Ipoh and The Kinta Valley

Ipoh and The Kinta Valley, June 2011


After a postponement in March, a site visit five years in the making finally saw the light of day when on Saturday morning 18th June 20 PHT members including our guide Tim and Sheau Fung, our manager, assisted by Pei Ling, assembled at the Caring Society Complex. The bus left at 8.20 a.m. and reached the Regal Lodge hotel in Ipoh at 11.30a.m. En route, Tim gave a brief introduction to the history of Ipoh and the Kinta Valley. Villages sprouted up along the West Coast of Peninsular Malaya because of the proximity to the sea but it was because of tin discovered and mined in these areas that we have the inland towns that developed into cities such as Taiping, Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. The earlier wave of Chinese migrants who migrated to Penang and the northern region came from Fujian province where the Hokkien dialect is spoken. It was these Chinese who mined the tin in Taiping. When new tin mines were started in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur, a new wave of immigrants arrived from Canton, the reason why the main dialect in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur is Cantonese.

After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we set out for the most important stop for most Malaysians, a food stop! The bus dropped us off at what was considered the food capital in Ipoh. With several coffee shops to select from, most of the group ended up having bean sprouts chicken before stocking up on biscuits and other dry food products from nearby shops.


Our first stop after lunch was Papan where we visited Sybil Kathigasu’s house and makeshift clinic.

Our host and guide for the day was Law Saik Hong of the Perak Heritage Society. The humble house where Sybil performed her heroic deeds stands alone in what was once a row of shophouses. Papan today is a sleepy town where the population is on the decline as most young people have moved to bigger towns in search of greener pastures. Saik Hong showed us various artefacts and shared stories of Sybil’s bravery during the Japanese occupation. She secretly kept a shortwave radio and listened to BBC broadcasts. One can still see today the hole in the floor underneath the staircase where she hid the radio. She also secretly provided medical supplies and services and information to the resistance forces until she and her family were arrested in 1943. Despite being interrogated and tortured by the Japanese military police, Sybil refused to cooperate and was detained in the Batu Gajah jail. After Malaya was liberated in August 1945, she was flown to Britain for medical treatment. At a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in October 1947 she was awarded the George Medal, the only woman in Malaya to receive this award for bravery.*
Our next stop was the house of Raja Bilah, the headman of Papan, just a short walk from Sybil’s shophouse. The Sumatran nobleman’s home was restored by the National Museum several years ago and has since been used as a location in several films, most notably Anna and the King.


From Papan, we made our way by coach to Batu Gajah Jail and the cemetery known as “God’s Little Acre.” Here, we visited the graves of the three English planters whose deaths at Sungei Siput on 16th June 1948 resulted in the declaration of the Malayan Emergency (1948 -1960).** Before leaving Batu Gajah we had a final stop at the lovely hospital which also enabled us to view the church and the surrounding administrative buildings.


Our next stop was to the last remaining tin dredge in Malaysia. It is a remarkable example of engineering. Opened to the public in 2008, it is badly in need of repair (tilting to one side with water seeping in) but it is a great place to explore and marvel at for its sheer size. Walking onto the tin dredge was like stepping back in time. The cavernous interior was silent, but when the dredger was in full operation, the noise would have been unbearable. One can imagine when it was fully operational; its huge buckets scooping and transporting alluvial to its body. The excavated material was then broken up by jets of water as it fell onto revolving screens. The tin-bearing alluvial then passed to a primary separating plant. Large stones and rubble were retained by the screens. The largest dredge could dig continuously to depths of up to 200 metres below water. It could handle over three-quarters of a million cubic metres of material per month. The first tin dredge was introduced by Malayan Tin Dredging Ltd. in the Kinta Valley tin fields in 1913.  During the heyday of the tin mining industry in 1940, there were 123 dredges in operation. This number began to diminish after 1981. By the end of 1983 there were only 38 dredges left. Although it looks too big to move, these massive dredges once devoured swamps and jungles as they searched hungrily for tin deposits, reshaping the local topography at the same time. Kinta Valley is now full of ponds due to the mining process. Members who went to the top of the dredger had a bird’s eye view over the surrounding ponds. At the entrance to the dredge there is a small museum displaying a selection of tools. It was here that some members bought custard apples from the museum’s fruit orchard. After a refreshing jelly dessert drink in Tanjung Tualang, we visited a nearby seafood restaurant for dinner before returning to Ipoh. One member remarked that tualang in Hokkien refers to grown-ups, so we really felt still like kids (gheena in Hokkien) amongst the tualang there!

Next morning after a sumptuous breakfast of dim sum and other local hawker favourites, we were met by Mark Lay and several key members of the Kinta Heritage Society. The head of the State Legislative Council for Tourism also made a brief appearance.

Following the Ipoh Heritage Walk maps produced by the State with the help of Kinta Heritage Society, we set out on foot, led by Mark. Mark was one of the key people involved in producing these self-guided walks. He shared many interesting anecdotes as we made our way to the major sites. It was a balmy morning and the overcast sky without the direct sunlight made it easier to walk. Sites that the group managed to cover included the Ipoh Railway Station (also known as the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh”), the Cenotaph in front of the railway station, the Court House, Church of St John the Divine, Ipoh ‘Padang’ (field), the Indian Muslim Mosque and St Michael’s Institution. The group then proceeded to the Birch Memorial Clock Tower passing a few heritage buildings in the Old Town ‘high street’ such as the Mercantile Bank Building and HSBC Building. The tour ended with a walk through Concubine Lane, a narrow lane flanked by quaint pre-war shophouses believed to have been inhabited by concubines belonging to rich mining merchants. Ipoh does have a reputation of having fair maidens!
Before leaving Ipoh, we had lunch at one of Ipoh’s most famous coffee shops, located at the end of Concubine Lane.  Considered as a food institution by some where Ipoh’s heritage food can be savoured, members enjoyed the wide hawker selection. Some members even ta pao (takeaway) food back home! It was indeed a weekend to remember, equal parts of interesting sites, stories, people, and of course food! The best part is that Kinta Valley is just a stone’s throw away from Penang, so one can always go back for more!

By Eric Yeoh

Editor’s Notes:
*Sybil Kathigasu’s own remarkable story is related in her autobiography No Dram of Mercy (Kuala Lumpur, Prometheus Enterprise, 2006). Sadly, after several operations Sybil Kathigasu died in England from complications due to the injuries she suffered at the hands of the Kempetei.

**The three planters murdered by communist terrorists at Sungei Siput were A.E Walker, J.A. Allison and J.D. Christian. “God’s Little Acre” contains the graves of many planters, tin miners, policemen and servicemen killed during the Emergency and is the site of an annual ceremony of remembrance on the closest Saturday to the anniversary date of 16th June.