Explore the kaleidoscope of culture in Malaysia

A melting-pot of cultures: Brickfields (L) is fondly known to all as Little India, while Kuala Lumpur's famous Petaling Street is otherwise known as Chinatown (R).

MALAYSIA - As you walk down some streets in Kuala Lumpur, it almost seems as if you have been transported to another country.

The sights, sounds, and smells overwhelm your senses as you soak in the culture the street embodies.

Malaysia is home to people of different ethnicities. Their forefathers transported themselves to a foreign land, but brought their traditions along with them, making Malaysia the melting pot of cultures that we know today.

The city has several streets with strong influences from the different ethnicities they represent, and we take a look at the changes and development that have happened there over the years.

A little piece of India

Brickfields offers a glimpse of the bustling streets of Mumbai. From colourful clothes and jewellery on display, fragrant garlands for sale, hypnotising music blaring from speakers on the roadside and fiery curries, it is no surprise that Brickfields is fondly known to all as Little India.

Restaurateur Rama Nathen was born in India and moved to Malaysia when he was 21 years old.

Rama initially worked as a magazine distributor in Kuala Lumpur before he opened Vishalatchi Food Catering, a restaurant specialising in Chettinad cuisine, in 2002.

"I remember the days when I distributed magazines such as Asiaweek, Galaxie, Reader's Digest, Times, even Playboy!"

"I have been in Malaysia for 43 years and have seen Brickfields change over the years," said Rama.

"It has seen dramatic development. I have seen many old buildings disappear and replaced with new ones," said the 64-year-old.

Rama believes that not all changes are bad, and comments that there are temples, churches and a few other buildings that have not changed since he arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

"There have been good changes too. Many hotels and development have come up in the area, so it brings a lot more people into Brickfields," he said.

The flood of people coming in and out of Brickfields translates into business for Rama.

"A lot of tourists and locals come to my restaurant to experience good Indian cuisine," he said, adding that Brickfields has the best Indian food.

Brickfields is seen as a place of comfort and a reminder of a distant home for many Indian nationals.

Several have taken up residence or started businesses in Brickfields, and the area is a hangout destination and shopping haven for many.

This makes 'Little India' a truly apt name for Brickfields.

A walk down Malay Street

Jalan Melayu (translated as Malay Street) is a must-go if one is looking to purchase traditional Malay clothing.

The street has been turned into a covered bazaar to make the shopping experience a comfortable one.

It has been closed off to road traffic and transformed into a pedestrian shopping centre with many stalls and shops selling traditional Malay clothing, accessories and every day items.

Tampan Tailor is one of the many shops in the area, but the people behind the store revealed that it had been in existence since 1970.

Father-daughter team Jakirman Naik and Irasuriani Jakirman are the owners of a humble outlet that sells traditional and modern Malay clothing.

"I am the third generation running this shop and my daughter is the fourth generation. It has been in my family for a long time," said Jakirman.

"I remember when the shops here were wooden stalls rather than the concrete structure now," said the 54-year-old.

He recalled having to move out of the shoplot in 2003 when they were renovating the bazaar.

"They changed all the wooden shops to concrete ones. We moved into this new shop in 2005 and have been here ever since," said Jakirman.

He said that the street had changed little despite the renovation.

"The wau (traditional Malay kite) in the front and the roof along the bazaar are new," he quipped.

His daughter, Irasuriani, 30, said that she was working in the advertising line before deciding to join her father.

"It is nice to be part of the family business," she said.

"Hari Raya is our busiest period. We will get around a thousand orders during that period," she said.

Jakirman and Irasuriani said many tourists visit the bazaar.

"Both locals and foreign tourists visit the area. It is mainly a Malay area, but many come to this area to buy clothing," she said.

Going down to Chinatown

You hear vendors enticing you to visit their stall, customers and vendors haggling over prices, the smell and crackle of mouth-watering Chinese delicacies and red lanterns swinging above your head signal that you have arrived at Kuala Lumpur's famous Petaling Street.

Otherwise known as Chinatown, it is a street where hustle and bustle never ends. Day or night, the street is filled with visitors hunting for good food or bargains.

Petaling Street is very much a shoppers' paradise, where almost everything can be found - from clothes, bags, shoes, accessories, souvenirs, electronic items and even fabrics. However, the street is also renowned for selling imitation goods.

Other than shopping, many flock here to experience some of the best street food in Malaysia.

One of the well-known dishes is Hokkien Mee, and the best place to go to is Kim Lian Kee Restaurant, recognised as the birth-place of the famous black-coloured noodles.

Lee Heng Chuan, 60, the current owner of Kim Lian Kee Restaurant, said his restaurant prepares their stir-fried Hokkien Mee the traditional way - over a charcoal fire.

"I am the third generation to manage the restaurant," said the 60-year-old.

"My grandfather set up this noodle shop in 1927. He used to only serve soup-based noodles, but the customers wanted a change so he came up with a dry, black sauce, stir-fry noodle dish and called it Hokkien Mee," said Lee.

What started as a small shop selling noodles 87 years ago has now expanded to two shops selling a wide range of Chinese food.

Lee said that his restaurant is popular with both locals and tourists.

"Tourists are sometimes scared to try Hokkien Mee, so I have other dishes that they may like as well. I have a very extensive menu," said Lee.

Lee is very involved in the cooking process at his restaurant and spends much time in the kitchen.

He is determined to ensure the quality of the food served is high and that the Hokkien Mee tastes the same as it always did.

"I remember learning my way around the kitchen at a very young age. I had to take over the restaurant in 1972 when I was only 18 years old because my father fell sick. It was a very difficult time for me because I was so young.

"Now, I am very determined to expand my business," he said.

Lee spoke of how Petaling Street had changed over the years.

"Before, they didn't have the green roof along the street. It used to be the Chinese who set up stalls along the road to sell things. Now it is very different, it has expanded and now more tourists come to Chinatown," said Lee.

"I liked the old Chinatown better," he added quietly.

A melting-pot of cultures

Even though Malaysia is made up of people of different ethnicities, it is important to remember that we all consider ourselves Malaysians at the end of the day.

It is nice to see such amazing cultures featured in one country and to see different ethnicities living together in harmony. That is the true meaning of Malaysia.

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