Ipoh—lifted then left behind by tin1

Dr Ho Tak Ming, Senior Research Fellow, Perak Academy

Ipoh in Perak's Kinta Valley was considered the most favoured of Malayan towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for it had one thing in abundance—tin. Exports of this commodity brought foreign capital, migrant labour, and great wealth. Tin made the town vibrant, with buzzing enterprise and entertainment which gave it a soul. Tin produced more millionaires in Ipoh than in any other Malayan town. But it was also ‘home’ to squatter colonies, and to groups of vagrants who dwelled below its bridges.

The Kinta River, which flowed through Ipoh, beautiful and clean in the 19th century, gradually silted with tailings from the tin mines, and occasionally overflowed leading to serious flooding. It was spanned by the majestic Hugh Low and Brewster Road bridges, with its riverbanks lined with gardens and seats. The bridges also provided refuge for Ipoh's squatters.

Early squatter colonies

Early squatter colonies in the Kinta Valley were largely Chinese. In Batu Gajah in the 1880s, a Catholic missionary, Father Allard, worked with Chinese Christian squatters to clear land and cultivate vegetables. As more Chinese immigrants became attracted to this mode of livelihood, they too were converted to Christianity. The market gardeners in these peaceful communities thrived. When the British made Batu Gajah the headquarters of the Kinta District, they acquired the land illegally occupied by the colony of squatters for their government buildings. The squatters were given an alternative site near Batu Gajah, in Rotan Dahan.
… a large number of Chinese Christians have made vegetable gardens. The success they have achieved has led (other) heathen Chinese to adopt this particular form of cultivation in different parts of the district. The gardeners are the most peaceful section of the population. They supply an important want to the towns, and there is a ready sale for their produce. … Father Allard’s colony … at Batu Gajah are beginning to plant pepper and coffee, and have taken up several small blocks of land … They are working with their capital, and will no doubt be successful, as the land is very good (J. B. M. Leech, District Magistrate at Kinta, quoted in Ho, 2014, pp. 565–566).
In the early years of very few squatters, the colonial government was sympathetic to them, providing Temporary Occupation Leases for the land they farmed, and tried to help and protect them by legalizing their holdings. In the latter part of the Kinta Tin Rush (1884–1889), fabulous deposits of tin were discovered in Rotan Dahan. When land changed hands at astonishing prices, many of Father Allard’s Christian farmers became rich, tin mine owners. By 1902, most of the vegetable gardens had disappeared, transformed into enormous mining excavations. Very few farmers remained, and they demanded higher prices. Consequently, most fruit and vegetables were imported from Penang, where they were cheaper.

The large colony of gardeners supplying affordable fruit and vegetables to numerous local mines unknowingly made a difference to the health of the mining community. In the late 19th century, beri-beri ravaged miners, a result of vitamin B1 deficiency, due to their poor diet consisting largely of white polished rice. Vitamin B1 is, however, found in fresh greens and the miners in Batu Gajah were therefore comparatively healthy. In 1894, while the share of deaths among admissions in Ipoh hospital was 20.7 per cent, mostly from beri-beri, Batu Gajah hospital recorded only 13.9 per cent.

Growing vagrancy

Beri-beri bequeathed another problem—vagrancy. Among those who did not die of the disease, a high share became permanently disabled and so unable to work. In 1893 at the height of the tin boom, District Magistrate J. B. M. Leech wrote in his Kinta Monthly Report:
The large number of Chinese vagrants and beggars in the various villages of the district is becoming a serious nuisance. They are nearly all unfit for work and live by begging and theft. There is no use in sending them to gaol, for immediately their term of imprisonment is over they return to their former mode of life, and the hospitals would be already full of them (Ho, 2014, pp. 80–81).
Vagrancy increased during the economic recession in 1895–1896, and by 1897 Kinta had over 600 vagrants. For these unfortunates, the dream of striking it rich in Malaya was over.

Leech proposed giving them a one-way ticket back to China as they had no claims on the Perak government for maintenance and it would be cheaper to pay their passage back to their own country: when sent to hospital they absconded, and when thrown into jail they could not do hard labour and infected the healthy prisoners with the infectious diseases they often carried, such as tuberculosis or skin disease.

Destitute in Ipoh

The vagrancy problem remained as Ipoh faced recessions in short cycles every four to six years, and during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. The government did not provide any safety net for them—no soup kitchens, welfare homes, or allowances.

The settlements in Kinta continued to grow with the discovery and exploitation of tin, as many new migrants arrived to work in the tin mines. Later, the settlements became service centres for the tin industry, hubs for distribution, and centres for finance and other related activities. Over time, road and rail networks were built to connect major urban nodes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ipoh was the largest town in the Federated Malay States—apart from Kuala Lumpur which was double its population size. By 1931, the population of the town of Ipoh had more than doubled compared with two decades earlier, jumping from 23,978 in 1911 to 53, 183 in 1931 (Vlieland, 1932). And the townships, such as Menglembu, Lahat, Tambun, Tanjong Rambutan, Chemor, Sungei Siput, and even Kampar, were regarded as suburbs of Greater Ipoh. Ipoh continued to grow and expand with cheap hydro-electric power from the Perak River, enabling various industries.
Ipoh in 1887
Ho, 2014, p. 12

The number of Ipoh’s vagrants grew hugely during the late 1890s when a severe recession in tin prices threw 18,000 miners in Kinta out of work and out of the kongsis (clan houses)—the only homes they had. The homeless made do with whatever temporary accommodation they could find.

The Hugh Low Bridge, previously wooden, was replaced by an iron and stone structure in 1900. The Brewster Road Bridge was built in 1907. A special colony of the homeless made their ‘homes’ under the bridges and the size of the colonies fluctuated with the town’s prosperity, but there were also permanent members who, too old or too feeble to work, regarded the place as home.

Abdullah Hussain, a distinguished Malayan author who visited Ipoh in the 1930s wrote:

I was amazed that there were people who lived under the bridges, even though Ipoh was well known as a Chinese town prosperous with tin wealth … (The beggars) collected empty tins to be sold to the dealers, they hung thick papers as walls and curtains. The beautiful river is spoilt if we look under the bridges (Ho, 2014, p. 580).

Hugh Low Bridge, ‘home’ to squatters in Ipoh
Ho, 2014, p. 580

In 1908, the year of another very bad recession, the Perak Pioneer quoted a report from the Straits Times:
It is quite evident to see what wholesale poverty and privation, the closing down of many of the large tin mines in the Kinta district is causing. The number of destitute and practically starving Celestials roaming about the streets of Ipoh is legion, and the unfortunates having no house to go to, simply make use of the five-foot paths for their night’s accommodation, their first morning’s work being to go round the scavengers’ baskets lying at each shophouse in quest of something which might appease their hunger. It is a very pitiful sight. The authorities should do something about the matter (Ho, 2014, p. 578).
The authorities were aware of the existence of such colonies and the Sanitary Board sent out carts in the early mornings to round up those who were sick. In 1908, deaths from starvation in Ipoh were discovered, and the colonial authorities removed the bodies which were deemed an eyesore to the beauty of the town.
Living vagrants were rudely awakened during midnight raids and taken to the lock-up. The next morning, they were herded before the magistrate and charged with trespassing on state land. They invariably pleaded guilty, as none could afford bail or pay the fine, either to be sent to prison for up to four months, or if sick to be sent to hospital. On release, with nowhere to go, the fate of the bridge dwellers was an ever-turning wheel of misfortune—prison, the bridges, the dock, and prison again, with death the only release.
Not only did the bridge squatters have to battle hunger and deprivation, but Ipoh was also annually visited by devastating floods which washed away their homes. The opening-up of numerous tin mines in the Kinta Valley caused the river to slowly silt up with tailings from the mines. From around 1907 there were fairly heavy floods in Ipoh and the first great flood occurred in October 1918 when the Kinta River overflowed and shopkeepers in Old Town awoke to find their shops surrounded by a sea of swirling muddy water, which rose until people were knee deep in it. The damage caused to their goods was considerable.
The market in Ipoh during the Great Flood of 1926
Ho, 2014, p. 473

Even greater floods occurred in 1919 and 1924, and in 1925 Ipoh was flooded every day in the wet season from September till the end of the year. The greatest flood of all in December 1926 caused all businesses to close and motor traffic to stop, and led to food shortages in Ipoh and nearby towns. All mining activity in the Kinta Valley ceased as hundreds of mines were completely flooded, with great damage to plant and machinery. The huts of mining workers were carried away and, as usual, it was the poorest who suffered most. Poultry and pigs drowned by the hundred, and vegetable plots were washed away. Many squatters attempted to flee to higher ground, but many also drowned in the raging currents.

The Kinta River was 12 to 15 feet deep in the late 19th century, but its bed rose by over eight feet in 30 years owing to silt accumulation. By 1926, except when there was a flood, the river was so shallow that it was said that a matchbox could scarcely float down it. In response to what mining (and latterly, land clearing for rubber planting) had done to silt up the Kinta River, Ipoh’s Flood Mitigation Scheme, implemented in phases from 1929–1930, included constructing a channel through Ipoh Town,

diverting the Choh River, and clearing the Kinta River and its main tributaries. It significantly reduced flooding, which appeased the town's business people, but more importantly allowed the squatter colonies to return to their homes under the bridges.

Yet by the 1930s, the government was no longer sympathetic to squatters. At first in Ipoh, vegetable farming did not quite catch on because tin mining was far more lucrative. But during the great tin and rubber declines during the Great Depression, when thousands of out-of-work mining labourers turned to vegetable gardening for a living and illegally occupied abandoned mining land or vacant state land, British government officials were indignant and looked upon them as a nuisance. The government imposed taxes on the squatters for eking out a subsistence living.

In 1931, 107 squatters living in Pasir Pinji, within the Sanitary Board limits, were charged ‘assessments’. The squatters sent a letter of appeal to the Sanitary Board to lower the assessments as during the depression, unemployment resulted in poor sales of produce—vegetables, fowl, pigs, and fish. In addition, the government had raised the Temporary Occupation Licence fees, but did not spend a single cent in developing the area. The Chairman of the Kinta Sanitary Board was unsympathetic to their appeal, stating that all those living within the board’s limit had to pay a rate of 10 per cent assessment, 2 per cent for water, and 2 per cent for education based on the value of their ‘houses’—in reality, hovels.

A Times of Malaya staff member visited the Pinji squatters and wrote:

Pasir Putih is where Ipoh’s slums exist. There are about 300 huts made from packing cases and odd bits of corrugated iron sheets, the majority have mud walls, in an area recently included within the town boundary so as to provide for the expansion of the town in years to come. No attempt has yet been made by government to construct even the drains on either side of the brand-new road. Electrical lines terminate halfway along the road and the remaining half is lit by miserable oil lamps (Ho, 2014, pp. 572–575).

Except for the land they lived on, these people received nothing from the government, and it was indeed scandalous that they should have been charged water and education rates. The water pipes terminated near the Chinese dwellings and were not used by squatters, and not a single child living in the huts attended a state-aided school as the parents could not afford it and there was no government aid for them.

The Acting Resident, Andrew Caldecott (1930–1931) ruled that the Pinji squatters had a genuine grievance but because the government could not discriminate between squatters in different localities, all squatters on state land would be given 12 months’ grace to pay the 1931 assessment, and this was later extended for another year.

Another consequence of the 1930s’ great tin and rubber slump was that many out-of-work miners, clerks, and tradesmen became food hawkers, serving cheap roadside food to other equally impoverished townspeople, to scrape a living. The street food hawker provided an indispensable service to the poorer classes among Ipohites, also giving rise to the wonderful variety of hawker food for which Ipoh is still famous. Cockles, fish, scraps of liver, and pieces of meat were skewered, dipped into boiling water, and then coated with sauce, for sale at just one cent a piece, while mee or rice flour dishes cost two cents.

Ruined hopes and lives left behind

Tin had built Kinta and transformed it from a backwater into a bustling district within three decades, but Kinta regressed when tin suffered a severe fall during the Great Depression. International tin restrictions in 1931 had a bleak effect on the whole Kinta Valley. Scores of dredges closed, in addition to many Chinese mines, which meant a big drop in state government revenue.

With rubber as well as tin in crisis, a committee was set up in Kinta to monitor unemployment and find temporary work for discarded labourers, including in road construction and river canalization. More fortunate members of the community chipped in to help. Chettiars set up a fund to feed poor Tamil and Chinese miners—food consisted of kanji (porridge) and curry. Most labourers in Kinta worked for their food and ‘hair cut’ money, in the hope that their sacrifices would be rewarded by a boom in the price of tin fairly soon and a return to their old wages.

The short-sighted policy of the colonial government was to repatriate many of them, against their will and through no fault of their own, creating a strong anti-British feeling among them. As many as 1,500 Chinese mining labourers and their families left Ipoh on two special trains, each with 11 coaches, chartered for them. Over 20,000 Chinese were repatriated from Perak alone.

Those who remained in Kinta had to try to eke out a living somehow. What was different between the present recession and the previous ones was the attitude of mining workers. They were virtually all family men now, and were very unlikely to deliberately break the law to earn a living. The Times of Malaya wrote:
It is really pitiful to see Chinese coolie women and children turning out the contents of the rubbish bins in the Ipoh market, and also the bins in front of the shophouses near the market, in the hope of finding rotten carrots and decaying potatoes and vegetables. They even pick up decaying vegetables out of the drains. Cannot something be done for these apparently starving creatures? (Ho, 2014, p. 563).
Repatriation of mining workers officially stopped at the end of 1931 but in anticipation of further cuts in the tin quota, the government decided to start repatriating the unemployed again. And this time the offer of a free trip back to China interested thousands, who had already seen that Malaya was no longer an El Dorado. They flocked to the Protector of Chinese in Ipoh for a passage. Overwhelmed, the vacillating Federated Malay States government again withdrew its offer of free passage home. Thousands were left stranded in Ipoh. Some had given up their work, which they reasoned was very insecure anyway, broken up their homes, and sold their possessions.

The stranded unemployed former mining workers camped in the grounds surrounding the Chinese Protectorate and refused to leave, having no homes to go back to. They ran short of food and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce at Hale Street arranged to supply rice kanji to the homeless crowd. The hungry mob rushed to the Chamber of Commerce and found the door barricaded. Food was passed out to them between the bars. Later, food was distributed in the padang (field), under the supervision of a few police constables. Daily, more throngs of labourers—men and women—arrived at the Protectorate. They slept on the verandas of government buildings, and protectorate staff had their hands full dealing with the continuous stream of applicants. As a local ditty put it:
In good times the Kinta Valley was a Vale of Tin and Sin,
In bad times it was a Vale of Tin and Tears.

Further reading:
Ho, T. M. 2014. Ipoh: When Tin Was King. Ipoh: Perak Academy.
Vlieland, C. A. 1932. A Report on the 1931 Census and on Certain Problems of Vital Statistics, British Malaya (The Colony of The Straits Settlements and the Malay States Under British Protection, namely The Federated Malay States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang and the States of Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, Perlis and Brunei). London: The Crown Agents for the Colonies.

1 This article is an edited and updated extract from Ho (2014).

c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur
Generic Popup