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Kepong village: Origin, function and structure of a small Malayan town, late 19th and early 20th century

Diana Wong, Adjunct Professor, New Era University College

The distinguished Malaysian historian Khoo Kay Kim observed that ‘One of the serious omissions in Malaysian historiography is the study of towns’ (Khoo, 1991, p. 1, emphasis added). This is an intriguing observation, given the early and extensive urbanization associated with the growth of the colonial economy in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th. According to successive decennial population censuses, there were 66 towns in ‘British Malaya’ with over 1,000 inhabitants in 1911, 81 in 1921, and 123 in 1931 (Nathan, 1921; Vlieland, 1932). This meant that throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, even discounting the highly urbanized Straits Settlements cities of Singapore and Malaya, over 20 per cent of the Malayan population in the tin and rubber heartland of the Federated Malay States lived in ‘towns’ and constituted an ‘urban population’ (Nathan, 1921, p. 44).

Towns here were defined as settlements with a minimum population of 1,000 inhabitants, a definition adopted by the 1921 census report in a considered departure from existing administrative nomenclature. British governance had gazetted population settlements in Malaya into towns or villages to confer administrative status and government control through Sanitary Board oversight and, by 1921, there were 152 officially gazetted ‘villages’ and ‘towns’ in the Federated Malay States. Due to anomalies in the classification (for example, Salak, with 15 houses and a population of 38, was gazetted a ‘town’; Ampang, with a population of 2,705, a ‘village’), the 1921 census decided on population size as the criterion for the town/village and urban/rural distinction. Outside the census reports, the official nomenclature remained in place.

Most of these towns and villages were associated with the Chinese tin-mining economy. As the standard narrative, these innumerable small settlements, which dotted the landscape of the mining heartland of colonial Malaya, began as mining villages and either vanished with the end of mining or grew into ‘Malayan towns’ (Dobby, 1942). Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital of the Federated Malay States, provided the standard template for this model of Chinese settlement and growth. In 1872, Frank A. Swettenham, who a decade later became the third British Resident of Selangor, 1882–1884, described the settlement of Kuala Lumpur under Yap Ah Loy, Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur, as ‘a purely Chinese village’ and in 1875 as ‘by far the best mining village I have ever seen’ (quoted in Gullick, 1990, p. 17).

This notion of the earliest Chinese settlements as ‘mining villages’ became entrenched as standard vocabulary in all colonial administrative documents and was readily adopted as academic language by the later geographers and historians of Malaya. Dobby found of Malayan small towns that ‘very few of them are more than overgrown rubber and mining villages’ (1942, p. 232), Sidhu wrote of the ‘rapid growth of mining villages which served as the nuclei for future urban centres’ (1978, p. 18) and Gullick, in tracing the early years of Kuala Lumpur, referred to ‘the process of change by which a Chinese mining village became a state capital’ (1990, p. 16). Mining villages as the origin of small-town Malaya, with the subsequent gazetted village or town then establishing formal territorial boundaries, became the accepted academic wisdom.

This ‘mining village to town’ model of the evolution of Malaya’s urban system (Lim, 1976) is, however, based on a fundamental misconception of the character and function of these early Chinese population settlements. Skinner (1964), in his seminal study of marketing systems in rural China, proposed a town/village distinction based on function, rather than population size or administrative nomenclature. Pre-industrial Chinese villages, according to Skinner, were ‘nucleated settlements which do not support markets’ (1964, p. 7). All Chinese villages had, however, easy and regular access to a market town, which integrated its surrounding rural hinterland of villages into a ‘standard marketing area’. It was this commercialized ‘standard marketing area’ that constituted the local community and formed the basic unit of analysis for peasant society and economy.

Drawing on Skinner (1964), it is suggested that these early Chinese settlements in Malaya functioned as market towns for a surrounding hinterland of mining camps and small residential ‘villages’. Referring to the Chinese ‘mining villages’, Dobby could find no continuity between the settlement pattern of migrants to Malaya and their country of origin (1942, p. 221). Quite the contrary, a shift in conceptual focus from ‘mining village’ to ‘market town’ would reveal how the highly commercialized rural world of the Chinese peasant was replicated in the frontier economy of 19th century colonial Malaya.


Typical early Chinese tin mining settlement: Selangor, 1884.
Source:
Moore, W. K. (2004).



As jungle was cleared and the laborious and dangerous task of extracting tin ore from the ground began, men lived in mining camps or kongsi houses erected at the mining sites themselves. Just as for the Chinese peasant living in his nucleated village, these mining camps had to be supplied with the goods and services necessary for daily life. Kuala Lumpur, located on the riverbanks of the Klang River some miles away from the first Ampang tin mines and mining camps in the interior, far from being a village, was ‘founded after 1857 as a market to supply a growing local population of tin miners’ (Lees, 2021). It was a market town, a term Lees (2021) later also uses to describe Malaya’s small towns.

Similarly, as new mining districts were opened up and a transportation artery built—whether road, river, or rail—a small market town would emerge. The business and service population in the new urban centre would invariably—as shown later in the case study of Kepong, some 7 miles northwest of Kuala Lumpur―be joined by farmers whose pigs and vegetables were necessities for the miners as well (Map). Their ranks would be filled by the casual labourers whose labour was in constant demand in Malaya’s expanding tin and rubber economy. 

Map 1 Kepong Village, northwest of Kuala Lumpur, 1933
 Source: National Archives of Singapore, Accession No: TM000178.


Unlike the miners, who lived in mining camps, and the shopkeepers, who lived in their shophouses in town, all these other participants in the local economy lived in self-constructed nucleated settlements named ‘villages’, and considered themselves part of the local community. Eventually, this ‘spontaneously’ developed urban centre would be abandoned with the end of the local mining economy, or relocated and redefined under colonial governance as a gazetted village. It was only then that the dual structure of Malaya’s small towns, as described by Jackson (1974) and Lees (2021), with its ‘heavy concentration of government institutions’ plus a ‘shophouse core’ dating mostly from the 1930s, became established (Jackson, 1974, p. 79)

This ‘market town with hinterland’ model of Chinese settlement would suggest that most, if not all, gazetted Chinese villages began life not as rural settlements but as urban marketing centres, or market towns. It would challenge the notion of ‘mining villages’, as miners would have lived in mining camps, not ‘villages’, and it would also argue that the rural settlements in the hinterland—their existence overlooked or dismissed as ‘squatter settlements’—were an integral part of the local community defined by the market town.

The following, based on early Selangor State Secretariat files, kept in the National Archives of Malaysia (ARKIB), is a reconstruction along those terms of the history of Kepong Village, gazetted into existence in 1908 on 0.03 square miles of ex-mining land. It was not until the 1931 population census that the population of Kepong village was recorded and exceeded the 1,000 threshold which conferred ‘town’ status. In that census there were 1,831 people enumerated of whom 92 per cent were Chinese, 6 per cent Indians, and 2 per cent Malays (Vlieland, 1932).

Kepong as market town

In 1906, a petition was received by Henry Conway Belfield, the eighth British Resident of Selangor, 1902–1911, from ‘the owners and occupiers of the shophouses abutting on both sides of Kepong Road at the 7th mile, known among the Chinese as “Kap-Thoong Kai-Chong” (Kepong Village)’. They explained that they had been residing on this spot, a worked-out mine for over 10 years, and were ‘shopkeepers, trading principally with the miners in Kepong by supplying their daily necessaries’ (ARKIB, 1906).

‘Kai-Chong’ (街场) is Cantonese for ‘market street’, and ‘Kap-Thoong’ (甲洞) is the Cantonese transliteration for Kepong, a small Malay settlement that had earlier existed on the banks of the Sungei Keroh. The Chinese settlement of 1906, however, was fairly substantial, consisting of over 100 shophouses, and was away from the river, along a private cart road that linked the Kepong mining district to Kuala Lumpur, some 7 miles away.

It was Yap Ah Loy who had pioneered the opening-up of the new mining district of Kepong in the late 1870s and early 1880s. An 1884 census recorded a mining population of 721 labourers in Kepong and another 648 labourers in the neighbouring Parit Tengah mines. It made no mention of a population settlement. It can be assumed that the miners were living in mining camps at the mining sites themselves.

As new mines continued to be opened by other leading Chinese towkays who had followed Yap Ah Loy’s lead, including the business magnates Chiew Yoke and Loke Yew, the economy grew large enough for the two partners to build a private road linking Kuala Lumpur to their mining land, and for a permanent business community to be established there. This, it would appear, was the origin of ‘Kap-Thoong Kai-Choong’, the Chinese market town of Kepong. Its emergence as a cluster of shophouses acting as a commercial-cum-residential retail centre for the surrounding mining district would probably have occurred in 1886–87.1

In August 1896, 41 houses were totally gutted by a fire that broke out in the town of Kepong, including the Gambling, Spirit, and Opium Farms (The Straits Times, 1896, p. 3). By 1900, the town had obviously been rebuilt, as Fook Chung, the Gambling Farmer of Kepong, sent a ‘Petition Praying for Police Protection for Kepong’ to the Resident that year, noting that ‘the inhabitants are greatly increased in Kepong’ (ARKIB, 1900). A year later, the Captain China Yap Kwan Seng, who had extensive mining interests in Kepong, petitioned the then Acting British Resident, H. C. Belfield, that ‘the time has come for the government to provide the village with a market and a police station’ (ARKIB, 1901).

This request was an entreaty for official sanction of its existence. British law newly introduced into Malaya (Land Enactment 1903) had mandated that houses could be erected only in areas gazetted as towns and villages and placed under the jurisdiction of a Sanitary Board. Under the 1899 Mining Enactment, only temporary accommodation for mining workers in the form of bangsals or wooden sheds could be erected on mining land. The many shophouses serving new mining districts, which were necessarily built on such land, were hence ‘illegal’ constructions and their owners ‘squatters’ according to the enactments.

There was a strong antipathy in the British official mind towards such spontaneously evolved ‘purely Chinese villages’, whose main offence was, officially, their invariably vile sanitation. Rather than confer Sanitary Board status on the existing village, as requested by the Captain China, it was proposed to abandon the settlement altogether and establish a new gazetted village on land next to the newly built railway station. A government road, bypassing the old road and houses, would be built to link the new village and railway station to Kuala Lumpur (ARKIB, 1901).

Hearing of this plan, in April of 1902 (Yap Kwan Seng had passed away in January 1902), the owners of the Kepong shophouses responded with a petition ‘against the removal of the village of Kepong to the vicinity of the railway station’. They pleaded against such a move, on the grounds that:

‘The business of Kepong Village depends solely on the mines in the vicinity … and on the people plying to and from Kuala Lumpur, who travel by carriage and rickshaws on the road that lead directly from the present village. In the proposed village, there are hardly any mines. … Very few people would think of going so much out of the way to travel by train’ (ARKIB, 1902).

They would have been relieved to be informed that ‘there is no immediate intention of requiring the villagers to move’ (ARKIB, 1902). The cost of building a new road to the railway station was too great. The ‘village’ was allowed to remain where it was.

The reprieve granted in 1902 to the ‘squatters’ village’ was called into question four years later by the impending expiry of the mining lease on which the settlement had been built. Under the 1899 Mining Enactment, a lease for land that was no longer actively mined was liable to forfeiture. In an attempt to prevent forfeiture and secure the survival of the settlement, the leaseholder proposed in 1906 to level the road frontage and rebuild the houses at her own expense, on condition that the government would then issue a grant to the land, with the new houses to be built on it (ARKIB, 1906).

This proposal was rejected out of hand. ‘I do not propose’, the British Resident minuted, ‘to spend any Govt money on this place’. Instead, he had decided on ‘an excellent site for a village about half a mile further on’. This new site, which extended from the 7½ to 8th mile post on the main road, was closer to the existing village than to the railway station and would not require the expense of the construction of a new road (ARKIB, 1906).

When informed of this, a last-ditch effort was made with the submission of the above 1906 petition in which their settlement was referred to as Kap-Thoong Kai-Chong—a named settlement of long standing, inhabited by residents of whom the majority were shopkeepers and ‘not men of capital’, trading principally with the miners of the prosperous and rapidly growing mining centre of Kepong. They petitioned the British Resident ‘to establish a permanent village at Kepong’.

The reply was swift, curt, and final:

Reply that the present site is unsuitable and insanitary, and that its further existence cannot be countenanced. Add that a new village site is being prepared and will probably be available in the course of a few weeks (ARKIB, 1906).

In the event, the survey and plan for the new village site was not ready till 1908 (ARKIB, 1908). Kepong was officially gazetted a ‘village’ in 1908, and the order to move was finally issued in 1910, on pain of a Straits$200 fine or imprisonment (ARKIB, 1910b).

Shortly thereafter, in September 1910, a petition was received from a group of people that throws light on the local community being formed in the mining district: 

With regard to the order of the government to the Kepong shopkeepers and traders to remove from the old village to the new site … we beg to state that we are living a quarter of a mile away from the village, and we are not shopkeepers but poor gardeners, pig rearers and hawkers with families, some of us are labourers working for daily wages.

This order of government, we understand, affects us also, and we beg you will be good enough to allow us to stay where we are. We are so poor that we have no means wherewith to buy land to build houses, and to abandon our existing vegetable gardens and pig rearing locality to spend for a fresh start (ARKIB, 1910a).

Until this point, there had only been mention of miners and shopkeepers in the ‘mining village’ and district of Kepong. The existence of another settlement just a quarter of a mile away from the Kepong shophouses, consisting of ‘poor gardeners, pig rearers and hawkers with families, some of us … labourers’, seems to have completely escaped the attention of government officials. Their plea to be allowed to remain was rejected, but they were informed that alternative land would be found for them, for which they would be issued with a Temporary Occupation License (ARKIB, 1910a). 2

Conclusion

These petitions from country shopkeepers and rural vegetable farmers are invaluable for the rare glimpse they provide into the lives of the non-elite in early colonial times, and into the evolving new commercial world in which the urban and the rural, the legal and illegal, and town and village, were inextricably linked. Aside from the mining towkays, such as Yap Kwan Seng, who lived with their wives and concubines in brick houses in Kuala Lumpur, and mining coolies, who lived as bachelors in rough and ready bangsals or kongsi houses on site on the tin mines, there were two groups of people settling down as families in the Malayan countryside: the small ‘urban’ shopkeeper and the ‘rural’ vegetable farmer, pig-rearer, hawker, and daily-paid wage labourer. They were the inhabitants of the innumerable population settlements that sprang up in the mining districts, their ranks constantly augmented by ex-miners who transitioned from kongsi to settled village life, and by new immigrants who no longer had to begin their lives in Malaya in a mining camp.

A typical “rural” vegetable farmer and inhabitant of population settlements that sprang up in mining districts throughout British Malaya.
Source:
Robert Feingold Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

The basic socio-economic unit of Chinese society and economy in colonial Malaya was thus a market town (a gazetted ‘town’ or ‘village’ with a high street of registered and licensed shophouses) and its immediate surrounding ‘squatter’ settlements, most of which were found outside the gazetted boundaries of the town or village around which they were centred. Their settlements, consisting of densely built nucleated collections of wooden huts with small patches of land planted with vegetables and fruit trees, were colloquially named ‘villages’, oriented towards the market town as its retail, service, and community centre. Engaged primarily in the tin and rubber export economy, such household-based village settlements that were clustered around a market town formed an integrated local economy that was vertically linked to higher-level market towns and ultimately to the capital city and port cities of the national economy.

Any study of the history of towns in Malaya must rely exclusively on colonial documents replete with administrative categories reflective more of official thinking and a desire for legal control than of socio-economic reality. Administrative categories should not, however, be mistaken for sociological concepts and uncritically adopted as such. The designation of population settlements such as Kepong as ‘village’ (or even town)3  was a clear misnomer.

This reconceptualization of Kepong’s origin, function, and structure as a market town with an organically integrated hinterland would suggest that it is not so much the study of towns, as it is the study of local settlements, that remains ‘One of the serious omissions in Malaysian historiography’.
Further reading:

Dobby, E. H. G. 1942. ‘Settlement Patterns in Malaya’. Geographical Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, April, pp. 211–232.

Gullick, J. M. 1990. ‘The Growth of Kuala Lumpur and of the Malay Community in Selangor before 1880’. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 63, No.1 (258), pp. 15–38.

Jackson, J. C. 1974. ‘The Structure and Functions of Small Malaysian Towns. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, No. 61, March, pp. 65–80.

Khoo, K. K. 1991. ‘Taiping (Larut): The Early History of a Mining Settlement’. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 64. No. 1, pp. 1–32.

Lees, L. H. 2021. ‘Capacity Building and Economic Development in the Small Towns of British Malaya’. Economic History of Malaya Project, https://www.ehm.my/publications/articles/capacity-building-and-economic-development-in-the-small-towns-of-british-malaya.

Lim, H. K. 1976. The Evolution of The Urban System in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya.

Moore, W. K. 2004. Malaysia, A Pictorial History 1400–2004. Singapore: Archipelago Press.

Nathan, J. E. 1921. The Census of British Malaya. United Kingdom: Straits Settlements.

Sidhu, M. S. 1978. ‘Chinese Dominance of West Malaysian Towns, 1921–1970’. Geography, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 17–23.

Skinner, G. W. 1964. ‘Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China: Part I’. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 24, Issue 1, pp. 3–43.

The National Archives of Malaysia (ARKIB). 1891. ‘Ask for some Compensation. Re Opening of Batu-Kepong Road. Reference No. 1957/0026587).

______1900. ‘Petition Praying for Police Protection for Kepong’. Reference No. 1957/0091398.

______1901. ‘Ask that a Market and Police Station may be Established at Kepong’. Reference No. 1957/0098387.

______1902. ‘Removal of Village of Kepong to the Vicinity of Railway Station: Petition Against’. Reference No. 1957/0101776.

______1906. ‘Petition asking to Establish a Permanent Village at Kepong Such as the Salak Village’. Reference No. 1957/0132068.

______1908. ‘Reports that the Removal of Kepong Village has not yet been Effected owing to Delay in Survey’. Reference No. 1957/0141293.

______1910a. ‘Ask that they may not be Removed from the Old Village Kepong as Ordered’. Reference No. 1957/0153653.

______1910b. ‘Removal of shops from the old village to the new Village Kepong’. Reference No. 1957/0153345.

The Straits Times. 1896. ‘Selangor News’, Issue 10 August, p. 3.

Vlieland, C. A. 1932. A Report on the 1931 Census and on Certain Problems of Vital Statistics, British Malaya. London: The Crown Agents for the Colonies.


Unfortunately, there is no documentary record as to when exactly the road was completed and the first shophouses erected. It would have been between the death of Yap Ah Loy in April 1885 and the construction of the Rawang road in 1887, when mention was first made of the road (ARKIB, 1891).
2 They were allotted land at Lot 232 and 1800, close to both the new and old village.
3 The population size threshold for the definition of town was raised to 10,000 in the 1970 population census.


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