By James Gough
Little India, where the early immigrants from India congregated and did their thriving businesses at a time when tin mining emerged as an important industry in the Kinta Valley, is being given a major facelift. It is to be completed before Merdeka Day on August 31. The area being spruced up under a project financed by the Federal Government covers from the entrance of Jalan Leong Boon Swee into Jalan Lahat and carrying on into Jalan Sultan Yussuf (Belfield Street) up till the intersection with Jalan Sultan Iskandar Shah. The idea to give a facelift was mooted when the Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin visited the area last year and approved a RM1.5 million grant for the facelift. Plans for the facelift was drawn up by Ipoh City Council and presented to the residents in the area at a dialogue held last month to explain the changes about to be undertaken and to get their approval.
Works started immediately after obtaining approval from the residents. Among the changes to be made are replacing the interlocking bricks of the present pavements, laying interlocking pavers with motifs characteristic of Little India on the roads, installing decorative lamps and landscaping of the entire stretch. An arch will also be erected at the Dataran Little India (the small square in the centre of the area).
The existing memorial fountain will be demolished and in its place a stage will be constructed. A police pondok will also be located there to provide security.
Meanwhile the entire 12 blocks of shop-houses within Little India will be painted with its original colours once all the rest of the sprucing up work has been completed.
According to city council’s engineer Encik Khairul Anuar Hj Lodin the original colours were identified by a team from the Heritage Department (Badan Warisan) which had scanned the buildings to determine the original colours.
Little India was, as the name implies, the centre for the large Indian community in the city. While this may have been the case in the past, today the ethnic Tamils from South India no longer stay solely segregated in one place. Most of them, particularly the younger generation, are now scattered all over the city.
The area began to develop at the turn of the last century as tin ore was being discovered in the Kinta Valley in large quantities. Where others, including Chinese immigrants, moved in to work in the tin mines, the Indians moved in to do business, in particular, that of money lending.
Chettiars Move In
The majority of them were Nattukkotai Chettiars from South India. They came as free people, having paid their own passage, unlike those brought into the country to work in the plantation and construction sectors who were bound by contract.
They brought along their trusted book-keepers and assistants to set up their money lending business. Their simple ‘business offices’, sparsely furnished, consisting large-ly of a platformed hall with small tables and a large steel safe, were along Jalan Lahat and Jalan Sultan Yussuf.
Eventually more Indians began to move in as the Thendayuthapani Temple just a stone’s throw away, became their beacon. The population in the area soon grew to 65 per cent Indian and 35 per cent Chinese.
As a result, the area stretching from Jalan Sultan Yussuf to Jalan Lahat became dominated commercially by Tamils.
Role in Tin Mining
The Chettiar’s contri-butions towards the economic development of Perak and the country as a whole have been rarely mentioned or publicised.
A descendant of this community is Mr M. Ramanathan, whose father was a Chettiar and used to live at their kedangi (a Chettiar’s house), located at 68 Jalan Sultan Yussuf.
“Although the role played by the Chettiars was only lending out money, they had in doing so, helped small tin mines to survive”, explained Ramanathan.
“They built their money-lending business through mutual trust and provided the finance to the Chinese miners with just a signature on a promissory note.”
He said since many of the small Chinese miners could not get loans from the Colonial banks to start their mines, they turned to the Chettiars for help.
However interest charged on the unsecured loan was “18% PA at the most though most times it was 12%” stated Ramanathan when asked if the interest per annum could be 60%.
Ramanathan recalls that at the time when he was growing up in the 50s there were around 50-60 Chettiars operating there. After work they would congregate at the square to catch up with news of home and events of the day. Their daily work clothes were the white dhothi and in the evening before dinner the square became a sea of white.
Meals for Chettiars were taken at a common kitchen located behind 122 Jalan Sultan Yussuf, which had a cook imported from India or from Krishna Bawan on Lahat Road which had an all vegetarian menu.
Exodus to India
The exodus of the Chettiars returning to India first occurred in 1957 when Malaya obtained its Independence from the British. However that was minor when compared to the exodus after the riots of 1969 when a concerted effort was made to register all residents living in the country.
“Most of the Chettiars took their money and went home. Those that stayed behind were those who were educated and saw a future for themselves”, added Ramanathan.
In the early seventies the Chinese businesses gradually moved into the community. However 20 years on after the collapse of the tin industry in the mid 80s the Chinese businesses too have been gradually moving out of the community and Indian entrepreneurs slowly moving back in.
The manager of one of the few Chettiars still located in Little India, Mr. K.R. Pandian said his father came from India and worked as an assistant to a Chettiar.
Unlike the Chettiars of early days, Pandian does not stay at the kedangi but in a house in First Garden. His current customers come from all races who are referred as being trustworthy.
Patronised By All
Little India is now a most colourful neighbourhood, enjoying the patronage of people of all races who wish to eat or buy something specific to Indian culture. The options range from glittering jewellery and clothing, utensils and spices. Some of the best authentic Indian restaurants are also found here.
There are 15 goldsmiths located in Little India, where customers from all over Perak would come to make their selection especially for weddings.
Business in the area is usual, except during Deepavali and Thaipusam when it will be bursting with activities, as makeshift stalls are erected along the roads causing many traffic congestions.
Heritage Tourist Attraction
Little India has already been identified earlier in city council’s 2020 draft programme of administrative zones done with the Town and Country Planning Department, as being part of a cluster of Historical and Heritage Zones within the city that had the potential as a Heritage Tourist Attraction.
The upgrading of Little India is timely. Early in May, State chairman for Tourism Dato’ Hamidah Osman did a walk through Panglima Lane and indicated the state’s plan to preserve the location as a Heritage enclave.
Hence the linking of Little India and Panglima Core (the area stretching from the Railway Station to Panglima Lane) could be another chapter for a heritage walk and possibly another Heritage Map.