I arrive at the iconic Masjid Jamek Mosque just in time for Friday prayers. Hasty pedestrians squeeze past pop-up stalls on the walkways in front of the Masjid Jamek LRT station, selling deep-fried everything. The river flows underneath, barely visible through a small gap between the road and the station.
The once-fertile land around the historic mosque is now bare, almost unrecognisable from the postcards of old with its show of swaying coconut trees against a curtain of cold concrete and glass. The officer at the Pejabat Urusan explains: ‘All the trees are gone. They’ve removed the coconut and mango trees. It might be a little hot after all this [renovation] is done.’
Excavators tear the ground open to reveal the original steps leading down to the river where the faithful once drew water for ablution. The mosque was designed by AB Hubback and completed in 1909 on the site of a Muslim cemetery. This is where the mighty rivers meet, Sungai Gombak merging into Sungai Klang, a clear Y on the map of Kuala Lumpur. This is the kuala lumpur (muddy confluence) where it all began.
Faded photographs of old KL paint a serene memory, but reality was a cycle of diseases, floods and fires. In 1881, the original settlement by the riverbank burned to the ground, and new, safer brick structures replaced them as Kuala Lumpur was divided into four areas: businesses, craftsmen, brothels and opium dens. Malaria, dysentery, beriberi and tuberculosis were common with inadequate water and waste management in the cramped settlements.
As the city expanded and grew economically into the capital it is today, sanitary and plumbing policies were focused on the health of its inhabitants, gradually weaning them away from the river. The completion of the KL-Port Klang railway line and the reservoirs in Ampang further reduced reliance on the river for transportation and fresh water. Ignored, the river threw tantrums like an irritated child, flooding the city every time it rained heavily upstream. It wasn’t until the massive floods of 1971, which soaked the city for five days, that the authorities decided the river had to be tamed.
‘What river? It’s only a huge drain. You can’t see the drain from here.’ explains Hj Naim, the caretaker of the Muslim Cemetery on Jalan Ampang, who has waded through his fair share of floods for the past 33 years.
‘Before they widened the river and built the concrete walls, it used to flood. The gravestones would be flooded about this high [gesturing to just below his knee]. But now it’s okay.’
The cemetery, just across the Twin Towers, is an oasis of calm shadowed by towering concrete, the final resting place for a thousand quiet souls. The river flows just beyond the garden of headstones, but I can’t see it.