On Jalan Doraisamy, a man sleeps in the shade of a shuttered nightclub. It’s a wonder that he can sleep so soundly: loud clangs hammer the air, as workers tear down a building nearby. But perhaps he’s used it. After all, a lot has been changing around here.
The street, better known as Asian Heritage Row, was once a popular nightlife spot. Hangouts like Bar Savanh and Atrium drew a weekend crowd of young people. But as new tenants rushed to cash in and turnover increased, the street gained a reputation for being seedy and unsafe.
In 2012, two bouncers were shot outside a club. After that, police presence increased and many patrons drifted away. Despite being located in the commercial centre of the city, Asian Heritage Row declined. In recent years, various clubs have closed down leaving just a handful behind.
Today, however, the construction work hints at a new future for the street. A property consortium, Urbanspace, has taken ownership of 22 of the shoplots on Jalan Doraisamy and is launching an ambitious project to convert these pre-war buildings into shops, cafes and other commercial spaces.
If the project is successful, this could completely change the way that Jalan Doraisamy is seen and used. But it’s not an easy challenge. For one thing, Asian Heritage Row has long been associated with nightlife, late nights and regrets. That’s why Urbanspace decided to give it a new nickname: The Row.
Like the new name, the architecture of The Row is stripped back, embracing simple functionality and clean aesthetics. Shop fronts are either exposed brick or painted black, with large glass windows letting in plenty of sunlight. Exterior railings hang with green vines. It’s a very different look to the brash exteriors of the former clubs.
Urbanspace hired Singapore-based creative consultancy Pocket Projects and Malaysian architect firm Studio Bikin to design the spaces and their usage. In July 2015, the first phase was launched with five shops open for business. Each tenant was selected for its connection to local culture.
“We wanted people who would be part of a creative community,” says Adela of Studio Bikin, emphasising the curation of homegrown businesses.
As well as an events venue called Slate, the businesses here include League of Captains, a cafe and retail shop by Malaysian streetwear brand Pestle and Mortar; nyonya restaurant Limapulo (from the same founder as Limablas on Jalan Mesui) and local cafe franchise Butter + Beans (first opened in Happy Mansion, Section 17). Another tenant is 44 Bar, a pop-up bar which gained a cult following at its previous residency in Bangsar’s Art Printing Works.
“It’s not just the physical space but to make it a place, it’s about the people and how they use it,” says Karen Tan of Pocket Projects. While Karen and Adela won’t reveal all the future tenants for the next phase, they mention that skate shop Wheel Love will join Jalan Doraisamy in the coming year, as well as the Singaporean music bar Timbre.
The new inhabitants of the Row might read like a Who’s Who of the cool crowd. But will these independent businesses be able to sustain themselves in the long term? After all, Jalan Doraisamy is sandwiched between the car-choked arteries of Jalan Dang Wang and Jalan Sultan Ismail. Aside from an office lunch crowd, can the street hope to get regular foot traffic?
“The tenants themselves are surprised by the crowd they are pulling at the weekend,” says Adela, pointing out that the street is close to both a monorail and LRT station. Meanwhile, Karen brings up the “H word” that’s on everyone’s minds. “It’s very easy to pigeonhole this project as hipster, or yuppie or expat,” she says. “For us, to have a shot at sustainability, you really have to appeal to as broad a base as possible. We’re presenting an alternative space to malls and this is for those who seek that.”
They show me how the open area between the new shops has been flattened to create a broad stretch of pavement like a plaza. This has the effect of linking the shops together, harking back to the five foot way concept. “It recreates the pleasure of window shopping that’s been lost with more recent developments,” says Adela.
Pocket Projects previously worked on a row of conserved shoplots in the red light district of Geylang in Singapore. Architects were invited to “reinterpret” the shoplots, with the aim of creating practical and interesting living spaces that could increase rental yields and change the street’s image.
Here on Jalan Doraisamy, a similar creative process of redevelopment is happening. But Karen emphasizes that The Row is not approached as a residential area because it’s already been commercial for over a decade. It’s also not a conservation or restoration project, since many of these 1940s shoplots have been reworked and hacked so many times.
“I would call it more of a revitalization,” says Adela. “Fortunately for us, Urbanspace is willing to forgo the 10 story tower block and invest in an experiment, create something different. The pressure is so high in KL with land prices, so I think that’s very commendable and hopefully will spur similar developments that bring the human scale back to the city.”
For Jalan Doraisamy, time will tell whether this experiment is successful. In any case, the street has grown used to change. From here, you can see the Twin Towers peeking at the street, as well as a colourful Bollywood club, and the venerable Ah Loke Tailor, which has been around for at least sixty years.
If the experiment fails, then the street will evolve again. But if it succeeds, Jalan Doraisamy could change the way that KL-ites see the city. While suburban neighbourhoods have burgeoned with cool cafes and hangouts, Bukit Bintang has largely been left as a tourists’ playground. The Row could bring young people back to the city centre, offering a place to lepak beyond shopping malls. That in itself is a risk worth taking.
Words and photos by Ling Low
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