Kuala Lumpur City Guide | Kuala Lumpur History – From Swampy Marshland to A Thriving Metropolis

Kuala Lumpur simply means “Muddy Confluence“, began as a mining settlement in the 1850s and has come a long way, both in years and physical development. From a shanty town, it has blossomed into Malaysia’s Federal Capital – a city poised to compete with the ranks of world-class cities.

Despite the extensive development in concrete and steel and its modern facilities, Kuala Lumpur is also known for preserving its heritage buildings while the many beautifully landscaped parks and gardens have earned it the reputation of a “Garden City of Lights”.

The Kuala Lumpur history can be said to begin in the middle of the 19th century. In 1857, Raja Abdullah, the representative of the Yam Tuan who administered Klang, came to explore the district looking for tin ore. He was assisted by Raja Jumaat of Lukut and 87 Chinese workers.

After coming up, the Klang River as far as its confluence with the Gombak River, they made their way through deep jungle and found tin near Ampang. That moment marked the beginning of Kuala Lumpur’s development from a tin miner’s camp into a commercial center able to attract large numbers of investors from elsewhere.


When mining began in earnest in Ampang, food, equipment and other necessities were brought up the Klang River by merchants. They could however only get as far as the muddy confluence of the two rivers.

They therefore set up shop on a high bank where the Klang River met the Gombak River. Soon after, a thriving shanty town developed and shaped the destiny of a whole nation – this shanty town was Kuala Lumpur.

The original 87 miners were afflicted with malaria, and soon only a handful were left. They were joined by many more Chinese miners and as the town and its population grew, so too did its notorious reputation. Kuala Lumpur did indeed resemble a prospecting town in the Wild, Wild West, with its gambling halls, drinking saloons and brothels.

Kuala Lumpur History — The Kapitan Cina

The Chinese were quick to organise themselves into clans, which looked after the welfare of their members, but due to the sense of lawlessness of that era and of the place, these clans soon resembled triads, where welfare was taken one step further – a step into chaos as little disagreements escalated into gang fights and personal vendettas.


Elected as “Kapitan Cina” by the clans, Yap Ah Loy, with the backing of the local Sultan, started developing the town, building hospitals, houses and a prison. He also managed to keep the fighting in check.

After the arrival of Yap Ah Loy in the 1860s, development proceeded at a faster pace until in March 1880, the British moved the seat of their administration from Klang to Kuala Lumpur. They took charge the running of Kuala Lumpur, and rebuilt it according well prepared plans, turning it into a comfortable urban center with a completely new look.

The rebuilding, begun after Frank Swettenham became Residents of Selangor in 1882 was made easier by the fact that the old town had been destroyed more than once as result of civil wars and fire.

Office buildings and shop houses of several storeys appeared and brightened the scene during the late 19th and early 20th century. Attap houses disappeared and were replaced by structures in bricks. By 1887, there were 518 bricks houses in Kuala Lumpur while in 1894, the construction of buildings in the Mughal Islamic style began.

From about 1885 the population of Kuala Lumpur grew not merely by the arrival of more traders but by ordinary people coming to the town seeking for their fortunes. New amenities were treated such as the Lake Garden’s now known Taman Tasik Perdana.

Kuala Lumpur History Turning Point

The turning point in Kuala Lumpur history came in 1824, when the Pangkor Treaty was signed as a result of a struggle for the Selangor throne. Having been asked to intervene, the English did just that – for the next 137 years.

They started by appointing a British Resident for Selangor and Frank Swettenham made Kuala Lumpur his administrative centre. Later, in 1896, when the Federation of Malay States was formed, Kuala Lumpur became its capital.

The new century brought more progress for Kuala Lumpur, with more houses, hospitals and a grand railway station built for the people. By that time, it had lost some of its notoriety, and gained respectability. The Selangor Club was the place that anyone who was someone would frequent. Malay royalty and English personages – all could be found at the prestigious club.


The early 1940-s saw Kuala Lumpur in Japanese hands but after World War II, the British came back, only to find that things were no longer the same. The locals were clamouring for self-rule. So it was that at midnight on August 31st, 1957, the calls of “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” (meaning “Independence!”) echoed across the city, officially ending colonial rule in all of Malaya.


Malaysia was formed only in 1963, when the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island, and Singapore, at the southern tip of the peninsula, joined Malaya. KL was then the capital of Selangor. In 1965, Singapore broke away from Malaysia, and in 1974, it was decided that KL be made a Federal Territory. Since then, as the administrative centre of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur has grown into a modern, multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-national metropolis that is the pride of the nation.

Forever Living Malaysia

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