27 October 2019
This week, we feature a documentary by visual artist, filmmaker and writer Mahen Bala on the Malaya and Selangor Mansions, two high-rises located at Masjid India, Kuala Lumpur. The fourteen-minute long documentary was commissioned by Ilham Gallery for the exhibition, Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives curated by Rahel Joseph and Simon Soon from 17 February - 23 June 2019 at Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Drawing us into the world of the two Mansions are four colourful personalities - Mohd Ali bin Abdul Razak (newspaper vendor at Malaya Mansion), S.P. Abdul Rahim (Rojak Capital Café), Chia Meow Lin (lecturer in biology at TAR College and Chia Yu Chian’s daughter), and Azlan Shah (manager of a textile shop). In Mahen’s Nine Storeys, a social history of the buildings emerges from a loose series of recollections made up of personal memories and contemporary observations belonging to those who once called or still call Malaya and Selangor Mansions their home.
The video work is reproduced on O for Other with permissions from the artist and ILHAM Gallery.
The passages below describes the social life of the building, taken from an essay by Simon Soon, titled 'Bearing Witness to Many Private Lives', published in Chia Yu Chian: Private Lives, Kuala Lumpur: Ilham Gallery, 2019.
'The Selangor Mansion had a twin building in the Malaya Mansion. The two nine-story blocks of flats were completed by United Malaya Realty Ltd to address housing shortages amongst the low-to-middle-income population of Kuala Lumpur. Each block consisted of 160 flats of three or four bedrooms. A $3 million neighbourhood departmental store that boasted an escalator was also planned for the neighbourhood on Batu road.
By all accounts, the rise and decline of Selangor and Malaya Mansions closely paralelled the aspirations of the newly formed nation-state of Malaysia. It began its early years as a hub for tailoring, hosting not only local craftsmen but also new arrivals from Shanghai that brought new heights to sartorial workmanship. The building accommodated a clash of cultures – Chinese kopitiams sat a few doors apart from the Indian muslim eateries. Communal festivities were occasions where ‘Pesta Go Go’ was organised from the 14th floor in the home of Mr. Ali Remcy. Between the two blocks, there were even three bookstores established during the 1970s.
But the rosy aspirations of Malaysia’s new capital did not last long, for Kuala Lumpur was soon to be ground zero of a traumatic race riot on 13 May 1969. From then, cracks begin to show in the two downtown mansions that was built in 1963 and twinned to Malaysia’s birth. In 1970, a murderer on the prowl accused of killing three policemen was caught in the flats, and not long after, even the Japanese Red Army terrorist who laid seige on the AIA Building and took more than 50 hostages in 1975, planned their operation from a unit in the mansions.
Nevertheless Malaya and Selangor Mansions teemed with life. In the lower floors, offices and businesses – like tour and recruiting agencies, association offices, bookshops, restaurant, barbers, video-audio cassette vendors, and sundry shops – even a madrasa for school children are some of the occupants. The upper floors accommodated young working adults, new families and small businesses in its early years. As the city expanded, and more and more people began to move in and out of the city, the apartment block would become a transient home to a revolving group of tenants, many of whom were new to the city and in some cases, the country itself. The two mansions would attract a colourful and less salubrious crowd including those involved in prostitution and drugs. By the late eighties, the building had become a den for pimps, sexworkers, drug addicts - so much so there were even plans to tear it town in 1987.'
Mahen Bala is a visual artist, filmmaker and writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Primarily interested in exploring memory and identity in Southeast Asia, he has worked on recording and contextualising the social history of various subjects around the region.
His latest book, Postcards from the South (2018), is a comprehensive record of railway memory and history in Malaysia and Singapore. Visit his website to find out more about his other projects.