Rapid gentrification has contributed to the ‘rise’ of Chinatown (or locally known as Petaling Street or ‘Chee Cheong Kai’) in recent months. Hidden bars and hipster cafes are finding homes in old shophouses and back lanes, repurposed and readapted into quaint Instagrammable spaces befitting of social media junkies who are constantly looking for picture-perfect moments.
The latest hidden gem to open in the area is Kwai Chai Hong, a Hutong-style back alley that now plays host to a hidden bar, cafes and lifestyle shops (as well as a bubble tea shop). Its name that translates to ‘Little Demon Lane’ in Cantonese, is given by locals because of its dark and narrow nature, tucked in a quieter side of Chinatown between Jalan Petaling and Lorong Panggung (behind Ali, Muthu and Ah Hock). The rejuvenation project sees 10 shophouses restored, with six nostalgic murals by five local artists around the area depicting the vibrant lifestyle of the Chinese settlers in the sixties.
Hipster additions aside, Chinatown is a great place to visit for true cultural immersion, especially for its old school narrative with many antique shops, multi-generational food vendors, prewar architecture as well as the hidden flea market known as Pasar Karat that opens daily from 6.00am to 10.00am. Follow our neighbourhood guide to experience something new the next time you pay a visit to KL’s Chinatown.
Where to eat
We’ve previously listed Madras Lane as a food haven, especially for the irresistible curry laksa, but tucked deep inside Chinatown’s wet market is a row of hawker stalls selling other local street food like yong tau foo, chee cheong fun as well as shaved ice desserts like ABC and homemade cendol. Madras Lane got its name from the old Madras Cinema that was burnt down in 1979. But be prepared to walk through the wet market, and dress lightly — no expensive shoes please. You’ll be experiencing something different with live chickens and animated chitter-chatters of locals haggling for prices and more.
There are also other breakfast and lunch options including the beef noodles and lala bihun (vermicelli in clam broth) at Kedai Kopi Lai Foong, and a satisfyingly rich bowl of Nyonya laksa at Precious Old China in Central Market.
If you’re thinking of some hipster cafes to bring visiting friends, hop over to Lim Kee Cafe located on the lobby level of Tian Jing Hotel. The entrance itself is a hotspot for ardent Instagrammers, while the interior is decked in charming kopitiam-style decor in shades of ivory and teal. The menu here comprises just coffee, tea, toasts and eggs — best for the fickle-minded. Otherwise, you have the options of Mingle, Jao Tim and Merchant’s Lane for brunch staples like toasties, pastas, cakes and more.
You may also want to walk over to Chocha Foodstore that is famously known for its C.F.C or Cencalok Fried Chicken and a selection of artisanal teas. A hotel in its past life (the entrance still reads Mah Lian Hotel), the owners who are both architects have turned the dilapidated space into a rustic yet quaint teahouse with a bar — Botakliquor Bar — located on its first floor.
Where to drink
If you’ve not been to Kwai Chai Hong, here’s a reason to go over on weekend nights — there’s a brand new swanky drinking place in town and it’s called Concubine. Come here to experience the nightlife (open air) in the middle of Chinatown or walk into the hidden bar for a drink or two. There are DJs spinning on the deck as well on selected nights, and a pretty cool crowd flocking the place since its opening.
During the day, Kwai Chai Hong will leave you snapping away with your best #OOTDs especially with interactive murals that reminisce childhood memories. Xin Fu Tang is also opening, so you have the perfect thirst quencher on warmer days.
Petaling Street is also home to many hidden bars that are either masked by unassuming stairways or perched on the rooftop of old shophouses. Besides PS150 that pretty much launched the bar scene in the area, there are horror-themed speakeasy-style pubs and oriental cocktail dens to keep you coming back.
The Berlin KL can be quite tricky to find but a sign that reads ‘Ich bin eine Berliner’ leaves you a clue. The glowing red neon lights lead you to the bar that is known for its thematic nights, as well as the popular costume-party. If you like themed bars, you can also check out The Deceased for its interiors that remind you of a horror house.
Another bar that brings you back to to Chinatown’s glorious heyday is Shuang Xi. Come and try specialty cocktails that blend ingredients like plum wine and ginger, as well as vodka with banana milk and salted caramel. Shuang Xi recently opens its doors during the day as a cafe, serving your usual coffee and cakes.
We also like to draw your attention to Moutou at Lorong Panggung, which is an artist-run community space that is recently converted into a distinctive rooftop bar for drinks, live music and social events. Moutou supports young artists and budding talents, so you’ll be able to witness some talented live acts happening every now and then. Don’t find it surprising to see how rustic and unpolished the space is — plastic chairs and plank facades reminiscence of kampung houses but on a rooftop.