What You Don’t Know About Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman

Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman has some of the most fascinating buildings lined up all along the way.

Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was the shopping hub of Kuala Lumpur before modern shopping malls took over the city. All along this road, one will see many pre-war buildings in Art Deco and Neo-Classic styles, whose beautiful exterior have been preserved to accommodate modern retail shops. Anyone walking down the road will be greeted by a riotous scene of people, bags and carpets.

Tourists dying to run away from touristy areas and are keen to see how ‘normal’ Malaysians live will find Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman fascinating in giving a glimpse of real Malaysian life.

Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman or as it was formerly known as Batu Road, was named after the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong or King of Malaysia. Oddly enough, many Malaysians confuse him with Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. One is Tuanku, which means King, and the other is Tunku, an honorific for royalty. By simply knowing this, you’re ahead of many Malaysians!

The road itself is very prominent in KL, and one will find it crowded at most times of the day and even at night. Dataran Merdeka, or the independence square, is just a short distance away.

PH Hendry

The white and orange building at the beginning of the road is the former P.H. Hendry building, or what is left of it. P. H. Hendry was the oldest existing jeweller in Malaysia, appointed the Royal Jeweller to the states of Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Kelantan in the 20s. In the early days, the craftsmen and stone-carvers came from Sri Lanka.

PH Dineshamy founded the Hendry dynasty. In the 1920s, his son PH Hendry opened a jewellery shop at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. In fact, the Hendry family business is still in existence.

The eye catching white and orange was only recently painted. Its style is Neo-Classic and its façade has three large pilasters, which are the slightly projected vertical columns. If you trace the columns all the way up, you will see that they are capped with Corinthian capitals, or the ‘heads’ of the columns. The pediment, which is the triangular structure on the top, is a feature of Neo-Classic architecture that gives the building an imposing feel. The windows on both floors are different; the first floor has a bay window while the second floor has a Venetian window consisting of a semicircle arch and four vertical pilasters. It is covered with plaster; and right on top at the triangular structure, see if you can spot the star and crescent, the Islamic symbol.

Shops Number 1-19

The buildings across the road from P. H Hendry are fine examples of Neo-Classic features. Painted in white and sharing similar architecture with the PH Hendry building, the buildings were constructed at different times and built by Malay and Chinese tycoon.

Tourists find the giant pilasters, which are the slightly protruding columns that support the pediments, or the triangular structure on the top, very fascinating. The beautiful bay windows adorn the first floor and the block is brought together by the typical cornice treatment of that time. You can also see the huge rectangular piers that form part of the covered five-foot way. The façade is embellished with plaster scrolls and emblems.

Art Deco and Neo-Classic buildings along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman

The fascinating buildings along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman are repainted with bright colours while some are left in their original colours, but all of them exhibit the theatrical qualities of Art Deco. Art Deco was an art movement that lasted from 1925 to the 1940s. It was seen as elegant, glamorous, functional and modern; and you will undoubtedly find these qualities in many of these buildings. The movement mixes many styles such as Neo-Classical, Constructivism, Cubism, Modernism, Art Nouveau and Futurism. It was most popular in Europe during the Roaring Twenties.

In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Art Deco style was shaped ‘by all the nervous energy stored up and expended in the War’. The characteristics of Art Deco are very apparent here. Cubic forms, ziggurat shapes- a terraced pyramid where it gets smaller the higher you go, complex grouping of rectangles and squares, bands of bright and arresting colours, zigzag design, strong sense of line and an illusion of pillars.

Many have been restored and preserved to house retail shops and restaurants.

Coliseum Cinema

One of Malaysia’s famous landmarks, it is the oldest continuously running cinema in the country, save for a short break during the Japanese occupation. It was built by Chua Cheng Bok, a well-known Chinese businessman and property developer, who eventually leased it to a group of gentlemen who opened this cinema back in 1921. It was constructed with reinforced concrete, with a double roof. The building was then considered one of the coolest places in town quite literally, with its numerous fans and ventilation. There are wide verandahs upstairs, with balcony seats and private boxes tastefully fitted with separate fans and lights, to cater to well-off patrons’ comfort. The Coliseum had its own power plant, making it independent of the town’s system. Next to it one will see a square, usually with fairs or sales or exhibitions that are organised by the KL Tourism body every month or so. It was one of the first few buildings in Southeast Asia to have safety designs such as emergency lighting and fire prevention systems. Also, state of the art ventilation grills and exhaust fans enhance air circulation.

It was not uncommon to go over in the 30s to see bangsawan or Malay opera performed by local troupes. However, since the 1940s the cinema played Hindi and Malay films. Moviegoers of the old would load up on tit bits such as sunflower seeds and fried peanuts and drinks in plastic carriers before entering.

It was beautiful the way these movies were advertised, as they were not printed by a press, but instead were painted by hand on large billboards! This process continued well into the early nineties proving to be quite eye catching to passers-by. Of course, canvass painting has been discontinued with the dawn of computers and other graphic design tools, so it is rare to see hand-painted billboards anymore.

Coliseum Cafe

Next to the Coliseum Cinema, is the Coliseum Hotel and Restaurant, which also was built in 1921 as part of the same complex. It was a popular watering hole for Colonial planters, miners and traders, just like Selangor club down the road, but less exclusive. Tea dancing was a popular pastime among young people as a way of courting and dating in those days. It was a chance to waltz with a boy or girl you liked under the watchful eye of chaperones who sat with their tea and sandwiches surveying the room. Amongst Coliseum’s famous patrons was Somerset Maugham, the English author, who made it a point to visit the café and the Selangor Club when he was in Malaya.

The special atmosphere of yesteryear is retained with its unchanged décor and furnishings, and white linen-clad waiters. But the waiters are now much older, and some hard of hearing, and in less than white clothes. The table clothes and the walls look stained while the air inside smells like grease! The Café serves mainly English cuisine, and the menu has remained largely the same. Many of the dishes are still cooked over charcoal and firewood stoves. When you order the sizzling steak, it comes to the table sizzling and the waiter pours sauce on it in front of you. Since most of the wait staff is old, expect them to be slightly grumpy, but that’s part of the charm in the Coliseum Cafe.

Odeon Cinema

Along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman is the popular cinema of many a baby boomer’s childhood, Odeon. It was built by the Cathay Organization in 1936, and became an expression of the links between cinematography and Art Deco. A.O Coltman was the architect.

‘Odeon’ is a Greek word for a building for musical competition. This building featured new safety designs such as emergency lighting and fire prevention systems for the projector room. There was also a then state-of-the-art ventilation grill and exhaust fans to enhance air circulation, while the foyers were laid with locally produced rubber flooring.

Above the entrance, a horizontal beam, embellished with a mosaic depicting drama, comedy and music, intersects the strong vertical window dividers. On the side façade, the “ribs” create a vertical rhythm.