Largest Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur - Kwong Tong Cemetery
Amidst the surrounding ultra-modern skyscrapers and glimpses of the iconic Klang River on one side of Jalan Syed Putra, it's easy to overlook the very rich historical site of Bukit Seputeh on the opposite side of the road. Well hidden from street view, on this quiet hill lies one of the most renowned Chinese cemetery grounds in Malaysia, a final resting place for the likes of legendary figures to war-heroes; the great Kwong Tong Cemetery.
A cemetery in the middle of a metropolis.
Established in 1985, the Kuala Lumpur Kwong Tong Cemetery (吉隆坡 廣東 義山 / Kwantung Cemetery / KTC) is one of the oldest cemeteries in Kuala Lumpur. Founded more than a century ago, it is part of the cluster of old cemeteries located around Jalan Sungai Besi, Jalan Loke Yew, and Jalan Istana. With tens of thousands of plots covering the hills in Bukit Seputeh and Bukit Ampang, in addition to its history stretching back to the early Kapitan period of Kuala Lumpur, the cemetery stands out proudly as the largest and among the most historically significant burial grounds in the capital city.
From KLCC to KTC.
Driving on the Jalan Syed Putra from the direction of the Kuala Lumpur city center, the path leading towards the cemetery can be taken through Lorong Syed Putra Kiri, a small road that diverts off from the highway. Locating the small slip road only required us to spot the brightly-colored Yuen Thong Sze Temple on the left side of the main road, then quickly followed by a left turn at a small junction a few meters ahead.
Slip road (left) from Jalan Syed Putra (right)
Left turn at a small junction.
Greatly contrasting with the scenery outside, the small road passes through several rows of ageing flats on both sides, with the road pavement and curbs appearing noticeably older and less maintained. The surrounding vegetation also abruptly becomes thicker, buildings further spaced in between, and the elevation steeper. Some notable buildings further ahead include the Glasshouse at Siputeh (event venue) Restoran Siu Siu and La Chateau apartment complexes.
Old flats located beside Lorong Syed Putra Kiri.
Le Chateau 1, one of the only two apartment complexes beside the road.
Large trees surrounding the hill.
We drove straight until reaching a junction where the road merges with Jalan Kerayong. Behind a thin curtain of trees on the roadside, the landscape completely changed to an endless plain of grass with countless gravestones scattered in between. Taking a left turn, we drove straight towards the main cemetery grounds.
Road junction merging with Jalan Kerayong (left) and Jalan Keraying Aman (right).
Towards the main cemetery grounds.
Finally reaching one of the highest points of Bukit Seputeh, we were pleasantly greeted by a peaceful hill covered with thousands of graves and tombs, surrounded by a spectacular view of the ever-gleaming Kuala Lumpur's city skyline.
View of Kuala Lumpur from Bukit Seputeh (visible in the photo include the Petronas Twin Towers, KL Tower, The Exchange 106 and PNB 118)
Spanning an area of approximately 350 acres, Kwong Tong Cemetery (KTC) covers most of Bukit Seputeh and a part of Bukit Petaling in Kuala Lumpur. Not being the only burial site in the area, KTC is often included among the historically significant cemeteries and crematoriums near Jalan Sungai Besi and Jalan Loke Yew, with the others being; the Hokkien / Fukien cemetery, Roman Catholic cemetery, Sinhalese / Sri Lanka Buddhist cemetery, Guangxi / Kwangsai cemetery, Japanese cemetery, and Sikh & Hindu crematoriums. It is believed that since the 19th century, more than 200,000 had been buried or cremated around these cemeteries and crematoriums (along with a few numbered gravestones with unconfirmed identities).
Map of the various cemeteries and crematoriums in Bukit Seputeh, Jalan Sungai Besi and Jalan Loke Yew.
About 500 meters away on the North side of the KTC is the Kuala Lumpur Royal Museum (Istana Negara Lama), while the South side borders Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (TUDM) Sempang Airport. The cemetery is separated into two general areas as Jalan Istana cuts through across the hills. Both the West and East sides have numerous entrance roads; the West side through Jalan Kerayong, Jalan Lapangan Terbang Lama, and Lorong Syed Putra Kiri (the route we used earlier, accessible via Jalan Syed Putra), while the East side through Jalan Dewan Bahasa.
Well-maintained cemetery area around Jalan Kerayong.
KTC was established only a few decades after Kuala Lumpur was opened up as a tin-mining district in the 1840s. During this period, a large influx of Chinese immigrants, mostly from Guangdong and Fujian, moved to the district mainly to work in the bustling tin mines.
West Gate, one of the two paifang in KTC (West side).
Prior to the existence of the cemetery, it is believed that many among the Chinese community that lived in Kuala Lumpur would bury the remains of their deceased in temporary graves, particularly around the current former Pudu Prison site and Jalan Hang Tuah. After three to four years, the bones would be cremated and sent back to Mainland China for re-burial. However, the temporary graves were said to be prone to be damaged by the surrounding elements, such as weather, vehicles, and wild animals.
To avoid such unfavorable conditions from continuing, the Chinese community leaders organized and applied to the British Colonial Government for a permanent burial grounds for the numerous local Chinese communities, leading to the official founding of the KTC in 1985.
Rows of gravestones in the Western side of the cemetery.
More than a century after its establishment, the cemetery has since grown to be a part of the Malaysian Chinese cultural heritage in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Numerous famous Chinese figures of the past from many clans and guilds were laid to rest here, among the most notable being:
Kapitan Yap Ah Loy (1837-1883) - Touted as the most influential Kapitan China in Kuala Lumpur in its tin-mining heydays
Chan Sow Lin (1845-1927) - Influential figure during the Larut Wars and the early development period of Kuala Lumpur
Kapitan Yap Kwan Seng (1846-1901) - The 5th and last Kapitan China of Kuala Lumpur
Zhao Yu (1843-1892) - Mining tycoon in the early days of Kuala Lumpur, member of Kuala Lumpur Health Bureau
Lim Lian Geok (1901 - 1985) - Considered to be the Father of Chinese Education in Malaysia
Good Fortune Pavilion, a nearby columbarium for the Hokkien Cemetery. This cemetery is managed by the Selangor & Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Association (SKLHA).
Aside from individual graves, KTC also contains a number of memorials, one of them being an obelisk cenotaph that can be seen across the Good Fortune Pavilion at Jalan Kerayong. The memorial was constructed in honor of the Nanyang (South-East Asia) volunteer workers, many of whom perished during the 8-year-long Second Sino-Japanese War in 1939. Following the Marco Polo / Lugou Bridge Incident in 1937, the Chinese government declared a nationwide war of resistance against Japan, inspiring many overseas Chinese from Malaya to assist as skilled drivers and technicians back in Mainland China. With a total of nine batches from across South East Asia, more than 3,000 volunteers were involved in the resistance effort, with less than half surviving at the end of the war. The monument is one of the four erected across Malaysia in remembrance of these volunteers' sacrifices.
Memorial obelisk in honor of Nanyang volunteers, Jalan Kerayong.
A few meters away at the Hokkien Cemetery side of the same road, a World War II memorial can be seen sitting on a 10,000 sq ft platform. Underneath is a mass grave where nearly 1,000 war victims of the Japanese occupation were buried. All of the deceased were said to be murdered during the war, with a significant number even allegedly buried alive. Titled "The Rebuilt Memorial to Malayan Victims of the Japanese Occupation", the structure was built in 2006, replacing the original structure constructed in 1945 with the title "Tomb of War Victims of the Compatriots of the Republic of China".
Memorial to Malayan Victims of the Japanese Occupation.
Under the management of the Kwong Tong Cemetery Association (KTC Association), the Chinese community has championed for many years for the conservation of KTC from being developed and relocated. The land itself, along with other cemeteries around KTC, was valued at over RM700 million in the 1990s due to its strategic location, yet the numerous cemetery associations, bolstered by support from political parties and NGOs, remained steadfast and insisted on the burial grounds remaining where they are today.
Pressure from public opinion led to the government's cancellation of the plans in July 2000. Following this, the KTC Association has worked together with the other associations to conduct intensive beautification work for the whole area and introduced 'green culture' in its upkeep, maintaining the area's image as part of the cultural heritage of Kuala Lumpur. Over the last ten years, around RM2 million was spent for this purpose alone.
Gravestones facing the city.
Aside from the vast number of individual plots under its management, KTC Association is also responsible for the upkeep of around 70 shared graves of various Chinese association members, including a general tomb for unclaimed remains. According to its Charter, funds of the association are to be utilized exclusively for Malaysian Chinese citizens from Guangdong & Hainan origins. Currently, the association maintains appointed members from six Chinese associations in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor;
Persatuan Kwong Siew Selangor Dan Wilayah Persekutuan
Persatuan Fui Chiu Wilayah Persekutuan dan Selangor
Persatuan Ka Yin Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur
Persatuan Hainan Selangor Dan Wilayah Persekutuan
Persatuan Teo Chew Selangor Dan Kuala Lumpur
Selangor Wilayah Char Yong Fui Kuan
World War II Memorial Peace Park, West side of Jalan Istana.
The cemetery administration & management offices can be located on the Eastern side of Jalan Istana. Opposite of these buildings, one could find the 5-storey Pagoda Kwong Yee columbarium, built in 1985 to house urns. The construction of this building was part of an effort by the KTC Association to provide an alternate burial method and reduce the strains of depleting land space in the cemetery. In 2007, another larger New Pagoda Kwong Yee was built behind the current pagoda in order to increase the space for urns in the cemetery. The KTC Association spent around RM20 million to construct the 13-storey building, and it was said to be the highest and largest columbarium tower in Asia at the time.
In the same compound nearby is also the Historical Museum solely for KTC, while a bit further down the road are both the old and new KTC funeral parlor buildings. Just beside the building is the World War II Memorial Peace Park, with its large sculpture visible even from Jalan Istana outside.
KTC Funeral Parlor (old building), Eastern side of KTC.
Innovative efforts were utilized to increase visits to the cemeteries beyond the annual Qing Ming festivals, such as organizing runs and encouraging informative tours. Along with being one of the few cemetery associations to be ISO-certified and to host its very own museum, the KTC Association aims to increase public appreciation of the historical and cultural values of the cemetery while instilling consciousness on the need to preserve such a significant part of Kuala Lumpur's identity.
Following its rebranding as a cultural heritage park, KTC Association and the other cemetery organizations finally received their long-awaited relief in June 2019 when the cemetery was gazetted as a national heritage zone. Upholding this status however is still an ongoing process, as new development plan details cropping up in 2020 might lead to a repeat of the same issues faced by KTC in the late 1990s.
KTC compound being much greener from the surrounding concrete jungle, functions as one of Kuala Lumpur's green belts.
Maintaining its prestige for over 125 years and counting, the Kwong Tong Cemetery has grown to be a colossal cultural monument for Kuala Lumpur and its history. From being at the edges of the town during the tin-mining era, to being fully surrounded by the present-day metropolis, this special burial ground remains firmly in the hearts and minds of the many Chinese communities that surround it, continuing the preservation and reverence of the cemetery for the generations ahead.
Exiting Kwong Tong cemetery towards Jalan Istana.
KTC Association Official Website & KTC History: https://ktc.org.my
Malaysian Cemeteries and Memorial Parks Development: From Cemeteries to Luxurious Memorial Parks: With Special Reference to Malaysia and Indonesia (Claudine Salmon, 2016) - Association Archipel
Opposing cemeteries from being developed in 1990s - 2000: Preserve old cemeteries (24/7/2000) - The Star
Reflecting on opposition to cemetery development 1990s - 2000: Victory of the dead (Pu Zhendong, 14/2/2014) - Asia Weekly
Allegations of cemetery development plans in 2001: Sungai Besi cemetery project being revived, claims SCAH (Ng Boon Hooi, 11/5/2001) - Malaysiakini
Nanyang & Japanese Victims memorials analysis: Making Malaysian Chinese: War Memory, Histories and Identities (Frances Tay, 2015) - Doctorate Thesis - University of Manchester
Nanyang memorial commemoration ceremony: Gone but never forgotten (Lim Yin Yen, 6/4/2019) - The Star
New Pagoda Kwong Yee columbarium: Rising cost of funerals in KL sees more people opting for cremation (Allison Lai, 20/8/2019) - AsiaOne
KTC as tourist attraction: Cemeteries as tourist spots (Tho Xin Yi, 25/5/2011) - The Star
KTC heritage park and tourist attraction plans: Cemetery to come alive with people (Loong Meng Yee, 11/8/2007) - The Star
KTC cultural impact analysis: Chinese Cemetery as Heterotopia: A Case of Kwong Tong Chinese Cemetery (KTCC) (Veronica Ng & M. Goh, 2019) - 3rd International Conference on Architecture and Civil Engineering
Malaysian Chinese cemeteries and environmental ethics: Chinese Cemeteries and Environmental Ethics: Some Insights from Malaysia (Fan Pik Wah, Voon Phin Keong, Ong Siew Kian and Goh Hong Ching, 2014) - 哲學與文化
Concerns on new development plans in 2020: (独家) 2040隆蓝图草案建议列市中心边界．广东义山 恐不保遗产地位 (12/3/2020) - Sin Chew Daily
Concerns on KTC heritage status in 2020: Safeguard heritage status of cemetery, DBKL urged (Jarod Lim, 14/7/2020) - The Star
Concerns on new development plans in 2020: DBKL urged to preserve Kwangtung Cemetery as city poises to expand (Fion Yap, 22/7/2020) - Malaysiakini