Mariana and Maganjeet on Jalan Sepat, a road named for a small freshwater fish, in a neighbourhood in Bangsar where streets have been given fish names.
Do you know how Petaling Street or Pudu Road, or for that matter, Jalan Semarak got their names?
These nuggets of information have been unearthed from the archives, and retold in an informative and highly enjoyable book titled ‘Kuala Lumpur Street Names’ which has just hit the bookstores.
Written by history enthusiasts Maganjeet Kaur and Mariana Isa, the book covers around 1,500 roads and is a marvelous way to learn the history of Kuala Lumpur through its streets which are often named after prominent personalities of that time or significant landmarks.
Tracking the changes in street names also tells a story of how political forces shape historical narratives, then and now. Road name changes are not a recent phenomenon as they were also common during the British administration.
And the British imposed new names for political reasons too, said Maganjeet.
The book has already earned sterling reviews, suggesting a significant thirst out there for Malaysian history and stories. And it also suggested to the two authors that there could actually be a demand for historical research services.
And so, it has now sparked a new project between Maganjeet and Mariana who set up the Heritage Output Lab to undertake research for those needing historical information for projects like movies, books, radio shows, advertisements and so on.
Mariana said they are now in discussion with two parties, and hope to get some projects going next year after completing another history book that they are currently working on together with several others.
A historical research business is a novel idea indeed, and will take time to take off but certainly, they are poised to tap into the current upsurge of interest into history in Malaysia.
Both Maganjeet and Mariana have day jobs, and met as volunteers in Muzium Negara.
Last year, they were approached by a book publisher to undertake this massive project of finding out the origins of Kuala Lumpur streets.
They discovered that the National Archives hold a lot of information as right from the beginning, the committee responsible for road names kept detailed records. The names, along with their justification and biodata of the personality, if named after a person, were comprehensively documented.
The duo also pored through the archives of the KL City Hall as well as the National Library’s collection of historical books, and chased down descendants of personalities whose names have been immortalised on road signs.
It still took some detective work as roads don’t just lose their names as time goes by. Sometimes, entire roads get lost when they get swallowed up in a bigger development. Old maps came in helpful to pinpoint the location of lost roads.
They did run into some difficulties when records were missing, or with names of private roads in housing developments. Developers did not always respond to requests to explain their choices. In such cases, they had to speculate but the origins of the vast majority of names could be traced.
This comprehensive book will slake the curiosity of those who want to know who Galloway might be (he was the Chief Jailer at the KL Prisons) but it’s more than just trivia. It meets the very human need of people to want to know their own stories and past.
“Old road names tell us where KL came from, and if we know this, we can better appreciate the place and its people,” Maganjeet said.
Besides, she pointed out, if people wanted to protest the changes in street names, as they recently did when several major roads were renamed, it would be better if they came armed with information on how the street obtained its name.
“If we don’t know the history behind the name, how do we fight to retain the name?” she said.
After all, few would protest a name change for a road named after a government programme like Jalan Semarak was. Semarak was an abbreviation for Setia Bersama Rakyat, a progamme to instil patriotism launched in 1988. It became Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra in 2014.
And for those who didn’t know, Petaling and Pudu are both types of trees.
“You’d be surprised at how many roads are named after trees: Pudu, Tanglin, Sentul, Telawi!” said Maganjeet.
This stretch of Jalan Travers was renamed Jalan Rakyat in early 2015. The road was originally named for Dr Ernest Aston Otho Travers who was best known for services that he rendered to leprosy patients. He also held several government positions such as health officer and state surgeon in the 1890s.