Tech brings an immersive experience to a restoration project, writes Balqis Lim
BREATHING new life into an old place and rescuing a period gem from ruin or simply renovating a neglected site can be incredibly rewarding.
Project Kwai Chai Hong which involves the restoration of 10 shophouses and a laneway hidden in between Lorong Panggung and Jalan Petaling recently opened to the public. The initiative is the brainchild of Bai Chuan Management, made up of five founders – Ho Yung Wee, Coco Lew, Terrence Liew, Javier Chor and Zeen Chang.
The ever-busy Petaling Street went through many changes. Generations of businesses and residents moved in and out, which transformed the place from a confluence of Chinese migrants to a melting pot of migrant workers of various origins. All this while, Lorong Panggung has remained secluded, only remotely familiar to Malaysians and never on the to-visit lists of tourists.
However, the origins of the moniker Kwai Chai Hong is undetermined. Some long-term residents claim it came about when children ran around the laneway on rainy days. Senior citizens would refer to the children as “kwai chai” which translates to ghost children as a colloquial slang. The word “hong” refers to laneway in English. The energy emitted from the children’s voices made residents in this area believe they were up to mischief.
Another source cited the presence of illegal businesses in this area as the reason for the moniker of Kwai Chai Hong. During the early days of the Chinese settlers, it was an area haunted by petty gamblers, drunkards, drug addicts and people participating in vice activities.
Despite all this, many who have lived in this area previously recall the lively atmosphere during festive seasons when families came together to celebrate as a close-knit community.
As established entrepreneurs, they believe that a profitable business need not sacrifice the quaint local flavor that Kwai Chai Hong has left behind. Their vision was to preserve and celebrate the heritage of the Chinese community and its contribution to the golden era of Kuala Lumpur Chinatown – a place of personal significance to the founders.
The strong nostalgic value towards the location was the reason why they took on the project. “When we got into this project, we thought of making it simple, rent it out, make money. But we fell in love with this place and the people around.
“From a side business project, it became a passion project. We spent a lot of time, effort and investment making sure this becomes meaningful to people,” says Chang.
About eight months ago, the Bai Chuan Management began its restoration project using its own funds, injecting RM1.5 million, to clean up and repair. “We also wish to acknowledge the financial grant from Think City (a community-focused urban regeneration organisation) that has spurred us to co-invest in the renewal of the lane and its surroundings.
“The possibilities are endless with this exciting start, and we are confident it will be well-received by the public,” she adds.
The highlight of the restored laneway is its six thematic murals, each with a story to tell. These murals are crafted to depict daily activities among the early Chinese settlers living in the area during the 1960s.
As visitors are greeted by a traditional arch entrance, they’ll come to see a wheelchair-friendly red bridge that will lead into the back alley. Interestingly, the bridge is made of reclaimed wood salvaged from the shophouses during restoration work.
That’s not all, Bai Chuan Management takes street art to a whole new level by adding tech elements to the amazing murals.
Besides each of the paintings is an interactive QR code where visitors can scan using their devices and it will tell a story of the mural.
Chang says they wanted to give visitors a more immersive experience, hence the use of technology to indulge various senses experience. “The murals will give you the sense of sight, while the familiar backlane scent will trigger your sense of smell.
“When it comes to sound, we want to bring the sound of the character alive. That’s why when you listen and look at the characters on the mural, it’ll be as though they are talking to you.”
The QR code will direct visitors to a sound clip that is played on YouTube. Although the clips are all in Chinese, there is a description with English translation along with some historical information provided.
Chang adds that the multiple sensory experiences of sight, smell and sound also aim to bring visitors back in time. While some might condemn the use of technology in the restoration of heritage sites, she says some modernisation does help in terms of bringing a whole new experience for people to enjoy.
Bai Chuan Management is delighted to be able to turn the historical site into a tourist attraction and a hotspot for budding artists, photographers and Instagrammers alike. It also foresees the place to be used for events in the future.
While some of the 10 shophouses have already been taken up, the company is still open for other tenants, especially eateries, as it would allow visitors to hang around the place longer.
Kwai Chai Hong is open to the public from 9am to 6pm daily, and will be extended once more tenants have occupied the shophouses.