Something’s happening down in Chinatown. Beyond the makeshift stalls selling knockoff tat, away from street-side hawkers chopping up chunks of pork, hidden down murky backstreets, and aloft in ancient shophouses, a resurgence is taking place in the once-rundown Kuala Lumpur district.
Ask any true Asian traveller how “KL” ranks among neighbouring cities—Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Saigon—and invariably, it’s almost always near the bottom. Often cited as dull and listless, the city’s change has been dramatic of late, driven by a new breed of intrepid food and beverage entrepreneur.
And of all places, it’s here, in Chinatown. Known for its unsavoury characters as much as its neon-lit aesthetic, the area has served as the perfect district for a resurgence, the rundown ancient shophouses ideal for its new-wave of hipster bars and restaurants.
Fresh life was first breathed onto the district’s edge in 2013, with the opening of Omakase + Appreciate. This hidden bar was a game-changer, launching just as the global speakeasy trend was reaching its peak, with no more than 10 seats hidden behind a fake-closet door. But it did exactly as its Japanese-moniker says on the tin: shake up distinctly fresh, funky drinks that guests couldn’t help but adore. Soon enough, the bar’s modest success spawned a series of flattering imitators, recreating the speakeasy concept while expanding deeper into Chinatown through ever-ostentatious stylistic touches.
One of the most inventive is PS150, a speakeasy that opened in 2016 in a former bordello shophouse building on Petaling Street. Entering through a faux-vintage toy store entrance, guests snake their way through a stark outer courtyard to the dimly-lit bar, where Chinese bric-a-brac and 1980s-style neon serves as a backdrop for its tattooed, bearded bartenders.
Here, the ever-revolving cocktail menu has a homegrown focus. Malaysia’s fascinating culture-clash history has been recreated through classic spirits aged with local flavours, alongside country-specific fruits and herbs—a popular choice is the Rumble in the Jungle, made with coconut and pandan rum, tuak rice wine, sago pudding, and curry leaf.
That domestic dedication, paying homage to the humble country’s roots, has arguably triggered the area’s newfound F&B focus. Right next door, both Chocha Foodstore and Merchant’s Lane serve as foodie counterparts to PS150, despite all three concepts coming from highly distinct founders. Both eateries also launched in 2016 and are set in the same block-long former brothel complex as the bar, but each has done its part to transform the area in their own unique way.
At Chocha, the owners have opted for a bright, airy setting highlighted by local tile work and plenty of plants, with shared wooden tables for its guests. Over at Merchant’s, they’ve gone for a colonial mess-hall look, featuring dark wood floor slats and wicker-backed chairs, peppered with bright splashes of green and yellow.
Despite their design differences, both aim for contemporary takes on classic Malaysian flavours. Merchant’s is less ambitious, with brunch-y favourites such as a chow mein spin on spaghetti aglio e olio and a slow-cooked Hongkie beef stew. Meanwhile, Chocha riffs hard on classic street-side comfort food—biang biang noodles, cincalok fried chicken—with plates that tie into the area’s Chinese and Indonesian roots, including Shaoxing mussels and duck rendang.
Up Chocha’s spiral staircase, things come full circle in the concept-within-a-concept—Botak Liquor, the rooftop lounge complementing the cuisine while adding yet another layer to the overall area. With a sunken bar exclusively serving only white and unaged spirits, the additions of botanicals and fresh juices put a fresh, floral spin on the traditionally heavy speakeasy cocktail.
While many of the Chinatown’s new wave are fresh blood—mid-30-year-olds with successful interests in other fields—a few are tried-and-tested, too. Part of the area’s appeal stems from its old architecture and historic spaces, so it’d only make sense for those long-steeped in the district’s history to get in on the game.
That’s the case with Old China Café, Chinatown’s longest-serving eatery and one of the oldest in all of KL. Its vintage décor and home-style cuisine are understandably well-regarded, including nasi lemak and kweitiau goreng, but particularly fascinating is what’s right above it. The Attic Bar might not be much to look at beyond its Chinoiseries décor, but the rare airy terrace offers panoramic views of the surrounding low-rise area. The drinks list offers a dive bar-like selection of beer buckets and cheap classic cocktails.
When the appeal of rickety red lanterns coupled with Brooklyn hipster clichés has worn off, pop into the area’s two weirdest bars. Each serves as an inspirational sign of how Chinatown—and Kuala Lumpur’s ambitions—are evolving beyond the speakeasy clichés to find their own bravura.
The Deceased is a bar and rooftop space that has a permanent obsession with Halloween. Its décor is somewhere between tacky and spooky, while its drinks are odes to campfire Asian ghost tales. ShuangXi is a reservations-only spot that opens whenever the owners feel like it. Its Chinese apothecary vibe is part-medical, part-nightmare, with drinks named after Wong Kar-wai movies and posters along the wall in due homage.