From muddy confluence… : KL’s ‘kuala lumpur’ I

What’s in a name?

In the Malay language, a kuala is a confluence between two rivers, while lumpur is mud. Taken together, kuala lumpur is a ‘muddy confluence’ (Gullick, 2000), which essentially offers a succinct description of the place that greeted KL’s earliest settlers.

I find place-names fascinating – delving into the etymology of a place always proved informative. London’s derivation from Londinium  alludes to its historical beginnings as a Roman settlement. Athen’s derivation from its godly patron Athena keeps the legendary myth of its founding alive.

In KL’s case, its name reflects how the fate of its past, present and future has been, is, and will still be closely intertwined with that of the two rivers that serve as its geographical marker. In this sense, knowing KL requires a knowing of its kuala lumpur.

Where KL began – the confluence of Sungai Gombak (left) and Sungai Klang (right). Masjid Jamek (National Mosque) sits at this point today.

I must admit I’m inspired, like many urban political ecologists, by theorisations on how cities materialise through socio-ecological processes (Heynen et al., 2006), which are structured and re-structured through politics. Heynen et al. (2006: 2) expressed that the ‘radically democratic’ intent of UPE is a call to arms to understand who produce what kind of socio-ecological outcomes for whom. 

‘The circulation of water produces a physical geography and a material landscape, but also a symbolic and cultural landscape of power’ (Swyngedouw, 1996: 76)

In this spirit, we’re going to trace KL’s story of urbanisation and modernity by looking at the who, what, and whom of its relationship with its two rivers, Gombak River and Klang River. As Swyngedouw (1999) suggested, it is indeed quite useful to use water as a starting point for guiding our understanding of KL’s urban political ecology.

Past: The muddy confluence as a natural conduit

From Gullick’s (2000) account on the history of KL, we understand how the water bodies in this area enabled the birth of KL as today’s urban cyborg. At where the Masjid Jamek resides today were KL’s earliest hamlet of sparse houses and shops. Further upstream in Ampang the grounds were fertile for tin-mining, attracting the earliest Chinese miners. The flow and movement that the rivers provided were quickly capitalised on, as the miners started to transport and distribute mining supplies and yields via the natural conduit. Gombak and Klang river, together with their tributaries, therefore provided the ‘circulatory system’ that enabled goods and people to flow around.

Tin mining activities in Ampang were dependent on KL’s rivers for the movement of supplies and goods to other places. (source:
The aerial Y-shape of the confluence featured centrally in Frank Swettenham’s 1891 plan of KL (source:

From this account, we could sense that the biophysical nature of the rivers kickstarted and ‘metabolised’ KL into a ‘living organism’ of human activity and structures (Swyngedouw et al., 2002). In this sense, if we were to view today’s KL as cyborg entity defined by its socio-spatial conditions, we cannot disregard the transformation or metabolism of its defining hydrological component that enabled the creation of this cyborg in the very first place (Swyngedouw, 1996). Like New York (Harvey, 1996), there’s nothing unnatural about KL.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at the socio-natural role of KL’s rivers in present times.

[418 words]

Read more from my sources:

  1. Gullick, J. M. (2000) A History of Kuala Lumpur, 1857 – 1939. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
  2. Greeka (n.d.) ‘The name giving of Athens’. Retrieved 24th November 2017 from 
  3. Harvey, D. (1996) Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  4. Heynen, N., Kaika, M. & E. Swyngedouw (2006) In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. London and New York: Routledge. 
  5. Londonist (2016) ‘How London got its name’. Retrieved 24th November 2017 from 
  6. Swyngedouw, E. (1996) ‘The city as hybrid: On nature, society, and cyborg urbanisation’, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 7, 2, 65 – 80.
  7. Swyngedouw, E. (1999) ‘Modernity and Hybridity: Nature, Regeneracionismo, and the Production of the Spanish Waterscape, 1890-1930’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 89, 3, 443-465.
  8. Swyngedouw, E., Kaika, M. & E. Castro (2002) ‘Urban water: A political-ecology perspective’, Built Environment, 28, 2, 124 – 137.


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Chin Lee

University College London Undergraduate Year 3 GEOG3076 Urban Political Ecology Module

2 thoughts on “From muddy confluence… : KL’s ‘kuala lumpur’ I”

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