The Federal Kuala Lumpur is a treasure trove of memories as rich as the country’s history
Researching this story, I was astounded at the number of people in my immediate circle with fond memories of The Federal. My mum spoke excitedly about her first experience at the Bintang Revolving Restaurant at the top floor; it is still Kuala Lumpur’s only revolving restaurant that offers fine dining along with panoramic skyline views. My best friend ate dim sum for the first time at the Mandarin Palace restaurant, famed for its Cantonese cuisine.
I could go on and on, but for most Malaysians, their fondest memories of the venerable Federal, which turns 60 this year, is its Merdeka legacy. Commissioned by our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, affectionately known as Tunku, the hotel was custom-built by Chinese construction tycoon Low Yat to host dignitaries and important functions in conjunction with the nation’s independence. Construction reportedly began in early 1957, after Tunku announced that independence would be realised not later than 31 August 1957, and workers raced against time to open the hotel a mere three days before D-day!
No effort was deemed too great for the country's national pride; Low Yat reportedly spent a then-remarkable USD1.2 million (RM5 million) on the hotel. Designed by architect YT Lee, The Federal had the country’s first escalators, and at nine storeys high, it was the country’s first skyscraper. Many official functions were held here, including the official Merdeka Day reception that welcomed 175 dignitaries, and to appease international guests, bear’s paws were flown in from Hong Kong, haggis from Scotland and frog’s legs from France.
Was the Herculean effort worth it? Surely, Low Yat must have been chuffed to hear Tunku say in his speech during the hotel’s opening: “The opening of this building has relieved the Government of one of its greatest headaches connected with the important event.”
Going from strength to strength, The Federal soon established itself as a preferred choice for the rich and famous, thanks in part to its strategic location in the booming Bukit Bintang. Guests included former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James A. Michener and boxing champion Mohammad Ali. The hotel also played host to participants in the Pesta Merdeka soccer competition and international badminton tournaments.
Tunku himself continued to patronise The Federal long after the Merdeka festivities. The hotel worked with his daughter, Tengku Khatijah and niece, Tengku Mukminah Jewa, to produce the cookbook, Favourite Dishes from the Tunku’s Kitchen. The British-educated Tunku was an adept hand in the kitchen, particularly with his roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Some of his most beloved recipes can be sampled at the Kontiki Restaurant buffet spread.
While the iconic white concrete-and-glass façade, designed in the international architectural style popular in the era, remains intact, The Federal has – necessarily – evolved with the times. From its original nine storeys, the hotel was extended into a 21-storey building with 450 rooms. Still, great pains are taken to preserve the original character of the hotel, and some parts of the building genuinely feel frozen in time.
The Mandarin Palace, which along with Bintang Revolving Restaurant make up the oldest restaurants of the hotel, looks virtually unchanged since the time it hosted important Cabinet meetings and dinners. Even with newer competitors, the Chinese fine dining restaurant is still a palatial show-stopper, thanks to ornate woodwork that includes a whopping 1,118 gilded dragon carvings. No wonder it was handpicked to be a setting for the 1964 Hollywood blockbuster, The Seventh Dawn, starring William Holden.
Even when major renovations take place, such as the Merdeka wing – the hotel’s original nine-storey building – great care is exercised to pay subtle homage to its Malaysian heritage. Framed songket paintings, kopitiam-style ceramic cups in the minibar, and the presence of sarongs (in addition to bathrobes) remind guests exactly which part of the world they are.
“When a guest comes and stays in our hotel, we want them to remember they are in Malaysia,” says room division manager Nancy Huang, who has been with The Federal for 50 years and is its longest-serving staff. “We are very proud of our beginnings, and we want everyone who walks through our doors to know that we are a Merdeka hotel.”
The Federal has some of the most passionate staff I’ve ever met in all my years as a journalist – they’re more like walking, talking ambassadors. When the hotel embarked on a plan to adorn the rooms and corridors with photos of KL scenes, some of the staff personally went with the photographer to identify suitable subjects because they want guests to go back with the best impressions of Malaysia.
Hardcore sentimentalists much? But who can blame them? Given The Federal’s illustrious history, they have every reason to keep the Malaysian flag flying high.