By Jerry Francis
The century-old mining town of Papan, which was recently featured in a TV series of the town’s own World War II heroine, Sybil Kathigasu, hangs on the price of tin. It is like a “barometer”: each time the price goes up, there is talk of relocating the town.
This has been going on for the past three decades, the reason being that the town is sitting on an untapped rich alluvial tin ore deposit, while all around it had been mined. The deposit is estimated to be worth millions of Ringgit.
In fact, Papan is not the only town in the Kinta Valley which is said to be sitting on a “pot of gold”, most of the mining towns do too. Among them are Gopeng and Kampar. Even underneath Ipoh Padang is believed to be rich with tin ore – a testimony of the once richest alluvial tin field in the world.
Had it not been for the collapse of the tin mining industry following the drop of tin price in 1985, the town would have been relocated and the area mined, and Papan – situated about 20 km west of Ipoh – would have been swept away by the tin sludge.
Actually, preparations to relocate Papan were already made in late 70s by a mining company, which owned much of the land, and in 1977, about 60 households were relocated to Kampung Papan Baru, along the old Ipoh-Lumut main road near Pusing. But, the drop in tin price caused the plan to be deferred. Since then the town has gradually turned into a sleepy hollow as its future hangs on the price of tin.
Renewed Interest as Tin Price Picks Up
Now with the price of the metal picking up, there is renewed interest in the revival of tin mining in Perak and there may be another round of talks on relocating Papan.
Already, prospecting of tin ore deposits in the state has started and new tin mines have started to operate in Upper Perak and the coastal areas.
Old residents of the town, most of whom are retired mining workers, are used to such talks. “Actually, we are not worried by talks of relocation anymore,” commented a slim elderly man (who wanted to be known only as Ah Chong) when met in the almost deserted town. He claimed to be a former gravel pump operator.
Adjoining the town is a village, comprised of wooden and zinc houses with some old abandoned mining equipment among them.
Revival Not Conducive
According to mining sources, the escalating cost of operation and the shortage of skilled mining workers have not created a conducive atmosphere for the revival of tin mining in the state.
As mine after mine gradually ceased operations following the collapse of the tin mining industry after 1985, most former mining workers went abroad or found other jobs since losing their employment. As a result, miners do not have the confidence or willingness to take the risk to mine the town.
Papan Owes Its Fame to War Heroine
As the heroine of the Japanese Occupation, Sybil Kathigasu, once lived on the Main Street of Papan, the town had become well-known through books written by her as well as others about her exploits, and a TV-series was shot on location.
It was from one of the two rows of concrete double-storey shop-houses during the Japanese Occupation that Sybil ran a clinic with physician husband, Dr. A.C. Kathigasu. They gave medical aid to the Malayan People Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and Force 136 operatives, who were hiding in the hills behind Papan.
Arrested and tortured by the Japanese, she eventually died from the wounds suffered as a prisoner of war. Sybil, a Eurasian, was the only Malayan woman ever awarded the George Medal for bravery.
Therefore, Papan is known by many, not as a historical mining town but because of Sybil’s story.
Heyday and Racial Harmony
Since as far back as the mid 19th century, Papan has been an example of how different races could mingle and live and work in harmony. It was a lumber settlement of Mandailing and Chinese.
Mandailings from West Sumatra came to Papan after the Klang War, and settled in late 1870s and early 1880s, after their leader, Raja Asal was awarded mining rights to the land and later the penghulu-ship.
Papan became the administrative centre for Kinta Valley’s tin-mining activities and in its heyday had a population of 38,000.
Due to the abundant alluvial tin and with 13 mines in operation, Papan grew rich. Streets were laid out by the 1890s and, by the turn of the 20th century, the main street had more than 100 shop-houses and public buildings. The Papan mosque was completed in 1888, built in the character of the mosques in Mandailing with a large timber hall and a double-tiered roof.
The mosque still stands today, next to the Istana Raja Bilah – the residence of Raja Asal, which was built in 1896.
Rich Heritage Neglected
Although, there have been numerous calls from the public to preserve Papan as a historical site and turn Istana Raja Bilah into a museum, it is sad that, despite its rich heritage, Papan has been neglected.
In late 1991, the Museum and State Religious Departments stepped in to lay claim to the town’s historical sites, namely, Istana Raja Bilah, the mosque and its Muslim cemetery.
The Museum Department indicated in 1992 that it had plans to restore the historical sites. Since then, the buildings have become further dilapidated and filled with overgrown bushes.
It is yet another project, which failed to take off in Perak. All talks of preserving the buildings have been just that, talk.
Therefore, Papan remains uninteresting and unnoticed by most visitors to the state. Even the residents in Ipoh do not bother to visit the town or know where it is located.
Perhaps, the screening of the movie on the life of Sybil will generate some curiosity from among Malaysians to visit the historical town, which has the potential of becoming a tourist attraction and be listed as a “must visit” pioneer mining town in any tour itinerary of the City That Tin Built. However, first the town and its historical buildings need to be spruced up.