Kampar: A Town Built on Tin

loading General view of Kampar.

Kampar is a small town located at the southernmost end of Kinta district. Nestled at the foot of Gunung Bujang Melaka, its name is derived from Kampar River, which was used in the nineteenth century by the Orang Kampar from Sumatra to sail upriver to trade with different riverine kampungs.1 Kuala Dipang was their final stop on the river, and from there, they would traverse further inland to continue trading. Many brought their family members along, and they settled in this district.

The Founding of Kampar

The early 1890s witnessed an influx of fossickers to the area mining for tin. In 1891 Imam Prang Ja Barumun, a Mandailing migrant and assistant penghulu of Gopeng, persuaded J.B.M. Leech, the Kinta district officer, to lay out a township near Membang-Di-Awan, on the road being built to link Kuala Dipang to Tapah, where a very rich tin field had been discovered.2

Envisaging the great economic value of the tin field, Leech selected a township site and recruited a Mr. Bamforth, a surveyor, to divide it into shoplots for sale at $25 per piece.3 The site quickly grew into a village with a population of 600. In 1893 the little village had 172 houses and 1,500 inhabitants.

The following year, its population had increased to about 4,000, and on March 13, 1894, E. W. Birch, secretary to the Perak government, officially named the town Kampar.4

The mining expansion spurred the physical extension and improvement of the town through the building of brick houses, the construction of roads and the provision of sanitation. By 1905 about 300 shops had been erected in the town; other amenities – such as a market, post office, school, theatre, temple, church and mosque – were also established.

This transformation of the town was accompanied by changes to its racial composition. The total number of inhabitants soared from 5,907 in 1901 to 11,604 in 1911, made up of nearly 10,000 Chinese, slightly more than 1,000 Indians, approximately 400 Malays and a small number of people of other races.5

The Chinese miners and coolies who flocked to Kampar came not only from other towns in the Kinta district such as Gopeng, Papan and Ipoh, but also all the way from Taiping and Penang. They dominated the tin mining business and accumulated large capital, some of which were channelled towards the building of shophouses and the laying out of sanitation.

Koo Bao Kai.

The Chinese Towkays

With the congregation of these miners, Kampar essentially became a Chinese town. The Chinese miners transliterated Kampar to Cantonese and called it “Gam Bou” (金寶), meaning “golden treasure”. It indicated the large tin reserves hidden in the area.

Many Chinese miners who came to Kampar to prospect for tin did make a fortune. In the late 1890s, Eu Tong Sen, a Cantonese towkay from Gopeng, set up his head office, Chop Sang Woh, in Kampar, occupying three shophouses along Jalan Gopeng and expanding his tin mining business. By 1927 he was working at least 10 tin mines in Kampar with a total of 140,000 coolies.6 Tong Sen also set up a shop called Yang Sang Tong Ki, which dealt in Chinese medicine and provided remittance services.

Ng Boo Bee, a Hokkien towkay from Taiping who owned the Kamunting mine, the biggest open-cast mine in the Federated Malay States, extended his mining interests to Kampar in the early 1900s. By partnering with his business associates, Boo Bee worked a few tin mines that generated huge profits. By 1907, he owned at least 10 shophouses in Kampar town.7 In the same year he, together with the Sultan of Perak, obtained permission from Birch, who was the British resident then, to erect a poultry market there as well.8

With tin reserves in decline in Larut, the Chinese towkays based in Penang – in particular Hokkiens such as Lim Boon Haw, Lim Eow Thoon, Lee Chin Ho, Gan Ngoh Bee and Goh Gaik Kee – moved their capital for new tin mining ventures to the Kinta district. By the mid-1920s, these five prospectors owned about 1,200 acres of tin mining land in Kampar. Boon Haw was the largest landowner, holding 563 acres of mining land.9 He also owned Ban Guan Hin Tin Mine in Phuket, which was the largest in Siam.

Ng Boo Bee.

Lim Boon Haw.

Apart from the Hokkiens, the Hakka towkays of Penang such as Chung Thye Phin and Koo Bao Kai also invested in the tin mining business in Kampar. Thye Phin, the fourth son of Kapitan Chung Keng Quee, owned about 320 acres of mining land.10 He worked closely with Tong Sen in almost all his tin mining endeavours in Kampar. Bao Kai, the grandson of Koo Suk Shuan, who founded the oldest medical hall in Penang, the Yin Oi Tong, first established a medical hall, Kwong Yin Tong at 67 Jalan Idris11 and later diversified his business interests by venturing into tin mining together with his son and nephew.

Social and Infrastructural Development

The Chinese towkays were not only actively engaged in tin mining, they also took great interest in the social affairs of Kampar. The Anglo-Chinese School, which was founded in 1903, faced acute space shortage with the increasing student enrolment in the mid- 1910s. In order to solve this problem, Tong Sen donated a piece of land to it, along with a sum of $3,000.12 When Pei Yuan School – formerly known as “Fujian School”, established by a group of Hokkien towkays in 1912 – encountered the same problem, he did not hesitate to donate towards the school’s hall and classrooms. In 1920 Tong Sen, together with Lam Weng Yoon, a Penang-born tin miner and the eldest son of Lam Loo King, along with 10 other Chinese towkays, pooled together a few thousand dollars and established the Chong Hwa Public School, the largest school at the time in Kampar.13

The large Chinese settlement also prompted a demand for burial grounds. By 1905, the two existing cemeteries in the vicinity of Kampar town had become nearly full. Tong Sen and his business associates reserved three plots of land with a total area of 40 acres as public burial ground for the Chinese community.14

Kampar Chinese Public Maternity Hospital was another charitable effort made by a group of Chinese towkays. The government hospital, which had a small maternity ward containing four beds, could not cope with the increasing number of female patients. To alleviate this problem, the Chinese towkays established the Chinese Public Maternity Hospital in 1927, which served a wide area – particularly the mining districts of Kampar, Malim Nawar, Gopeng and Chenderiang.15 The hospital was open to expecting mothers of all ethnicities and fulfilled a very real local need; about 60% of admissions came from outside Kampar town. Notwithstanding, the government only paid a meagre annual $500-$1,000 grant to the hospital; whatever else was needed had to be contributed by the public.16

The expansion of tin mining coupled with the development of roads and railways transformed Kampar into a nodal point in the Kinta district. Jalan Gopeng (務邊街), which was constructed in 1893, was the main road connecting Kampar to Ipoh, Taiping and Prai in the north; and Tapah, Teluk Anson, KL and Klang in the south. Because of this geo-strategic land link, Jalan Gopeng became a commercial hub that housed most of the major trading companies such as Ban Seng Leong Limited, Kong Wai Tong, Koon Cheang, Straits Trading Co., Eastern Smelting Co., Kinta Ice Aerated Water and Bakery Co., Wah Aun Drug Store, Choong Fatt Co., Chop Hoong Chan, and Kwong Hup Cheong Foundry.

Parallel to Jalan Gopeng was Jalan Idris, another main commercial street, named after Sultan Idris Murshidul’adzam Shah of Perak. By 1959 there were about 170 shophouses lining the street; most of them selling foodstuff, clothing, imported goods, earthenware, hardware, medicine, tobacco and machinery to cater to the demand of the urban and rural population.

However, to the Chinese settlers, Jalan Idris was more popularly known as “Theatre Street” (戲院街). In the 1920s makeshift tent theatres first appeared showing films in multi-purpose venues along the street. Later, they gave way to purpose-built structures. These were architecturally novel buildings. By 1955 there were six cinemas in Kampar; four were located on Jalan Idris. The two principal cinemas were The Sun (中山) and The Princess (樂宫); the former opened in 1938, occupying four lots of land at No.53, while the latter, which was located at No.172, began operations in 1955.17 Princess Theatre, which was opened by Chee Seng Tong (M) Ltd at a cost of $300,000 and had a seating capacity of 800, was the grandest cinema in Kampar.18

Thanks to growing tin mining activities, all sorts of people – artisans, hawkers, money-lenders, merchants, prostitutes and others – settled in Kampar, making it a bustling and dynamic town. By 1931, its population had reached 15,302, making it Perak’s third-largest town.19 With such unprecedented numbers of fortune-seeking migrants, the shophouses of Kampar town were fully occupied and badly crammed to capacity. It was common for 100 people from seven to eight families to stay in a two-storey shophouse at that time.20

In order to relieve congestion in the town, Arthur Vincent Aston, a British colonial officer who was also the chairman of the Kinta Sanitary Board, decided to set up a settlement in 1935. Two years later, Aston Settlement, located about a quarter mile (0.4km) from the township of Kampar and comprising about 200 dwelling houses of the semi-permanent type, was ready to resettle the dwellers, who were mostly tin miners, rubber tappers, construction workers and petty traders.20

Ups and Downs

The development of Kampar came to a tragic halt when the Japanese armies took over the town in January 1942. Chinese tin mining activities ceased almost completely, while the European tin mining properties, which were acquired by the Japanese, continued to operate. Jun-an Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisho, a Japanese mining company, took over and operated 14 dredges and several European hydraulic and gravel-pump mines in the Kampar district. Its output of tin during 1943-1945 reached at least 5,000 tons.22

It was not until the end of the Japanese Occupation that the trade and development of Kampar resumed. From 1947 to 1959 the Chinese and European mines, under the financial support of the British Government, began to experience an increase in tin production, albeit at a slow pace.

Old Chinese temple.

The Communist Emergency, which began on June 16, 1948, and the 1953 International Tin Agreement were the two main factors that caused the slowdown in productivity growth. Tin mines and infrastructure in Kampar were prime targets of the communist insurgents. In February 1952, for example, a band of nearly 50 armed and uniformed communists, in one of their most daring raids, burned down the railway station and a godown containing 150 tons of rubber in Kampar.23

The introduction of the 1953 International Tin Agreement by the British and the Americans aimed to “ensure adequate supplies of tin at reasonable prices at all times”. To achieve this, the International Tin Buffer Stock, which operated under the 1953 Agreement, placed a control on the tin price in South-east Asia by requiring $24 to be deducted for every picul of tin ore sold.24 This led to bankruptcy for many marginal tin mines in Kampar. With sluggish tin mining activities, Kampar’s population growth slowed down between 1947 and 1957, witnessing only an increase of 7,103 persons during that time.25

The 1960 International Tin Agreement, when it came into force, raised tin buffer stock prices from £730-£880 per ton in 1960 to £1,280-£1,400 in 1969.26 As a result, Kampar’s tin mining activities surged; although there is no data available, gauging from the total tin production of Perak, which recorded an increase from 21,000 tons in 1959 to 34,100 tons in 1963, it would not be incorrect to say that Kampar, a tin-rich state, would have substantially contributed to the growth.

The population of Kampar multiplied correspondingly in leaps and bounds, from 24,054 in 1957 to 60,000 in 1962.27 Throughout the 1970s, tin price remained good and the population of the town reached about 70,000.

The Great Tin Crash

The Tin Market Clash of the 1980s saw Kampar enter a deep slump; not only were the tin mines affected, but many tin-related businesses such as foundries, moneylending, provision shops and others closed down.

Sun cinema.

Unemployment was high, and as a result, youths and working adults left Kampar for greener pastures. It is believed that in the early 1980s, about 17% of youths left each year to look for jobs elsewhere.28 The number of departing youths and working adults increased when the price of tin dipped further and more mines and businesses ceased their operations in the mid-1980s. The exodus continued for over a decade, and by 2000, Kampar’s population stood only at 17,046. It slid further to 15,074 in 201029 – on par with the population in 1931!

While tin brought life to Kampar, attracting Chinese migrants who spurred the construction of houses, shops, and social and economic infrastructure – as well. as sustaining the town for decades – the collapse of the tin market eventually caused its decline.

The establishment of Tunku Abdul Rahman University College in 1998 and Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman in 2007 are claimed to have enabled Kampar to regain something of its former glory.30 Considering the continuing decline of Kampar’s population size, it is too early to conclude such a thing – the impact of the two institutions of higher learning on the local economy and society remain superficial and limited.

Perhaps a combination of economic sectors based on local and foreign resources, such as small-town tourism, eco-agricultural farming, freshwater aquaculture and manufacturing can be developed to create job opportunities that will not only encourage people to settle there, but also retain local residents and college or university graduates. This way, Kampar, without tin at its heart, may yet have a second heyday.

1Salma Nasution Khoo and Abdul-Razaq Lubis, Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development, Penang: Areca Books, 2005, p. 142.
2Abdul-Razzaq Lubis and Khoo Salma Nasution, Raja Bilah and The Mandailings in Perak: 1875-1911, Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 2003, p.131.
3Ibid.
4Neil Khor, Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur, The Towns of Malaya: An Illustrated Urban History of the Peninsula Up to 1957, Kuala Lumpur: Editions Didier Millet Sden Bhd, 2017, p.108.
5Manual of Statistics Relating to the Federated Malay States 1915, p.150.
6Compiled from Directory of Malaya 1927.
7Kinta Land Office 2164/07.
8Kinta Land Office 1804/07.
9Compiled from the Federated Malay States Government Gazette of 1922, 1923 and 1924.
10Compiled from the Federated Malay States Government Gazette of 1915 and 1920.
11星馬華人醫藥界通讯錄 Directory of Chinese Physicians and Druggists of Singapore and Federation of Malaya 1960, p.320.
12E.C. Hicks, History of English Schools in Perak, Ipoh: The Perak Library, 1958, p.27.
13Salma Nasution Khoo and Abdul-Razaq Lubis, Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development, Penang: Areca Books, 2005, p. 149; Lin Bo Ai, Nanyang Mingren Jizhuan, Penang, 1941, p.176.
14Kinta Land Office 1904-05 (File No.: 891/05).
15‘Kampar Chinese Maternity Hospital’, Perak Secretariat 2335/1947.
16Ibid.
17Town Board Meetings 1958 (Kampar), 1963/00539.
18The Straits Times, 1 February 1955, p.12.
19Lim Heng Kow, The Evolution of the Urban System in Malaya, Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 1978, p.68.
20The Star Online, ‘All’s well in Aston’, 4 July 2016.
21Ibid.
22Yip Yat Hoong, The Development of the Tin Mining Industry of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1969, p.293.
23The Straits Times, ‘No More Kampars’, 24 February 1952, p.10.
24Yip Yat Hoong, ‘The Marketing of Tin-Ore in Kampar’, Malayan Economic Review, Oct 1959, p.54.
25Lim Heng Kow, op cit, p.68.
26Yip Yat Hoong, The Development of the Tin Mining Industry of Malaya The Development of the Tin Mining Industry of Malaya, p.331.
27The Straits Times, ‘$70m Kampar Boom’, 4 November 1962, p.1.
28陈长兴 Tan Chuan Hin, 金宝100年 1886-1986 Kampar 100 Years1886-1986, 金宝Kampar: 大母指出版 The Big Thumb, 2001, pp.181-2.
29Population Distribution by Local Authority Areas and Mukims, Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2000 & 2010, Department of Statistics, Malaysia.
30Ipoh Echo, issue 266, September 16-30,2017.

Dr Wong Yee Tuan is Fellow and Head of Penang Institute's History and Heritage Programme. He hails from Malim Nawar and has profound research interest in the history of Penang.



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