Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: 3 Hidden Gems in Petaling Street

October 06, 2016
CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.





SPEAKEASY, BUT CARRY NO SELFIE STICK - THE REVIVAL OF KUALA LUMPUR'S 
CHINATOWN THANKS TO 3 NEW HIDDEN WATERING HOLES

CHOCHA FOOD STORE  • MERCHANT'S LANEPS150

I still remember the very first piece I made for Central Saint Martins, ten years ago. First years were instructed to create an artwork to illustrate their hometown, by way of introducing each other to their classmates on the first day of school. Being a Malaysian who immigrated to Britain because I found my country did little to support the creative arts, I thought I'd create a sculpture to depict the freedom of speech, or rather lack of, in my motherland. My sculpture began with a bird cage, the base of which was littered with smashed lightbulbs and bloodied feathers (broken dreams and ideas) and the centrepiece representing voices silenced would be a mouth fashioned from...dentures.

To procure the dentures, I scoured Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street), the main artery of the old heart of Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. Among the back alleys of Chee Cheong Kai (the Chinese locals' name for Jalan Petaling) I found a tiny shop run by an old man who had been making false teeth since time immemorial. The look on this gentleman's face when I pointed at his bin and asked if I could have his unwanted, discarded creations was classic; as were the expressions of my bemused classmates on Orientation Day, the date of which will be immortalised as 'The day the bat-sh*t crazy Asian chick made an impression at art school by hauling in her hand luggage, across the world, a mouldy ol' bird cage teeming with germs, microbes, and DNA.'

If 10 years ago you had told me that this grubby, seedy pocket of the city where I got my dentures from would be a destination for cool-chasers and the social media generation, I’d have probably laughed so hard that my chompers fell out of my mouth and I'd have needed two sets of false teeth. Of course, I’d have wanted to believe it - I’d long fantasised about living a bobo (bohemian borgeoius) lifestyle in a gently-restored but mostly artfully dilapidated shophouse on Jalan Petaling, popping downstairs to Nanyang for art supplies or to the flea market for snacks of soya bean milk and roasted chestnuts. My dreams of fauxhemian affectation was quickly shattered by petty crime rates in the area and the noise of backpacking tourists inhabiting the local hostels.

Jalan Petaling and her neighbouring streets have always suffered a reputation for being the place where you clutch your purse tight while travelling in packs for protection, avoiding jeers from street vendors trying to sell you counterfeit luxury goods. It still is, but lately its been drawing a new crowd of hipsters, tourists in the know, and even just straight-laced professionals who want an alternative aperitif. All this is thanks to the catalyst of the young-blood revival of Jalan Petaling (much like the revival of Ipoh Old Town): 3 surprising and exciting new establishments - including a speakeasy bar - occupying former brothels, houses, warehouses, and guesthouses - in some instances all of the above.


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CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.



THEY PAVED PARADISE 
AND PUT UP A PARKING LOT

Parking in the area is a pain and a half. The local traffic police's frequent patrols make that national Malaysian sport - illegal 'double parking' - non-negotiable before 6pm, and actual parking spaces are rarer than hen's teeth. The most feasible option is to leave your car in the makeshift, sometimes unlicensed parking lots (really concrete patches surrounded by chain-link fence with an elderly 'jaga' keeping track of your entry times on a notepad. The more enterprising ones have a ticketing booth) and pray that no one vandalises or robs your vehicle. Leave nothing vaguely valuable inside, leave the Porsche at home, and don't ask any of the 'staff' to valet your car unless you want your Honda Accord to be transformed into a Honda Accordion.





CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.



Blink and you'll miss it: the 'We are Open' greeting hand-doodled on cardboard, dangled discreetly on the iron window grates under the weathered front of the once-Mah Lian Hotel. There's nothing about the facade of the former guesthouse and brothel that indicates the tranquil restaurant within, except perhaps for the crowd of well-heeled and impossibly hip clientele (many of them far too young to have seen the restaurant in its previous seedy incarnation) lining up for their turn at Chocha Food StoreChocha is Hakka for 'sit and drink', and the restaurant certainly provides the ingredients for both languid activities. On two different occasions I sat in the sun-soaked courtyard (above) contemplating the hand-pulled flat noodles (a reference to Malaysian Chinese pan mee) served as duck aglio olio while perusing the tea menu - a selection of dark, scented, and cold-brew Chinese and Taiwanese teas. The floating stairs by the restaurant entrance - which has served as backdrop for many a social media star's #OOTD shoots - and the impossibly photogenic, rustic, and beautifully faded space may have made an incredibly ambient first impression, but its the duck rice I keep coming back for - deliciously plump, tender duck breast served with steamed barley and rice. Just like the Asian-inspired soul food on the menu, Chocha Food Store is a deceptively simple-looking and beautifully executed concept that speaks of both nostalgia and innovation.

156, JALAN PETALING, 50000 KUALA LUMPUR


CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.
CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.
CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.
CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.
CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.

CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.
Bloggers are as bloggers do - the postcard of choice for the social media generation is a snapshot on the floating stairs by the restaurant entrance. Pastel tones of grey and pink, dotted with black and yellow square tiles set the scene for this charming and atmospheric space. That the stairs is the perfect backdrop for my new purse - part of Anya Hindmarch's retro range, a nod to schoolgirls embellishing their bags with stickers - is sartorial serendipity.

ANYA HINDMARCH
£795


CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.
CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.


After a long and satisfying lunch at Chocha Food Store, I make room for the the restaurant's next wave of diners by vacating my prime spot in the sun and head a few doors down to Merchant's Lane. Again, the entrance is discreet, almost invisible, and the venue occupies yet another former brothel on the same street. One ascends the steep, narrow stairs and is greeted at the top with an affirmative sign declaring 'This Must Be The Place'. Punctuated with bright punches of colour and decor that nods to the city's history, Merchant's Lane is brimming with the old-world, colonial charm that for too long has been monopolised by Malacca and Ipoh, but finally capitalised by this new Kuala Lumpur café. I haven't tried any of the food - although I was seriously tempted by the intensely purple cake made with Goober jam - but I love their drinks, especially the ice-cold lemongrass tea, perfect for sipping together with a post-meal cigarette while languidly lounging about in the open courtyard. If the ambience of Merchant's Lane seems familiar, that's because its designer has links to Malaysia's famous Sekeping Retreats (I stayed in 'urban treehouse' Sekeping Kong Heng in Ipoh). 

150, JALAN PETALING, 50000 KUALA LUMPUR

CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.


When the sun sets in Kuala Lumpur, at a consistent quarter past seven each and every evening, the nocturnal gem of Jalan Petaling comes to life. Another establishment, another former brothel hiding a hub of social activity within its pre-war facade. The entrance to Kuala Lumpur's hottest addition to the city's speakeasy scene, PS150, is concealed behind a vintage toy shop, which one enters then pass through a labyrinth of rooms  - each one evoking a different era in the history of Indochina - before arriving to the main bar area. The first section, dubbed the Opium Den, is a sultry corridor of private booths shielded with beaded curtains. Past the narrow and cozy space is Tiki, the open-air smoking courtyard bathed in an amber glow with touches of green emanating from the beer bottle light installation. Finally, I find myself in the main room - a gorgeous space dimly lit with crimson lanterns and a neon sign bearing the Chinese characters for Jalan Petaling. 

The cocktails, crafted by well-known Malaysian mixologist Angel Ng, are divided into 5 eras: Vintage (1850s-1910s), Classic (1920s-1930s), Tiki (1940s-1960s), Disco (1970s-2000s) and Contemporary (late 2000s-present). Temptations range from original concoctions to classics with a Southeast Asian such as the Pandan Flip (pandan-infused dark rum, coconut, bitters, egg yolk) and my personal favourite, the Lychee No. 3 (London dry gin, lychee, ginger flower, lime). Between the surreal experiences of searching a ominously tattered street brimming with salacious history, to finding the entrance behind a vintage toy store, to travelling through time before arriving at the bar area designed to evoke a scene from a Wong Kar-Wai movie, PS150 feels like a dream within a dream - and that's before one loses then finds oneself in the bottom of a giddying glass of libation.

150, JALAN PETALING, 50000 KUALA LUMPUR

CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.

CHOCHA FOOD STORE, MERCHANT'S LANE, and PS150 - the three new watering holes bringing an old-school but young-blood revival to Jalan Petaling in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.

The Tiki, or post-war room
Opium Den


...and lo, the Holy Trinity that may just prove to be the beginning of something new in old Kuala Lumpur.

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