Kuala Lumpur: Capital Without a Past

As Kuala Lumpur has modernized, parts of its history have been forsaken. Vin's Image via Getty

Its name means “Estuary of Mud,” and it started life as a tin-mining frontier town in the 1850s. Perhaps that is why Kuala Lumpur has always been reinventing itself. Since independence in 1957, the capital of Malaysia has been striving to rise, like a lotus flower, above its murky, terrene origins. And it has succeeded. Today, one of the most spectacular sights in the city—or anywhere in the world—is the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. Lit up at night, they glitter like a pair of diamond-encrusted ears of corn. But whenever I see them, I think also of Bok House, a mansion 10 minutes’ walk from the Twin Towers.

Chua Cheng Bok built the mansion in 1929. He started out poor, but became one of the richest men in the country and constructed his home in the Renaissance style, incorporating Chinese and Anglo-Indian elements into its design. In 1958 it was leased to a restaurant called Le Coq d’Or. In the early 1980s, when I was 10 or 11, my parents used to take my sister and me for dinner there once a month. Le Coq d’Or’s menu was Western: fish and chips, chicken chop, steak, but Malaysianized (the chicken chop came soaked in a mushroom gravy; the vegetables were steamed but still crunchy). The staff was Hainanese, of the kind much sought after as cooks by the English during colonial times.

On every visit I would wander around the poorly lit mansion. The lobby was tiled in squares of black and white. Italian marble statues covered in a skin of dust posed on heavy traditional Chinese blackwood furniture. A grand staircase with art nouveau cast-iron railings rose from the center of the lobby into the darkness of the closed-off second floor. The dining room smelled of starched tablecloths and stale frying butter. Oil paintings, murky with age, hung on the walls. Part of the thrill of exploring the house was my suspicion that it was haunted. Going to the washroom on one of my first visits, I turned down the wrong corridor and came to a room furnished with only an immense Chinese blackwood opium divan. The mother-of-pearl decorations on its headboard were elaborate and eerie, giving the divan a malevolent air.

Our regular dinners at Le Coq d’Or tapered off when I started secondary school. I went there a few times after I graduated from college. The Twin Towers were rising behind Bok House, and soon after, I was told that Le Coq d’Or had closed for good and that the mansion would be demolished. Conservation organizations fought to preserve Bok House as a heritage building, and for a while I thought it would be saved—the house had fended off worse threats to its existence before, including Japanese bombs during the Second World War. But one morning in December 2006, workmen showed up at Bok House. By sunset the 77-year-old house was gone.

I remembered how, whenever we dined at Le Coq d’Or on special occasions, my father would order Bombe Alaska. That was where I first saw the flambéed dessert being prepared: the ancient waiter wheeling the cart to our table, dousing the mound of ice cream with rum and then setting fire to it with a match. The shadowy dining room was the perfect stage for this performance. I would watch the flames play over the ice cream, so blue I felt they ought to be ice-cold and not burning hot.

Today, Kuala Lumpur has five-star restaurants offering cuisines from around the world. Air-conditioned elevated walkways connect one massive shopping mall to another, malls filled with all the luxury brands you desire. Once a year the city explodes into a frenzy when the F1 drivers compete at the Sepang racetrack an hour and a half’s drive from the city. In its rush to modernize, to rise above the silt, Kuala Lumpur has erased nearly every reminder of its past. With its merging of Eastern and Western designs, its antique opium divan, its history and hoard of memories, Bok House was one of those reminders.

Sometimes, walking to the Twin Towers, I would pass the property where Bok House used to stand. I would stop and, for a minute or two, look at the place where, many years ago, set among Kuala Lumpur’s numerous Malay, Chinese, and Indian eating places, there was once a restaurant called Le Coq d’Or. In its dining room you could order a Bombe Alaska and watch it being set alight at your table, and for a few seconds the flames would illuminate the faces of the people around you, before fading away.