One of the busiest roads in Kuala Lumpur has to be Jalan Bukit Bintang with its hordes of teenagers, tourists and office workers. Its vibrancy continues well into the night when the lights and cooler temperatures draw out more of the populace.
One man who has witnessed the hustle and bustle of Jalan Bukit Bintang through the decades is Tan Sri Low Yow Chuan, a scion of pioneer developer the late Tan Sri Low Yat.
In reminiscing about Kuala Lumpur’s past, Low, looking dapper in a suit and bow tie, remembers how after World War II — which ended in 1945 — Jalan Bukit Bintang was one of the town’s busiest streets.
“Jalan Bukit Bintang was the only street that had entertainment, shops and hawker food,” Low recalls. “[My father] saw the vibrancy in Jalan Bukit Bintang and felt it needed a hotel. So he built the Capitol Hotel in 1948, which was later sold and is now called the Malaysia Hotel.” He remembers those times and believes this iconic road can be made even more attractive to draw future generations and tourists.
According to Low, the executive chairman of Low Yat Group, the success of Jalan Bukit Bintang today in luring both tourists and locals was made possible by the contributions of individuals like his father and Sir Run Run Shaw.
In 1947, Hong Kong media mogul Shaw built the famous and popular Bukit Bintang Amusement Park, or simply known as BB Park. This entertainment centre was where Sungai Wang Plaza is located today and should not be confused with the new BB Park next to the Federal Hotel.
“The Bukit Bintang Amusement Park was THE entertainment centre in Kuala Lumpur [then],” says Low with a twinkle in his eye. Back then, he remembers, it featured a famous cabaret, cultural shows, Malay joget, Chinese opera shows, wayang, ballroom dances like rhumba, foxtrot and tango, and amusement fun fair elements like a merry-go-round and ferris wheel, to name but a few.
“You could buy a 50-sen ticket to dance with the ladies there,” Low says, adding that the infamous Rose Chan’s and Annie Cheah’s dance performances were also held there.
While thinking back to the “good old days”, Low is well aware that something needs to be done to ensure that Jalan Bukit Bintang remains one of Kuala Lumpur’s premier tourist belts. A key concern is traffic congestion.
“If something isn’t done, Bukit Bintang will become even more congested,” Low points out.
“Furthermore, as Jalan Bukit Bintang is a tourist belt, we need to look after the area with good landscaping and well-regulated roadside stalls to ensure hygiene and that they do not become an eyesore for tourists. A lot depends on the local authorities working together with the private sector.”
He also feels that the streets adjacent to Jalan Bukit Bintang, such as Jalan Alor and Jalan Imbi, can benefit from some rejuvenation of their own, or as Low puts it, some “polishing”.
He believes the proposed mass rapid transit (MRT) system will add to the popularity of Bukit Bintang. “The MRT system is good news for Bukit Bintang and the country needs detailed planning and dialogue on how it is to serve the Bukit Bintang area better.”
Currently, the Bukit Bintang monorail, located between Lot 10 and Sungai Wang Plaza, is the nearest train station servicing the Jalan Bukit Bintang area.
Moreover, with the help of the government and local authorities, the Bukit Bintang area can be transformed into a pedestrian and disabled-friendly area.
“I am not suggesting that we change things now but we need to plan for the next 10 to 20 years,” Low explains. “We need the local authorities, like City Hall, and the government, including the Tourism Ministry, to contribute to the continuous development, marketing and promotion of Jalan Bukit Bintang and the surrounding areas like Jalan Alor and Jalan Imbi. These are the catchment areas for tourists.”
Low’s father was one of the top contractors in the 1940s and was kept busy with government building projects, among others. He remembers that at just 13, he would follow his father to meetings, learning from listening and observing him.
When he was in his 20s, Low went to university in Australia to study architecture. However, at the age of 24 in 1954, he gave up his studies to return to then Malaya to help his father in his business.
One of the projects he was involved in was the building of the 10-storey Federal Hotel in Jalan Bukit Bintang. This icon was completed three days before Merdeka Day on Aug 31, 1957. It housed dignitaries coming to Malaya to witness the country’s independence from the British.
Low recalls the main challenge in building the hotel — getting a loan. “It was very difficult at the time to raise money. I remember I had to go on behalf of my father to apply for a RM1 million loan from Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank to complete the Federal Hotel in time for the Merdeka celebrations. We were turned down. Luckily, OCBC Bank lent us more than RM1 million and my father was able to complete the Federal Hotel.”
Looking back, Low surmises that his father, along with Run Run Shaw, had the foresight that Jalan Bukit Bintang would grow into a thriving tourist belt.
“It was not easy to be a founder of Bukit Bintang. It needed money and foresight,” he says. “Run Run Shaw had the foresight. My father also had the foresight. He said Bukit Bintang was going to be a tourist belt for local and foreign visitors, which was why he built the two hotels and bought land in the area.”
Low’s memory of old Jalan Bukit Bintang is still vivid. He remembers the bungalows opposite the Malaysia Hotel and the Federal Hotel. These have now given way to shophouses. There were also the Pavilion and Cathay cinemas as well as numerous eateries.
Adding to Jalan Bukit Bintang’s star quality was the arrival in 1962 of British movie stars William Holden and Susannah York, who stayed at the Federal Hotel with the other cast and crew for about nine months. They were on location to film The Seventh Dawn.
Furthermore, tourists from Hong Kong and the Philippines, timber tycoons from Sabah and Sarawak as well as state rulers stayed at the Federal Hotel to patronise the numerous entertainment outlets like BB Park and partake in the vibrant nightlife in the area.
With the development of the Subang International Airport, Low’s father foresaw that would mean more tourists coming to Malaysia via jumbo jets. As a result, he undertook to build an extension to the Federal Hotel. A 21-storey block behind the current Federal Hotel was completed in 1963, the same year Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaysia. It was the tallest structure in KL at the time, housing the nation’s first revolving restaurant, which is still in existence.
The development of Kuala Lumpur over the years has seen many of the old structures in Jalan Bukit Bintang being replaced by skyscrapers and new shopping malls, making the street an even bigger pull for tourists and locals.
After taking the helm of his father’s company at the age of 38, subsequent to his father’s untimely death in 1971 due to heart failure, Low has continued to work on the legacy his father left behind and excelled in it.
His leadership and passion for property development saw him being awarded the International Real Estate Federation (Fiabci) Malaysian chapter’s “Property Man of the Year” and “Commercial Development Award” in 1994 — when he was chairman of the listed Asia Pacific Land Bhd in which Low Yat Group has substantial interest — for the first integrated development in Malaysia. Called City Square Centre, the development in Jalan Tun Razak comprised the Empire Tower, City Square Shopping Centre and the Crown Princess Kuala Lumpur hotel. The three properties were sold together in 2007 for RM680 million to the MGPA Asia Fund II. City Square Centre has since been redeveloped into The Intermark, an integrated commercial development.
The family-owned Low Yat Group currently owns several key properties in the Bukit Bintang area, such as the Federal Hotel, the Hotel Capitol Kuala Lumpur — which is different from the Malaysia Hotel — Fairlane Residences (serviced) and Plaza Low Yat, a popular IT mall. There are plans to redevelop and refurbish some of the group’s existing properties, says Low.
Besides managing the Federal Hotel and the Hotel Capitol Kuala Lumpur, the group’s hospitality division Federal Hotels International also manages The Grace Hotel Sydney, a heritage building that is owned by the group. The latter has 382 rooms and was bought from Shimizu Corp of Japan in 1995.
The latest project for the group is the Semenyih Technology Park (SEMTEC) in Semenyih, Selangor — about 8km southeast of Kajang on the Kajang-Seremban road. Sitting on about 38 acres, SEMTEC will be the first industrial development with a sports centre and will feature 64 two-storey semi-detached factories. The gross development value is RM130 million.
Low Yat Group has been around since the 1940s and has established itself as a pioneering and well-respected developer. However, the group has kept a low profile.
“We still have landbank in Penang and KL. It takes time to get approvals to develop them,” Low explains.
After years of hard work, Low has allowed himself to take things easier. One of his hobbies is livestock farming on his Australian property where he rears cattle and sheep for meat. And when he has the time, Low loves holidaying on cruise ships.
After decades of work, he clearly has not lost his dynamism or drive to succeed as he continues to work, assisted by his four children who are actively involved in property development, including via Asia Pacific Land. His father would be proud.
This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 860, May 30-June 5, 2011