Our intern, Azfar, discovers more than just the stories of Klang on the Royal Klang Heritage Walk.
I was born in Klang and was told that my family lived here till I was around two. My grandmother lived here for more than a decade. My mother also spent her teenage years here, completing her secondary schooling at the famous all-girls school, SMK Convent Klang.
Yet, for all the history my family has with Klang, I had no personal connection to it, nor had I the slightest interest in finding out more about this town while growing up. Truthfully, the name “Klang” was only relevant to me whenever I had to write down my place of birth on official forms. It’s also in my passport, as a looming reminder of where I’m supposedly from. Other than that, I felt pretty much estranged from this place.
Going Back to My Roots
I was born in Malaysia but spent most of my life out of the country. After more than a decade of moving around the world here and there, never really settling down anywhere, I finally came back to Malaysia and joined LokaLocal. Having been away from this tanah air yang tercinta (the poetic phrase for “beloved homeland” in Malay) for so long, I felt ready to rediscover my roots, so to speak, and to decide for myself whether I could call this country home.
And what, I thought, would be a better place to start, than to go back to where I was born?
It was a happy coincidence that the first Featured Tour I organized with LokaLocal was the Royal Klang Heritage Walk. Incidentally, it was scheduled on the same week I turned 24. In all those years, I had never gone back to my birth town. I just never had a reason to. Naturally, I felt a range of emotions before the walking tour: excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and even fear. A fear of what exactly, you might ask? I was afraid I wouldn’t find what I was looking for: a sense of belonging. If I couldn’t find it in the place where I was born, where else could I look for it in this country?
I was afraid I wouldn’t find what I was looking for: a sense of belonging.
But all of that dissipated into thin air when I met Jane Rai, our Local Expert for this walking tour.
Charming and witty, Jane is a natural storyteller and knows how to captivate her audience right from the start. I still remember one of the first things she said to our group before we started the walking tour. Be mindful when crossing (read: jaywalking) roads in Malaysia. “Be sure to look both ways, even if it’s a one-way street,” she said nonchalantly. Everyone laughed, clearly enjoying her remark as much as I did.
The Royal Klang Heritage Walk is a 3-hour long tour to the places that are historically and culturally significant to this town. At 9 am, we gathered at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Royal Gallery. Jane called it Klang’s own “White House.” And it was quite a marvel to behold when you compare it to other buildings in the neighborhood. We were then treated to a crash course on the history of Selangor’s monarchy and the meanings behind the various royal heirlooms kept in the museum.
I enjoyed listening to Jane retelling the personal stories of the Sultans of the past. One Sultan help founded the first all-girls school in Klang, in a time when girls were denied education. Another Sultan, despite his title, was simply known to Klangnites as an apek (a local term of endearment meaning “old man”) since he mingled so openly with his people, and always lent his ear to listen to their concerns. I just loved hearing these stories from Jane. She showed me a different, more human side to these royal figures.
Societal norms and habits will always be a-changin’ with the times, but Jane skillfully weaved a nostalgic narrative of the past that was relevant for the modern audience. She subtly reminded us that even royalty, despite the important role it had back then, never stood in the way of the king and the commoner to interact meaningfully with each other. She believed things of lesser weight today shouldn’t prevent Malaysians to communicate with our fellow countrymen, however different our cultural backgrounds and values may differ from one another.
Stringing the Stories Together
Our next stop was the former building of the Old Chartered Bank. It is now home to the Chennai Silk Palace, an Indian boutique shop right in the heart of Klang, where you can find “the best and latest fashion trends from Bollywood before anywhere else,” Jane says.
Nothing could have prepared me for the sights, sounds, and scents found here. The strong, piercing scent of a traditional perfume you’d find in most Indian shops. Rows and rows of sarees on every shelf, in every color and pattern you could possibly imagine. Bollywood songs blaring over the distant sound of what seemed to be a family haggling over the price of their saree of choice.
Jane gingerly redirected my attention to a man working attentively on an old machine. She explained how this particular hand loom was brought over by the Tamil community, from the town of Kancheepuram in the Tamil Nadu Province. This was back in the early 20th century, and the hand loom is still working to this day. The man was weaving a saree with a very beautiful, intricate pattern. Jane casually remarked that it’d take him between 45-60 days to complete one saree, on average. This caught me completely by surprise.
In my eyes, this factoid alone is enough to convince anyone to try out this walking tour (side note: did I mention that it’s free?). There was just something so special about seeing a real artisan at work, who weaves his saree day by day, thread by thread, even when there are more convenient methods of manufacturing clothing today.
What motivates this man to do things the old way? What binds him to it, when there are newer and easier ways out there? How do we begin to quantify his labor of love for this tradition? How do we even set a reasonable price for his work of art, knowing how long it took him to make it? What is the price we Malaysians pay if we don’t support these people to continue excelling in the craft of their choice? Do we just let globalization run its due course and force their trades into extinction? Trades which, in reality, are our shared cultural heritage?
What motivates this man to do things the old way? What binds him to it when there are newer and easier ways out there? How do we begin to quantify his labor of love for this tradition?
Just over an hour into this walking tour, and all these questions were already buzzing around my head. For me, it was a hallmark of a great travel experience that this walking tour could provoke me to reflect much further about all things culture — especially that of my own.
Unity in Diversity
Being a lover of vegetarian Indian cuisine, I had already explored Brickfields, the Little India of Kuala Lumpur, quite thoroughly. I was really looking forward to seeing what its counterpart in Klang would be like. And I was not disappointed.
Tengku Kelana Street, the Little India of Klang, is a busy place and a heavenly sight for travel photographers. From the colorful local kuihs on display at the street stalls to the parrot astrologers waiting patiently on their stools, virtually everything catches your eye here.
Tengku Kelana Street is, to me, the best place to see local life for the Malaysian Indian community. And perhaps not just for them, but for all Malaysians alike. Sure, every city or town can be seen as a microcosm of the country. But I’d venture so far as to say that Klang is a beautiful and better reflection of what the Malaysian society really looks like. Better than what you’d see in Kuala Lumpur, in my view.
Here, life for locals is seldom interrupted by droves of tourists as it usually is in KL. Apart from us, I didn’t see another big group of travelers walking around that day. In this walking tour, you’d get to see up close how Malaysians of all backgrounds would normally interact with each other.
Tengku Kelana Street is, to me, the best place to see local life for the Malaysian Indian community.
To most people, Klang is “just an old, sleepy town with nothing special to see,” as Jane remarked. Yet, being a tourist in my own country, almost everything I encountered and reflected upon here felt special and meaningful.
Finding Home in the Ordinary
It’s easy to overlook certain things when you roam the streets alone. Like how a mosque, a church, and a temple are just a stone’s throw away from each other. Or how a restaurant with a Chinese name that serves Indian banana leaf rice is popular among locals from all ethnicities.
For Malaysians, these examples are really normal so as to be completely ordinary. But as we walked through the town, I realized there is more to Klang than meets the eye. Sometimes, it’s precisely the ordinary things that reveal much more about the community. Having spent my life abroad, I can say that the tolerance and harmony I see among Malaysians is rare. If it’s not rare, then at least it’s unique.
I realized that there is more to Klang than meets the eye. Sometimes, it’s precisely the ordinary things that reveal much more about the community.
“The idea of doing walking tours,” said Jane, “is to have a look at things up close, and to give that place some meaning.” Be it the colonial buildings, the historical figures, or the living artists, I wouldn’t have found out what was so special about Klang, were it not for the captivating stories she told on this walking tour.
To my pleasant surprise, it wasn’t just these stories that I left with. I also brought back home with me a deeper, more personal relationship with this town — and perhaps even this country. In just a matter of hours, walking in Klang made me felt like I could belong here, despite having been away from home for so long.