Historical Papan Hangs On Tin Price

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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.

The entrance to Kampung Baru Papan

Relocation Deferred
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.

Main street of Papan

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.

6 thoughts on “Historical Papan Hangs On Tin Price

  1. Thanks for highlighting old Papan. This old town is in fact one of the best documented towns in malaysia, covering not only the Mandailings, but also WW2 hero, Sybil Kathigasu.

    Papan is only a half-hour drive from central Ipoh. In 2004, the Perak Heritage Society organised ‘Papan Open Day’ to celebrate the launch of local-born Ho Thean Fook’s book: God of the Earth. Guided walks were organised and enjoyed by more than one hundred persons.

    If readers wish to visit historic Papan and do a guided-walk with me, I can show you this historic town and what is happening. Send in your requests to this column. A date and time will be announced in your Ipoh Echo.

  2. I enjoyed reading the article about Papan and its past. Being born in Ipoh and having lived in Falim, I am well aware of the historical value of Papan. It is really sad and tragic to see that majority of the Perak, and especially Ipoh, people do not lay importance on histoical relics and places such as Papan. I presume everyone in Malaysia is aware of the expression of “Heritage.” However where is their pride in preserving historical places. Wake up people. Do something Perakians and Ipohites before all the valuable and historical structures are lost and gone forever.

  3. When I first visited Papan before the Museum and State Religious Departments stepped in to lay claim to the town’s historical sites in 1991, Istana Raja Bilah was well-kept by some descentants of the Mandailing community. I could even get into the Istana.
    Instead of the Istana and mosque being spruced up, they are now becoming dilapidated and abandoned with overgrown bushes all around. It would have been better had both departments had not laid claimed,just talks no action resulting in the situation becoming worse.
    What is wrong with those involved in tourism development in the state, don’t they have imagination?
    I agree with the writer that Papan has the potential of becoming a tourist attraction and be listed as a “must visit” pioneer mining town in Perak, but will the state government do it?

  4. Its a rare writing about Papan, most of us no nothing about this bygone era town.

    But I remember in the mid-eights the Cabinet took a decision to retain Papan as the site for radioactive waste dumps and also with portents of long-term government intentions in the area of nuclear power as a potential source of energy.

    The unhealthy decision of the Cabinet for Papan made news almost everyday in the dailies. Reports by experts commissioned by the government as well as the Papan Action Committee and the Papan Support Group made clear stands that the trenches are unsafe for their intended use. In the passage of time the issue of dumps building in Papan quieten down, but the waste dumps were built in Papan.

    This article missed a worth while mentioned point. The Chinese community in Papan is one of the oldest in Kinta- the Goddess of Mercy Temple in Papan has an epigraphy dating back to 1847, and pewter artefacts dating to 1890. Also these Chinese community of Papan mostly belonged to the Hakka Tseng Lung Fui Kuon an associations of Hakkas.

    Well, I do agree with Mr.Steven that tin mines are past episodes of Papan. Infect presently it has ventured into swifts and swallows harvesting business. Papan bird nest is a bright future for some business men.

    But for me, my hope is the Bilal Palace and all the one way street buildings in Papan should be preserved and conserved for heritage values.

  5. The price of tin has go up much higher than ever before new tin mines would open. Gone forever are the days of open-cast mining and using palongs. The damage and pollution to the environment using this method is terrible. EIA’s would be required to ensure the new mines would not harm the environment especially when most of these areas are now populated, unlike in tin’s heydays. New and costly methods of mining must be employed.

    The state government may try to railroad the people into giving way to tin mines. But there is a new political consciousness among Perakians and they will not be bullied by the government. All in all, tin mines may not make a return anytime soon.

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