The founding of KL was almost an accident. In 1857, 87 Chinese prospectors in search of tin landed at the meeting point of the Klang and Gombak rivers and set up camp, naming the spot Kuala Lumpur, meaning ‘muddy confluence’. Within a month all but 17 of the prospectors had died of malaria and other tropical diseases, but the tin they discovered in Ampang attracted more miners and KL quickly became a brawling, noisy, violent boomtown, ruled over by so-called ‘secret societies’, a network of Chinese criminal gangs.
As in other parts of the Malay peninsula, the local sultan appointed a proxy (known as Kapitan China) to bring the unruly Chinese fortune-seekers and their secret societies into line. The successful candidate, Yap Ah Loy (Kapitan China from 1868 to ’85), took on the task with such ruthless relish that he’s now credited as the founder of KL. According to legend, Yap Ah Loy was able to keep the peace with just six policemen, such was the respect for his authority in the Chinese community.
Loy had only just established control when local sultans went to war over the throne of Perak and its tin mines, marking the start of the Malay Civil War. KL was swept up in the conflict and burnt to the ground in 1881. This allowed the British government representative, Frank Swettenham, to push through a radical new town plan which transferred the central government from Klang to KL. By 1886 a railway line linked KL to Klang. A year later a new city was constructed in fire-resistant brick, and in 1896 KL became the capital of the newly formed Federated Malay States.
The British surrendered Malaya early in WWII and KL was brutally occupied by Japanese forces. Many Chinese were tortured and killed, and many Indians and British prisoners of war were sent to work on Burma’s notorious ‘Death Railway’. The British temporarily returned after WWII, only to be ousted when Malaysia finally declared its independence in 1957 at Merdeka Square (Independence Square). KL continued to thrive, but its confidence took a knock in 1969 when race riots between Chinese and Malays claimed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. In the aftermath of the riots, thousands of Chinese were dispossessed of their homes and the Muslim Malay community consolidated its control over the army, police and political administration.
The city officially became the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur when it was ceded by the sultan of Selangor in 1974. Its mayor and councillors are appointed on the recommendation of the government, which is dominated by Malay politicians. There’s little accountability and a job on the council is largely seen by locals as license to print money, not least because KL is Malaysia’s most prosperous and populous city.
In 1996, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed approved the construction of a new political capital 20km south of KL at Putrajaya. Although only 50,000 of the 330,000 residents planned for Putrajaya have moved into their new homes, the budget for the project has already exceeded US$5 billion. Putrajaya was made the official seat of the Malaysian government in 1999. Since the turn of the millennium, Kuala Lumpur has been in the news more for demonstrations than innovation – city police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse antidiscrimination protests by thousands of ethnic Indians in 2007 and 2008, arresting many protesters under Malaysia’s draconian security laws.