This Hotel is Putting Kuala Lumpur’s Underappreciated Chow Kit Neighborhood on the Map

An ode to Kuala Lumpur’s underground, The Chow Kit weaves retro design and contemporary art into one of the city’s prettiest hotels. By Bek Van Vliet Owen

Mar 3, 2020

Ther’s a clairvoyant reading palms in room 1107, an opera singer on the mezzanine and a roulette game happening in the boardroom. Next door, Muslim comedienne Hannan Azlan is killing it with a high- innuendo ukelele act, after which there’ll be a drag show, then margarita-fueled karaoke until someone pulls the plug. Earlier on, Tony Fernandes of Tune Group had given a reluctant speech on the central staircase.

This titillating grab-bag of an event is in honor of The Chow Kit and its sibling Momo’s—the first two properties to launch from Ormond Hotels, a sister brand to Tune Hotels. Momo’s next door is more your contrarian millennial brand, whereas The Chow Kit is a nostalgic take on the locale’s gambling dens and cathouses—a tribute to the late-night laneways of the Chow Kit sub-district’s seamier side. “Chow Kit has always been a transit zone and a very important historic part of Kuala Lumpur, which has been neglected for many years,” art consultant Liza Ho, who curated the hotel’s artworks, told me. While the suburb is still one of the city’s more “authentic” neighborhoods, there’s hope that this new hotel can help inspire a revival of the area—as well as act as a testing ground for the Ormond brand, which will launch its “simplified luxury boutique concept” in Dublin and Melbourne come 2022.

The Chow Kit lights up a forgotten part of Kuala Lumpur.

Today, there’s no sign of the building’s former incarnations—the two most recent of which were unsuccessful Tune Group hotels. It’s now a classy, modernized distillation of underground 70s and 80s Chow Kit, brought to life in Art-Deco curves, bordello- inspired textiles and vintage-style design details. In the guest rooms, teal velvet drapes, dark-green ceilings and red-brocade settees evoke a Wong Kar Wai love scene. Tassels, rattan and bamboo ceiling fans throughout the property lend a little of Southeast Asia.

New York–based firm Studio Tack is behind the design. Only a third party with “no cultural baggage,” as Fernandes had put it, could be trusted to represent Chow Kit free of any Chinese, Malay or Indian biases. Getting to this point, with no prior knowledge of the neighborhood’s backstory, took Studio Tack months of research into local culture and history, including lengthy dives into the food, art and music of the city.

“We tried to see the city through naive eyes,” says Studio Tack partner Jou-Yie Chou, who led the project. “We were inspired by details that might otherwise potentially be mundane or ubiquitous, as we felt this is how guests, for the most part, would be experiencing the city,” he tells me. Their mornings, spent in local kopitiams, inspired the casual warmth of the hotel’s dining room, and cemented their desire to create inviting gathering spaces. The Chow Kit’s exterior brickwork, which extends across the interior floors, was another deliberate link to the locale, “a direct reference to the foundation of modern Kuala Lumpur, post the fires and floods of the late 1800s,” Chou says. The city was rebuilt brick by brick after its original wooden settlements burned down in 1881, and many of those brick shophouses still stand in this enclave. As you walk around the hotel, taking in its artwork and antiques, the greater narrative of Chow Kit continues to unfurl.

Loke Chow Kit, the man after whom the neighborhood is named, was a tin-mining magnate from Penang with a penchant for English tailoring. He appears in a hand-painted portrait by Josun Huakhuak on wood-paneled wallpaper in the library, decked out in a three-piece suit,

a cravat and a top hat, as per Victorian men’s fashions of the day. “He was a big Anglophile,” says general manager Caroline King on our tour of the hotel. She also points out the geometric Chinese-looking lampshades, which are inspired by feng shui ba gua mirrors. The settees are bespoke pieces made from brocade patterned like traditional Malaysian songket weavings. Certain antiques and artworks around the hotel come from shareholder Lim Kian Onn’s private collection. “Not everything in the design is a metaphor,” King quips, even though every detail on our walk-around appears to be loaded with cultural meaning.

Where the retro custom furnishings create a general old-school ambience, the hotel’s artworks bring a more defined sense of place. Ho, the art consultant enlisted by Studio Tack to curate The Chow Kit’s collection, had three main goals: create a heightened sense of intimacy between guests and the hotel; represent all eras rather than focus on the historical, and spark curiosity in the Chow Kit neighborhood of today. To that end, she commissioned new contemporary pieces from Malaysian and Southeast Asian artists to sit side-by-side with archival images of the area. A picture wall in the dining room is where it all comes together, giving you plenty to pore over on the walk up to the mezzanine.

The picture wall overlooking the dining room.

Here you’ll find a shot from the New Straits Times archives of Sudirman’s free concert, which drew more than 100,000 people onto Chow Kit Street, “one of the most important moments in the history of local music,” Ho says. She also notes newspaper clippings of Malaysia’s Independence Day, “a reminder of what we have achieved as a country.” There’s a picture of Kuala Lumpur’s beloved pink minibuses that were big in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and an aerial shot of the Chow Kit Market, an important local landmark that symbolizes the city’s multiculturalism. Amid the flashbacks—on this wall and throughout the hotel—are contemporary commissions, which Ho says, compel us “to not forget the future and the choices we make now.” A piece by Mark Tan “explores the notion of construction and our desire to build and create,” she says. A charcoal drawing by Chong Siew Ying, called Flow, brings to mind the ethereal layers of a traditional Chinese watercolor, melding old and new styles. “They have a life of their own,” Ho says of the hotel’s art collection. “They speak to you. They tell their own stories.”

In a neighborhood like this, where shophouse barbers, family-run kopitiams and red-light businesses far outnumber Starbucks and Circle K, there’s no shortage of narratives still waiting to be told. If all goes to plan, The Chow Kit will help bring them to light.

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