Cultural Cartography


Maps tell us how to get to our destination. But when our producer Nova Nelson stumbled upon a map, she knew that this particular map was more than just a map. It was a window into the history, culture and trades of the Pudu area. So she set off with Azyml Yunor to discover the hidden secrets behind the map.

Produced by Handy Jobs (Hear & Now in Malaysia) in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Programme and brought to you by BFM.

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Kam Raslan: BFM89.9 I’m Kam Raslan and this is Hear and Now in Malaysia, in this week’s episode, community mapping. What is community mapping? You asked. It is creating a map, an actual physical map of your community. To discover more, our correspondent Azmyl Yunor and our producer, Nova Nelson, go to Pudu, the heart of KL where they meet two young people, an artist and a teacher, who has created a map of the community with the community. And we meet some of the fascinating residents, people who created actual physical things. But first, Azmyl Yunor.

Azmyl Yunor:  “You cannot change what you don’t know you have”, that’s the lesson learnt by Gospel singer and voice teacher Lois De Jean. She used community mapping to catalog and preserve the contents, cultural fabric, history and heritage in post Katrina New Orleans.

In Malaysia we have thankfully not suffered such cataclysms but when the developer’s bulldozers move in it can feel  just as disruptive to our communities and our memory. Can we capture it before it’s gone?

A couple of months back our producer Nova Nelson passed me a map. It was no ordinary map. At first glance the map overwhelmed me.  It’s a map of KL’s Pudu area, but it’s much more than just a street map. It’s drawings of buildings and people, a  collage of historical facts and symbols. And it’s a collage of stories, sometimes tiny stories: a printer, a tailor, a chicken rice seller. The people and their trades that make up the heritage and culture of Pudu. It’s also beautiful.

It’s called the Pudu Cultural Map. We wanted to find out more about the people behind this community map.

Yeoh Lian Heng: Basically I run an alternative space called Lost Generation Art Space but now we are focusing more on the community art project. So currently, the project that we are doing in process is in Jalan Petaling.

Azmyl Yunor: That was Yeoh Lian Heng from The Lost Generation Art Space.

Yeoh Lian Heng: The idea of a ‘lost generation’ is actually from Hemingway. When I found Lost Generation, it is 2004. That time, I just graduated from school, and I felt like the artists in the art scene had lost something. Also, I feel that the environment isn’t very encouraging in getting people to do art work or to create something. So, I think it in the way, it’s a loss. In the beginning, we focus on the artistic part but after 2009, when we did the community project in Klang, the feedback was quite good. So we feel that the art should go to the community, to the people, not to stay in the gallery or some space just waiting for people to come in because we don’t have that kind of culture where during the weekends, they will go to galleries. Even here, galleries on Sunday are closed.

Azmyl Yunor: Yeoh works with Foo Wei Meng from the Rumah Air Panas Artist Collective on community mapping projects.

Foo Wei Meng: My name is Wei Meng. I grew up in KL. And, Im actually an educator and a community artist.

Azmyl Yunor: Both Yeoh Lian Heng and Foo Wei Meng were responsible for The Pudu Community Art Project which produced this fascinating Pudu Cultural Map.

Yeoh Lian Heng: According to the data we collected and the interview, roughly it is about 120 years old, this Pudu area.

Nova Nelson: Can you tell us about this journey you took. Who did you work with? Who did you draw with?

Yeoh Lian Heng: Actually, we form a team and they just concentrate on doing the mapping. So around 6-7 people concentrate on doing a map. And then, they also do a survey to ask people around. Beside doing the mapping, we also have another group doing the (?), so it’s a combination between the two groups. We also collect some old photos and old  maps from different places. And then we try to come up with a map, just now you mentioned, the old Pudu Map, so you can see the past one and what it is now.

Azmyl Yunor: Just by looking at the map we could tell that it took a lot of effort and time. How did they get the resources to pull this together?

Nova Nelson: If Eu Yan Sang didn’t come to you, how would you bring the project about it?

Foo Wei Meng: The thing about this kind of project is, the man power is already there. You need a lot of man power to engage with the community. That is one thing. Another thing is that finance. You need funding. Another thing we are really grateful for Eu Yan Sang and a few other sponsors. So yeah sure Eu Yan Sang started this, but we actually do reach out to the other corporate companies so they end up supporting the whole thing. It is not so much about private or public. In general, our education doesn’t have this kind of awareness in terms of cultural appreciation. But another thing is funding, you definitely need someone. It can be a non-profit, it can be private, public, it doesn’t matter, but someone has to value it.

Azmyl Yunor: They invited us to meet them at Kwong Fook Wing Tailors, at Jalan Sultan, Petaling Street where they are working on their latest community mapping project.

Run by the immaculately dressed Mr Kwong with his suspenders and cufflink shirt, a third generation tailor was born and raised in Jalan Sultan, Petaling Street.

Mr Kwong: I was born in this street. Infact, most of my family members are born on this street so my grandfather was born in China, my father was born here, after me, two more generations are born here. So altogether we have 5 generations who have survived Chinatown up to now. My grandfather was an illiterate China man who came from China. Actually, he was on his way to Australia to join his father as a laborer in the railway tracks in Australia. From the stories he told me, he disembarked in Singapore and did not proceed on to Australia. And that is how our family got started in Malaya, which it was then called. He sent his only son to an English school which he then passed his Senior Cambridge. In those days, with a Senior Cambridge certificate, you can easily secure a job in the government service, which was his ambition. But the slump of the 20s have already set in and he was unable to get a job outside. So the next thing he did was to learn tailoring from his father.

Azmyl Yunor:  sit, save for Mr Kwong himself in this cramped shop. It resembled a hoarders heaven with stacks of cloth and momentos hanging on the wall. You may mistake it as a shop that has passed its prime but the phones kept ringing with calls from customers.

This dusty old shop has served royalty, British commissioners and our Prime Ministers.

Mr Kwong: Our business really started when the High Comissioner was my father’s customer. And when other people from other departments came to know of it,  naturally, they want to share the same tailor. We are having the elite during the pre-independence day. Even when the Reid Commision came to Malaya to do their facts finding, Lord Reid, Sir Ivan Jennings, Chief Malik of India. All these people were brought to my father’s shop to have suits made. Because well, comparing our price to those in London’s, we are just a fraction of it. Of course, subsequently, even some of the locals, Dato Onn Bin Jaafar, Tun Tan Siew Sin, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Ismail, you could say that we have done clothes for the king, for the prime minister.

Having spent all his life in Jalan Sultan, he has seen and experienced the changes and progress in its surrounding area, which also encompasses Petaling Street, or Chinatown.

Mr Kwong: As I was saying, at the front end, we are all doing our business. But at the back and upstairs, we are all occupied by people. Coffeeshops will open at the dot of Negaraku at 6am of the radio station and was never turned off and will only be closed when they sing Negaraku at midnight. So I think today, Chinatown has changed because a lot of people has moved out from staying here. They’ve moved out from it and they’ve grown richer and Chinese generally have grown more lazy than what they used to be. A lot of stalls in Petaling street itself, they are no longer there. They employ foreign workers and they are also responsible for killing the heritage of Chinatown itself. Not only the MRT that intends to kill the heritage. They themselves have started that some years ago.

Azmyl Yunor: Mr Kwong sees more and more of the younger generation bringing attention to the need to appreciate heritage and culture. Yeoh and Wai Peng represents that generation and their work attempts to channel stories from a distant past to the current generation.

Mr Kwong: I see a lot of youngsters working on these projects. All volunteers, all voluntary jobs, its because of education, because of advancement of the internet, you see a lot of things. They are realizing heritage and culture much earlier than we did. Because at that time, we don’t have the advantage in all these advancement of technology to tell us that once heritage is lost, it is lost forever and it wont come back. If we are able to sustain and maintain them, we can build it up.

Azmyl Yunor: You’re listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia and today we are talking about community mapping. Specifically a community mapping project carried out by a collective of artists in the Pudu Area and resulted in the production of the Pudu Culture Map.

Coming up shortly we will speak to a traditional paper and bamboo effigy maker and a blacksmith. That’s right –  a blacksmith.


Welcome back to Hear and Now in Malaysia we are talking to Yeoh Lian Hing and Foo Wai Meng about a community mapping art project they carried out in the Pudu Area. The project resulted in a beautifully hand drawn and designed map of stories, buildings, people and trades in the Pudu area.

Azmyl Yunor: After Jalan Sultan, Nova and I felt excited to head off to the Pudu area with the Pudu Cultural Map in hand. The Pudu Cultural Map promised an adventure; chaotic but exciting. I did not know where to start luckily the creators of the map was with us.

Foo Wei Meng: This is where we have wedding dinner, especially the Chinese community. BB park is nearby, so I think a lot of people do come here for wedding dinner. So, for my dad’s generation it will be very common. There will be a lot of cars parked during weekends or night time for makan. There are still KL people who come back.

Azmyl Yunor: They knew these streets like the back of their hands and when they spoke to the shop owners they spoke like old friends.

At our first stop on Jalan Yew, Pudu, stood 40-something Mr Tong Kok King in front of his shop which sells Toaist prayer and ceremonial items. Looking at him, in his red singlet and crew cut dyed hair you would not have guessed that he delves in an ancient trade of making paper and bamboo effigies and models.

Tong Kok King : We make a lot of things here. We also do a lot of events like Wesak Day, Hungry Ghost, funerals etc but for funerals, you have to pre-order.

Azmyl Yunor: Mr Tang learnt the trade directly from his father when he was 12. This particular shop has been in Pudu for more than 30 years but the family business spans 4 generations. There was no manual to learn from and I discovered that it is an art that requires precision and an innate understanding of proportion and form.

Tong Kok King: There is no book or manuals. I learnt everything on my own. Now that I already know, I don’t need to memorise so much, its all in the computer and my head. I started in standard 6, I have no teachers, my generation did not have teachers. I learned it all by myself.

Azmyl Yunor: Yeoh found the shop while discovering the area for the Pudu Community Art Project 2 years ago.

Yeoh Lian Heng: So, we start to recover this area and we work around every single thing to look for the special thing, and then we found the shop. And we requested for him to give us the interview, so we asked if he can make something for the exhibition. So, very quickly he said, “Okay! I can make the horse for you” And he also made a ship, the structure of it. During that time, it was also the Hungry Ghost festival. So we could see them making the statues and the horses right here. And we also get students from Dataran Akademi to come here and interview and continue to interview and at the end of the product, is a book.

Azmyl Yunor: Mr Tong showed us pictures of his 28 feet long dragons – the largest model he makes specifically for temples – which takes him 5 days to create by himself. He’s made this annually for the past 30 years.

Tong Kok King : It takes about 5 days, and I make it on my own.

Pudu remains bustling to this day and he feels the Pudu wet market is the epicenter of the hustle and bustle.

Tong Kok King: People talk about renovating the Pudu market, and they had said that many times, and the place is considered historical.

Azmyl Yunor: While their craft in the present seem to only serve religious and cultural rituals. During his father’s time it resonated with the larger community. He told us how his father was commissioned to build 7 models about 20 feet high representing different races in Malaysia during the inaugural Rukun Tetangga parade in Dataran Merdeka which was presented to the Yang DiPertuan Agung of the time.

Tong Kok King: When they begin to do the Rukun Tetangga parade, one of the big human statue was done by his father. The human statue also wore a songkok.

Azmyl Yunor: Unfortunately photos of the event was lost, but he fondly recollects this childhood memory

Mr Tong’s jovial and pragmatic nature defied my notions of how someone in the ceremonial and religious business would be.

When Yeoh and Wei meng first told us we should meet a blacksmith in Pudu, we did not know what to make of it. A blacksmith in KL? What does he do in this day and age?

Mr Ban: This shop is more than 108 years

Azmyl Yunor: On the wall in the dining area of his shop lot were the portraits of his family going back 4 generations. He is holding the fort, in his 60 he lives in the shop lot and is extremely proud of his family’s legacy.

Here in front of us stood a living museum. A time capsule, a workspace that has probably been the same for more than 100 years. Wei Meng explained that tools used to shape bullock cart wheels and horse shoes were still on the wall.

Foo Wei Meng: They don’t use the tools anymore but previously it was used to make the cart of the cows. All these are used to make the wheels. They used them to service the transportation. You know, KL is Lumpur isn’t it, so they need them.

As an artist Yeoh found this space extremely fascinating

Nova Nelson: So how did you find the shop?

Yeoh Lian Heng: When we go into a community and we want to do something there, we do a survey first. So we go around and immediately when we pass by this shop, it is very eye-catching. Normally with blacksmiths’ shops, all is black. But here, it is white. Along with how they install the stuff.

Nova Nelson: I noticed that the things are very organized here. The old tools are there and you know its still a working space. Not just for display, and you know people are still using the tools.

Yeoh Lian Heng: For me, it is an art sculpting studio, not just a blacksmith.

Azmyl Yunor: This shop serves as both a home and work space.  As you enter you will see an anvil and furnace and towards the back you see a bright and airy dining area.  Here Mr Ban has been a blacksmith all his life.

Nova Nelson: Do you think you’ve made a good living all these years?

Mr Ban: Those who scavenge about the rubbish dump, they survive you see. I consider myself grateful you see. I have a place of my own. Try to make use of the place. If you can make it better, make it better.

Nove Nelson: So, who used to be your clients?

Mr Ban: Construction workers, those who really need tools you see. Those who do repair works.

Nova Nelson: These skills, not many people have because many of them rely on machines.

Mr Ban: Certain times, you still need those skills. God gave you a pair of hands. And they are useful. Machines are made by hands too. Anything, first and foremost, hands. You want to build a big building, you use your hands to draw it out. After the hand, the machine.

Azmyl Yunor: You could tell that the building was old . Its entrance was 3ft lower than the road. It is easy to romanticize such rare and old spaces. But Mr Ban points out that places such as these could serve a larger purpose and for a wider audience.

Mr Ban: These things are not up to the rakyat, the people, to tell us what to do with it. Its up to the government. If they think they should preserve such things for tourists, like in Australia, they want horse shoes, they want chastity belt, they know how to make, they get subsidies you see, that’s how they maintain. I get no subsidy here. These are all more of less, what you can say, handycrafts. If you like, you can look around, and if they give me subsidy, they can maintain it. Because it is not cheap to maintain this place, a few thousand dollars a year. You need money to survive. I’m old. I’m not getting younger, but old is gold, sometimes, or you wouldn’t come here.

Azmyl Yunor: Now that these stories and trades have been plotted how can we keep them alive?

Yeoh Lian Heng: For me, for community to go longer, if without the economy, it will be very difficult. I think it is a good idea to work with tourism or other companies.

Azmyl Yunor: Wei Meng feels that communities which make up the heart and soul of a city must be preserved and mapping allows for this.

Foo Wei Meng: If you look at the definition of the developed nation, it includes the humanity part too. Culture and heritage are part of it. So if you look at that, I think we are actually getting worse. Whether its in KL or what not, that is the generally speaking that is already a problem. In terms of infrastructure and engineering, we are able to compete with some of the nation. But we are talking in terms of talking about development, that means you also have to look into heritage and culture of the nation as a whole. The history of the country. The elderly will be gone, so those history will be gone. The pre-war collective memory will be gone. And you know the recent history in our textbooks is also not complete. Mapping collects memories and stories so in the future maybe my kids will still be able to gain information, not just from history books but also other resources.

Azmyl Yunor: Through our walkabout, I found myself mapping a common thread through these stories – the tailor, the paper and bamboo model maker and the blacksmith are the last practitioners in their family.

The purpose of the Pudu Cultural Map has become clearer. What it does is triggers collective memories of communities and stories of bygone times. And it serves as an important tapestry of the rich cultural heritage that is around us but often taken for granted.

We only ventured 3 streets on this map. Imagine what other stories lie waiting to be discovered. Think about stories you can discover if you mapped your favourite place or neighbourhood.

Yeoh Lian Heng: It’s a win-win. They learn something and we also learn.. It takes time to send the message out to the public. The work is just beginning and it’s a long journey.

Kam Raslan: The community mapping of Pudu was brought to you by our correspondent Azmyl Yunor with some help from our producer, Nova Nelson. you have any comments or suggestions then please get in touch with us on our twitter feed @BFMradio or on our facebook page Hear and Now in Malaysia. And if you visit our facebook page, you’d be able to see the actual Pudu Map as well as the people and places in Pudu.

Hear and Now in Malaysia is made in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Program. I’m Kam Raslan and this is BFM 89.9, and you’ve been listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia.

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