Malaysian mining town’s Chinese Hakka heritage is under threat, despite efforts to keep the history alive
Chinese labourers flocked to Ipoh in the late 19th century chasing dreams of wealth. One archivist is doing his best to preserve the culture and lifestyle of the town’s tin mining golden age, but faces a number of challenges
Nestled in the lush hills of Malaysia’s northwest Perak state is the sleepy town of Ipoh, once the centre of one of the world’s biggest tin mining communities.
Today, there are few reminders of its industrious 19th-century past other than buildings that were constructed during the tin boom. The most prominent, and a de facto ancestral home of the Hakka Miners’ Club, is the Han Chin Pet Soo building, which is now a museum that seeks to bring the town’s past back to life.
Although the history of tin mining is entwined with that of Malaysia’s economic fortunes, the story of Ipoh and Han Chin Pet Soo is also that of the Chinese Hakka diaspora, a narrative that the museum is trying to preserve.
Han Chin Pet Soo, on Bijeh Timah Road, was once at the bustling heart of Ipoh Old Town, but its art deco facade has faded into the background of the rapidly gentrifying town. The museum is operated by a heritage preservation charity called Ipoh World, founded by British Royal Navy commander-turned-archivist Ian Anderson.
Anderson arrived in the former colony of Malaya in the 1960s. After a 30-year career in the navy, he left to work in shipbuilding and in 1985 was offered a job in Kuala Lumpur. There, he met and married a local woman, and the couple moved to Ipoh when he retired.
Anderson, 78, had always been a history buff. After being persuaded by a friend, the Scotsman set up Ipoh World as an online archive project in 2004 to record the history of Ipoh and the surrounding tin-rich Kinta Valley, and to make it available to the public.
“We’re here to support education. So anyone from students, documentary-makers, researchers and journalists can access anything [about Ipoh and Perak] for free,” says Anderson.
As news of the project spread, photos, artefacts and documents poured in. Anderson’s project grew into an archive of about 8,000 articles and 14,000 digital documents, including photos and scanned archival resources, all of which can be found on his website. The materials have been a source of several exhibitions at Han Chin Pet Soo.
In 2005, Anderson met local property developer Lim Si Boon, chairman of Kinta Properties, who has since become the main sponsor of Ipoh World. Lim acquired the lease for Han Chin Pet Soo from the remaining members of the Hakka Miners’ Club and tasked Anderson with the job of transforming it into a fully fledged museum. The permanent exhibition in Han Chin Pet Soo comprises hundreds of artefacts and items of furniture curated by Anderson’s team so that they can immerse visitors in early-19th-century Ipoh life.
The museum also tells the story of the building itself, starting with the founding of the Hakka Miners’ Club in 1893 by an immigrant from China known as “Towkay” Leong Fee (also known as Liang Pi Joo). Leong, a native of Guangdong province’s Meixian district, arrived in Malay in 1875, according to Ipoh World’s archives. After stints working as a cook, hawker and coffee entrepreneur, he turned to tin mining, just as the industry was transforming Ipoh into an economic powerhouse.
Leong crossed paths with some of the most important figures in Ipoh’s economic and social history: Yau Tat Shin, widely credited as a key developer of the city; the aristocratic Dato Panglima Kinta Yusuff, who helped steer the growth of Ipoh in the 1880s; and various European businessmen and tycoons who passed through the Straits Settlements.
For Leong, the Han Chin Pet Soo clubhouse brought together two important threads of his life: his Hakka heritage and the tin mining business. He continued to support its operations until his death in 1912. His son, Leong Yin Khean (also known as Liang En-Chuen), initially held on to the building after his father’s death, but as property prices in Ipoh went into decline after the tin boom ran its course, he sold it off cheaply to the association’s members.
Han Chin Pet Soo played an important role in the everyday lives of the Hakka miners. It not only offered them a place to socialise but also to indulge in any of the “four vices” of the time: drinking, gambling, opium smoking and prostitution. (Han Chin Pet Soo was one of only a few establishments at the time to receive an exemption from the Registrar of Societies, and magisterial certification for legal gambling activities.)
During the tin boom, Ipoh was a valuable jewel in the British colonial crown, and its history charts the rise and fall of the empire itself. By the end of the 19th century, the Straits Settlements of Southeast Asia, controlled by the British East India Company, supplied a little more than half of the total global tin output and contributed greatly to British tax revenues.
Labourers flocked to the Malayan peninsula to find work, especially from southern China, forming the basis of Ipoh’s majority-Chinese population.
“Most went to work in plantations and mines, while others went into trade at all levels,” says Hui Yew-Foong, a senior research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Others came as artisans, itinerant doctors and teachers.”
Hui explains that there were two forces driving labourers abroad. “On the one hand, southern China was undergoing a lot of internal unrest. Movements such as the Taiping rebellion [1850-1864] led to the displacement of people from their farmlands, which became a ready source of labour for export. On the other hand, colonial Southeast Asia was in need of migrant labour for pioneering work, such as the opening of plantations and mines.”
The rapid growth of Ipoh and its strategic importance to the British Empire ensured it became Malaysia’s first city after the capital, Kuala Lumpur, to be hooked up to an electricity grid.
The Hakka – nicknamed the “Jews of China” for their nomadic ways and largely spurned by other dialect groups in their homeland – were among the hordes of labourers flocking to Malaya chasing dreams of wealth. However, as the sun set on the empire, so it did on Ipoh.
According to Ipoh World guide Leong Meng Fai, the decline of the city’s tin industry was the beginning of the end of Ipoh’s golden age. In the 1980s, depletion of tin mines in Malaysia and the collapse of tin prices led to sharp falls in local production. Today, Malaysian tin exports account for less than 2 per cent of global output.
The exhibits at Han Chin Pet Soo incorporate many facets of daily Hakka life during the tin boom, such as the cuisine – which evolved due to the greater variety of spices that were locally available – clothing, family traditions and history of the group’s migration. The Hakka today represent the third-largest Chinese dialect group in Malaysia, after Hokkien and Cantonese.
The number of Hakka speakers in the country has declined in recent decades because of high levels of intermarriage, not just between different Chinese ethnic groups but also dialect groups. Many Chinese Malaysians today, therefore, are of mixed stock.
Anderson says that unlike in neighbouring Penang state – whose residents have a strong tradition of preserving their largely Hokkien culture – Ipoh lacks the community spirit and cultural pride to continue defining the meaning of their identity in the modern era.
“I get quite a few here [at the museum] who say they are Hakka, but who are disconnected from their language,” Anderson says. “I think the identity boundaries are fast disappearing; they’re all just Malaysian Chinese.”
That lack of community spirit and cultural engagement may threaten Ipoh World’s work at Han Chin Pet Soo. Anderson says funding to meet costs is a major issue for the charity, and he is uncertain how long he will be able to rely on the good graces of his patrons. “I lose money here every week,” he says.
The organisation needs 2,000 to 3,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$510 to US$770) a month to keep running, and Anderson says an entry charge is not an option. At the moment, the donations he receives are not even enough to keep the lights on, he says.