A village lost in time: Inside Kampung Baru

Updated 15th September 2016
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A village lost in time: Inside Kampung Baru
Written by Zahra Jamshed, CNN
Kampung Baru is a village lost in time. Located in the heart of Malaysia's cosmopolitan capital, Kuala Lumpur, the small estate is comprised of century-old houses that are home to timeless Malay traditions.
Having resisted resisted modern development since 1900, when it was first sectioned off by British colonialists, the pocket of land is a symbol of the past.
Frequented by locals and tourists alike for its famous food stalls and traditional nasi lamak rice dish, Kampung Baru offers a rare glimpse into an untouched ethnic Malay lifestyle and is home to families who have lived there for generations.
Dwarfed by the modern architectural marvels that surround it, the village is more than an incredible visual juxtaposition -- it is a small slice of history that is cherished by many locals who seek to preserve the tradition, history, and stories that exist within its walls.
But with the iconic Petronas twin towers as its backdrop, the Kapung Baru village has also long been coveted by the city's developers, who have their sights set on the potential real estate gold mine it sits upon.
Some residents are unwavering in their push to maintain their traditional lifestyle, but with a projected gross development value of RM 61 billion ($14 billion) according to the Kampong Bharu Development Corporation, modern architecture is slowly creeping in.
Concerned that planning pressure may consume the timeless treasure, local photographer Kamal Sellehuddin took to Kampung Baru, camera in hand, to capture the village in its fragile state before it is, as he says, "erased from our history entirely."
The buildings that time forgot
Can you describe life inside Kampung Baru?
The feeling of walking into the village is surreal. You are transported into another world, another time, somewhere completely different from the city which surrounds it. The simplicity of life in Malay villages is immediately visible, and the space provides the locals a strong sense of belonging -- a reminder of the country's roots and origins.
Tell us about your first impressions. What was it about this village that you wanted to capture?
Can buildings actually grow?
Like most people, I first came to Kampung Baru for the food.
The village is well known amongst Kuala Lumpur locals for its wide ranging food stalls and restaurants. When I was growing up, Kampung Baru was a place to hangout, to grab a bite to eat and catch up with friends.
In 2009, I moved overseas for a few years, and when I returned, Kampung Baru had changed significantly. Many houses had been demolished to make way for development. What I wanted to capture is the original form, an ambiance of the village, before it is -- seemingly inevitably -- all taken apart.
Which photograph best describes the emotions of the residents inside the village and why?
There is a fascinating story about one house in particular, which was told to me by a third-generation resident, Mr Zainai.
The house would now be 100 years old. According to the story, the house was rented by the Minister of Agriculture, who deeply insisted on purchasing the house. But Zainai's father refused, because he treasured the home too much.
The Portrait of Mr. Zainal captures, in a single image, the emotions of the residents of the village itself. His expression shows worry, which could be interpreted as concern about the future of Kampung Baru.
With the background of his old wooden house against the iconic Petronas Twin towers, the picture reflects the essence of Kampung Baru's struggle -- the people's precious heritage versus the relentless march of modernization.
Is this the world's craziest new skyscraper?
How are the residents currently responding to pressures to move?
I spoke to a few residents about the movements within Kampung Baru, and one of the ladies was a third generation Kampung Baru resident, Kak Chu (roughly translated as 'older sister Chu'). She runs a simple stall that serves nasi lemak.
According to Chu, none of the residents had been forcibly moved. But many seem to fallen lure to the simple offer of money, including several of her own peers.
Why do you think it's important to document this village?
From my observations, this village is facing a fierce clash of cultures between the modern and traditional. The redevelopment plans for heritage sites in Malaysia have raised many questions from many parties, genuine or otherwise, on how our country manages its fading heritage.
Other redevelopments have demolished iconic buildings to make way for modernization. It is feared that many other heritage sites would face the same fate -- carelessly erased from our history entirely.
We are beginning to see high-rise apartments creep into the area as well. Perhaps in a just a few short years, Kampung Baru as we know it will have changed entirely.
Which photograph is your favorite, can you tell us the story behind it.
One of my favorite photographs is of a motorcycle zooming past an alley, while the Petronas Twin Towers stands tall and mighty in the background, enveloped in a haze. Thanks to the haze, the photograph emanates a surreal, art-like quality.
What do you hope people will think or feel when they see this photo series?
I hope that people, especially former and present Kampung Baru residents, develop an awareness and deeper appreciation for the need to protect their identity, heritage, culture and land that has been passed to them.
These are our local traditions, our cultural practices, and we cannot afford to ignore the reality that surrounds this issue.
Kamal Sellehuddin's exhibit on Kampung Baru will run from 7 September - 7 October at Transit Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.
This interview has been edited for clarity.