Precinct 7: A New Hope

It often takes years, sometimes decades of neglect to destroy a natural resource, but on the flipside, all it takes to undo the damage is an idea. The idea in question is the River of Life project.

The lifeblood of Kuala Lumpur

Precinct 7 of the River of Life project is a high-impact initiative focused on the public area starting from St. Mary's Cathedral, through Masjid Jamek, and Central Market. Even as work is still underway, people are already feeling and responding to the change that is happening around them.

For many young Malaysians, the notion that Kuala Lumpur’s Gombak and Klang Rivers could actually be a part of their daily lives is inconceivable. For many, contact with the two rivers is minimal: viewed from a safe distance from the windows of the LRT and Monorail on their way to college, seen while driving along Jalan Syed Putra by the Klang River or while walking along Leboh Ampang on their way to the Masjid Jamek LRT station.

The significance of the Gombak and Klang Rivers is often confined to a reference in history textbooks, that the rivers met at a point on a map and gave the name to our capital. Unless one is particularly interested in history, this reference to the muddy confluence is forgotten, stored away in our memory banks and never to be retrieved again for reflection after we leave school.

For those who pass through the city centre regularly enough to catch a glimpse of the Gombak and Klang Rivers, they are little more than two unattractive-looking rivers the colour of teh ais in a muddy glass, if that were possible: milky-brown with tinges of dark grey, its flow blocked by the occasional mound of rubbish and tree branches from further up the river.

And yet once upon a time, these two rivers were very much the lifeblood of Kuala Lumpur. This was where the city was born. People used to live on the riverbanks and travel by sampan up the Klang River; people caught fish and even bathed in the water.

What has happened so far

This is where ‘River of Life’ comes in- an ambitious plan to clean and beautify the Klang Valley’s eight rivers- the Bunus, Keroh, Batu, Kerayong, Jinjang, Ampang, Gombak and Klang Rivers- to a cleaner physical state to enable Malaysians to rediscover the rivers and make them a part of their lives once again.

Launched in 2011, the River of Life project kicked off with the River Cleaning component which, as of May 2017, is now 77% complete. This was followed by Phase 1 of the Public Outreach Programme in June 2012 and Phase 2 in September 2013.

Phase 1 of the River Beautification works commenced in the Masjid Jamek/Heritage Quarter, also known as Precinct 7. As of May 2017, 46% of the River Beautification component has been completed.

Improving the water quality of the Gombak and Klang Rivers and their tributaries will cover 110km of waterways. The project aims to improve the quality of water in the Klang River basin from Classes III-V to Class IIB by 2020. A Class IIB category signifies that the water is clean and safe enough for skin contact and recreational purposes; our rivers currently fall under Classes III and IV.

‘Things are different now’

Like Raymond, many street peddlers play their early morning trade on the grounds of the Masjid Jamek LRT Station. For many of those who work in the area, this a chance for them to grab a quick, cheap bite before clocking in.

I bump into Raymond Choy, 59, at the Masjid Jamek LRT station while searching for stories on Kuala Lumpur. He tells me about the food stalls his parents used to bring him to. “When I was a small boy in the 70s I used to live on Jalan Tun H.S.Lee, and you know what, back then there used to be food stalls by the river.

“We would buy teh tarik, rojak, soto, satay, all sorts of food. There were hundreds of food stalls, and we called this place Benteng (river bank). It was very popular and there were tables and chairs on the road where we would sit and eat,” he says animatedly.

Interestingly, Raymond now spends his mornings selling buns, banana cake and nasi lemak just outside the station, not too far from where the food stalls would have been.

I point out how things are very different now and he agrees: “Yes, very different, although I think the water was already dirty back then. I don’t remember for sure because I was still small.”

I tell Raymond about the River of Life project, about how it aims to clean up and give new life to the rivers in the Klang Valley. He nods in approval.

“Oh yes, that would be good. If they could make the Gombak and Klang Rivers like the Seine in Paris, that would be very good, with river cruises, and walkways for people to walk on. I think if our rivers were cleaner and made to look beautiful like many of those in Europe, people would spend more time by the riverside, relaxing and enjoying themselves rather than just walking past. I’ve been to Paris before, and I’ve seen how nice it is,” he says, taking me by surprise.

The courtyard of the Sultan Abdul Samad building plays host to a newly designed garden.

Preserving history

The significance of the two waterways however, goes beyond merely providing a site for food stalls. Haji Nizam, Imam of Masjid Jamek, the 107-year-old mosque at the confluence of the two rivers, tells me how contractors recently uncovered two sets of steps leading from the mosque into the water.

The iconic Masjid Jamek as seen from above, back in 2017 when the original steps were first uncovered.

“Those steps are the original ones that were built as part of the mosque, and allowed those who came here to pray to go down to the river to take their ablutions. The steps also show how the rivers served as a thoroughfare for traders and tin miners who stopped here and got off their sampans to get to Market Square (Medan Pasar) back then,” he said.

As the imam of Masjid Jamek, Haji Nizam is well aware of the River of Life project. “I am happy that this project is going on. We have had to close some parts of the mosque to the public for safety reasons, but generally this is still an operating mosque. Construction hasn’t disrupted our daily activities.

I ask if the current state of the Gombak and Klang Rivers poses any problems. “Our main worry at the moment is rising water levels. The water has been known to come up as high as the glass walls after heavy rain. I am positive, however, about the outcome of the project. I hope that after the rivers have been cleaned up, flooding will no longer occur and that the area around the mosque will be returned, to some extent, to the nostalgia and glory of its olden days.”

Even in an age of constant change, there is always room to preserve the old. As a new walkway is constructed on the banks of the river across the Masjid Jamek, sections of the old concrete barrier is retained as a reminder of how things were in the past. Heritage consultants play a big role in the River of Life project, in advising both the government and contractors on how best to preserve our historical and cultural heritage.

The mosque’s main pull factor is its architecture, Haji Nizam says. “Our foreign visitors always comment on the beauty of the architecture and the domes. This shows how important it is to preserve the mosque, especially when we are located in such a historic part of the city. I am thankful that we at Masjid Jamek can be part of our history, and I hope that when the project is complete, we will be able to use the redevelopment as an opportunity to attract more visitors.”

Practical concerns

But with extensive construction work comes practical concerns. Safety and security are a big deal for businesses like Central Market, which is not surprising given the landmark’s changing role over the decades: it began as a wet market in Medan Pasar(Old Market Square today) in the late 1800s but soon shifted to its present-day location on Jalan Hang Kasturi in 1937. The Central Market remained a wet market selling fish and vegetables until it was designated a heritage building and reopened as an arts and crafts centre in 1986.

Complex Manager Cheong Wai Mun says Malaysians began viewing Central Market as more than just a ‘shortcut route’ in the last ten years or so, when they began doing more than just cut through the building and actually stopped to shop.

“We’ve taken advantage of this and over the past few years have encouraged the growth of more specialised souvenir shops, especially those which you may not find in other parts of KL.”

Her team is in constant communication with the organisations involved in River of Life. “We write to them regularly, and we hope they will continue to keep us updated on the project, on the comings and goings of the contractors and the setting up of cables, for instance.

Extensive landscaping work in the area around Central Market is being undertaken to change the way urbanites and visitors think of the space. Businesses would soon be able to take advantage of this renewal and face the river, instead turning their backs to it.

“Central Market will be happy to help if Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur needs our assistance. We want the project to be successful, and if our help is needed to maintain surrounding area, then those involved are welcome to tell us and keep us updated.”

However, despite renewed interest in Central Market, Wai Mun has noticed a decline in local visitors of late.

“Although around 10,000 visitors drop by every day, we’ve noticed that people from KL have stopped coming here. It’s might be due to safety and social concerns, based on the complaints we’ve received from visitors.”

Wai Mun hopes that the River of Life project will encourage Kuala Lumpur residents to return.

“My hope is that after the project, this part of KL will be cleaner, brighter and safer for the public. We want to be able to promote Central Market and its surroundings as safe, because this will benefit tourism on the whole. We would also like more KL folks to visit Central Market, to see us as an important part of their city and to spend more time here on weekends or after work, shopping or relaxing in our cafes. With the beautification work planned under the project, we hope visitors will have more reasons to linger and just explore the city.”

A safer, brighter Kuala Lumpur

Not far from Central Market is Avenue J Hotel, located at the corner of Leboh Pasar Besar and Jalan Benteng, just steps away from the Klang River. Anyone looking out of the windows in the hotel lobby will see the pipes, security tape and construction materials lying along Jalan Benteng, a view which Ng Shin Yee, Director of Avenue J Hotel, has been familiar with over the past few months.

“There’s the dust, of course, and the fact that we used to be able to park our cars beside the hotel. Now with the construction going on, we have to find another place to park,” she says, when asked how things have been since the project kicked off.

Most of the hotel’s guests stay for only one night as they use Kuala Lumpur as a stopover, which Shin Yee hopes will change when the project is complete.

The brand new Avenue J Hotel sits right on the bank of the Klang River, with its facade facing the historic Old Market Square, and its side doors opening out to the river.

“Occupancy has gone up to 40% since we opened in September 2016, but it could be better. The one thing we hope for is that this part of KL will be safer and brighter, with more lights. This part of the city is dead at night. According to some of our guests, tour guides have told them that our area isn’t safe, and that they should take extra care walking around. If the city is safer and there are more things for visitors to see and do after the project is complete, people are sure to stay longer in KL,” she says.

Shin Yee says the hotel might consider expanding its food and beverage options after the completion of the project. “I would be very interested in the possibility of some outdoor dining options once the River of Life is complete, and when we have a clearer idea of the opportunities available to us. Since the purpose is to beautify the area, we expect more tourists, especially if there are going to be more food and beverage options when everything is ready.”

For the moment, construction work continues at a steady pace beside the hotel. The activity going on outside isn’t disruptive and doesn’t distract from our conversation, but the workers walking back and forth along the walkway are a reminder that Kuala Lumpur is headed for change.

Changing mindsets

As with other major projects, the challenge in the River of Life masterplan is changing the mindset of the public, especially those who live by the water. When I meet Abdul Hamid, he’s on his shift at the Pasar Seni bus stop, checking arrival and departure times of RapidKL buses, making sure that buses keep to their schedule.

He looks up from his paperwork and turns his eyes to the Klang River. There is a mattress stuck in the mud a little further up the river, drawing both amusement and disbelief. “As far as I can remember, there’s always been a smell, more so when the wind blows. The water has always been dirty, with all sorts of rubbish in it. Let’s face it- as long as there are kampungs close to the river, there will always be rubbish in the river.

“And together with the rubbish comes the flooding. Sometimes when it rains really heavily, the water rises way above the riverbank,” he says.

One of the many new features the public can look forward to is a spacious unobstructed walkway along the river, shaded by the same trees that witnessed the growth of the capital city over many decades past.

His colleague Mohammad who is sitting nearby, interjects: “If you want to test the quality of the water, you can dip your feet into the river. You’ll know the water quality right away.”

I ask Abdul Hamid what changes he’d like to see as a result of the River of Life project.

“I see the construction workers by the river every day when I sit here. It’s good if they’re planning to clean up our rivers, maybe they can copy what they did with the Melaka River. The water is clean now in Melaka. Before, it used to be black. Now people can walk by the river and go on boat cruises. It would be good if they can do the same here,” he says.

Precinct 7 isn't the only area that is changing. Pictured here are excavators clearing up sediments on the bank of the Klang River near Brickfields.

Abdul Hamid turns to look at the Klang River again. “We need to look after what we have. I grew up in a kampung and like all the children back then, bathed and played in the river. It was one of those things that we did, the river was important to us.”

It may require a lot of work to make the Gombak and Klang Rivers clean again, but the first step would be to change the mindset of Malaysians, to remind ourselves how important our rivers are and to treat our rivers with respect. That will make all the difference.

Like the idea that sparked the River of Life project, the idea that we need to reconnect with our rivers and make them part of our lives again will be what it takes to undo the damage.