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Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown: what to eat, drink and do in reborn area full of new restaurants, shops and bars

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Walking through Chinatown’s maze of narrow streets, the shophouses may still look half abandoned – paint peeling, facades overrun by tropical vegetation – but it is a different story inside, where stripped-back industrial interiors have been turned into cutting-edge spaces for coffee bars, speakeasies, restaurants and boutique hotels.

A street in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton

Shoppers looking for something more than the tat of Jalan Petaling head for the restored art deco Central Market, now filled with artisan craft stalls, fashion stores and art galleries.

“We now have a really supportive community of sustainable entrepreneurs showcasing local arts and culture, promoting local musicians, using local produce in our restaurants, everyone working closely together to make this neighbourhood the new face of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur,” says architect and Chinatown conservationist Shin Chang.

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Chang is one of a group of heritage activists who saved the Rex cinema from demolition.

Reborn as a flourishing cultural hub known as RexKL, the cinema was built in 1947 and was an institution for local film lovers, screening everything from Dan Dare cartoons and Shaw Brothers epics to Star Wars.

Closed for 17 long years, the mazelike, bare-brick interior today hosts designer boutiques, an immense bookshop and tattoo studio, wine and barista coffee bars, a rooftop speakeasy, and a venue for concerts, theatre and talks.

RexKL houses a range of shops, coffee houses and bars. Photo: John Brunton
The restored art deco Central Market in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is filled with artisan craft stalls, fashion stores and art galleries. Photo: John Brunton

The most recent attraction is Rexperience, which sees half of the old cinema converted into a cavernous immersive digital gallery for visual artists.

“I first came to Chinatown as a kid in the early 1950s when my dad took us to see a movie here at the Rex – a big occasion for all the family,” says Long Thien Shih, one of Malaysia’s most respected senior artists, as he draws portraits and calligraphy at his weekend outdoor studio in RexKL’s forecourt.

“Back then, Chinatown was packed with people doing their shopping for fish and vegetables in the Central Market, Chinese medicine halls, dry-goods shops, with kopitiam coffee shops on every corner. It was a thriving commercial area, and although today it is even busier, the character has changed with a more mixed, multiracial crowd – a new generation of gentrified visitors alongside savvy tourists.

“And it is certainly a positive change when you see old Chinese shophouses suddenly come back to life again.”

Long Thien Shih works at his weekend outdoor studio in RexKL’s forecourt. Photo: John Brunton

As the sun sets and hawker kitchens start setting up on the pavement, a stroll through the neighbourhood reveals a thriving street food scene, a cornucopia of Malaysian-Chinese specialities.

Along Jalan Sultan, one stall squeezed next to the other, it is difficult to choose between succulent Hainanese chicken rice, Hong Kee’s sticky claypot rice and Lai Fong’s Michelin-recommended lala noodles: plump clams simmered in a savoury broth of wine and ginger.

Then there are the seductive aromas of bak kut teh bubbling up from a huge cauldron filled with fragrant herbal soup containing tender pork ribs and intestines, and the classic Kuala Lumpur favourite, Hokkien black mee: flat egg noodles charcoal-fried wok hei in a thick black sauce with prawns, pig’s liver and crunchy pork fat. One stall, Kim Lan Kee, has been serving it for more than a century.

A dish of Hokkien black mee from a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton
Diners pack out streetside eateries in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton

Chinatown has been famous for its street food since its earliest days, but now there is a whole new world of daring fine dining for foodies who explore its narrow backstreets to discover.

Lee Zhan Tee opened Small Shifting Space at the age of 23, at the beginning of the Covid shutdown.

“I just had a passion for food and decided to rent this dilapidated 19th-century house and began by serving wine and coffee,” he says.

“Chinatown has really taken off since we opened but I never expected how this space could evolve from a run-down hole-in-the-wall that used to be a coffin makers downstairs and a brothel upstairs.”

A bowl of lala noodles from a street stall in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton

SSS, as it is known, is packed every night, with Lee keeping his customers on their toes by changing chef and menu every few months. Serving creative comfort food, he uses quality ingredients for fun dishes such as rock oysters with a lemon and sherry vinaigrette, a succulent duck corndog, and sourdough toast with foie gras and fig jam.

The latest hot venue to open is Pickle Dining, hidden down a murky side alley. Steep steps lead up into a minimalist dining room with a smoky open fire over which the dishes are flame-cooked in front of diners.

“We are all about preserving our ingredients for as long as possible, a real Malaysian tradition, be it by pickling, smoking, salting, lactic fermentation or dry ageing, [which are] perfect for vegetarian dishes like beetroot labneh, charred pickled carrots or heirloom leeks with a horseradish remoulade,” explains chef Danial Thorlby.

A bookshop inside RexKL. Photo: John Brunton

The nightlife scene in this buzzing corner of KL is even more of an eye-opener.

Many begin the evening with a sundowner on the outdoor patio of Jann, an elegant bar atop the neighbourhood’s latest hotel, the Four Points Sheraton. The panorama offers a stark contrast between the city’s towering skyscrapers and Chinatown’s tiny island of ancient red-roofed houses.

Down below, at Jao Tim, a Chinese shophouse converted into a concert venue, music-lovers await a live band that could be playing anything from bebop jazz or romantic ballads to traditional Borneo sounds or brash Cantopop.

“What we are all trying to do in Chinatown is protect and renovate our heritage architecture and not let historic buildings, the soul of our city, be knocked down and rebuilt as skyscrapers or shopping malls,” says owner Jon Teo.

A band plays at Jao Tim, a Chinese shophouse converted into a concert venue, in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton

A tour of Chinatown’s famous speakeasies certainly illustrates how once-empty, shabby houses that date back to the early days of Kuala Lumpur have been reborn as cutting-edge designer bars.

PS150 is hidden behind the entrance of what was once a retro toyshop, with a long corridor leading to an overgrown jungle courtyard and then the dimly lit lounge bar. Barmen shake cocktails such as Jungle Bird, a lethal mix of pandan-infused rum, campari, pineapple, lime and Gula Melaka syrup.

Concubine, another decadent, graffiti-covered bar, lies up a stairway past Instagrammers snapping away at graphic murals evoking daily Chinatown life painted across the narrow-walled Kwai Chai Hong lane.

Vegetation grows around an old building housing businesses in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton

There are a dozen other sinful watering holes nearby but many bar-hoppers finish the night at the recently opened Penrose KL, where mixologist Jon Lee features just 15 experimental cocktails on the bar list. Be prepared for a queue outside, though, as the capacity is limited to 25 customers.

If RexKL marks the rebirth of Chinatown for locals, then the symbol of this renaissance for travellers is Else, the quarter’s first urban bolt-hole of a hotel.

Else is located in an art deco landmark, the carefully preserved 1930s Lee Rubber Building, with innovative open-space interiors decorated with avant-garde art and sculpture.

While guests may be tempted to stay “home” and enjoy Else’s sunny rooftop pool, the location is a perfect one from which to explore Chinatown’s colourful past.

The Taoist temple Sin Sze Si Ya in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. Photo: John Brunton

Mid-19th-century Chinese settlers set up a new life for themselves in this neighbourhood by erecting family shophouses, trading godowns and Taoist temples such as the ornate Sin Sze Si Ya, built in 1864 by Yap Ah Loy, the third Kapitan China of Kuala Lumpur (a high-ranking government position). Miraculously, much has escaped the wrecker’s ball.

Today, it is difficult not to be seduced by the buzzing energy of what is a genuinely gritty neighbourhood, rather than a living-museum tourist attraction.

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