he can fathom.
“If we tear down all these old buildings here in Petaling Street, what will the next generation know of our history? Petaling Street is part of our cultural identity and our story as a nation. This is where our roots are.”
SET AN EXAMPLE
As the lunch crowd starts trickling in to Chocha, Shin says that F&B is probably one of the better ways to ease the public into understanding how an old space could be used for multiple, new purposes.
“We love our food and it’s the best way to connect with people from different industries and backgrounds,” says Shin, who hopes Chocha can set an example for young Malaysians who want to venture into business.
“Historically, Petaling Street was the place where businesses started in KL,” he says of legendary Chinese Kapitan Yap Ah Loy’s former stronghold, also known to locals as Chee Cheong Kai (Starch Factory Street). “So why don’t we bring back the trade to the streets where it first started?”
Shin may not know it but in Chocha, he may be starting a construction of a different kind.
156, Jalan Petaling, City Centre, 50000 Kuala Lumpur.
Opening Hours: Tuesday - Sunday (11am - 6pm)
Contact: 03-2200 1100