Batu Gajah: The Forgotten Capital of Kinta

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Batu Gajah: The Forgotten Capital of Kinta

Once a small village along the Kinta River, Batu Gajah rose to prominence in 1881 when it became the new river port for the Papan mines. Three years later, it was chosen as the capital of Kinta Valley when Ipoh was still a dense, jungle village. Then known as the only town after Taiping, Batu Gajah became the administrative and social centre of Kinta given its favourable locality and terrain. While the rise of Ipoh soon attributed to its declining role, its history as the official town which once administered the richest tin mining district in British Malaya is worth a revisit.

Origins of Batu Gajah

While “Batu Gajah” literally means “elephant stone”, there are several accounts of how the town obtained its name.

According to a local folklore, a pixie-like creature called Sang Gedembai once turned two elephants crossing the Kinta River into rocks. Witnesses then dubbed the place “Batu Gajah”.

In another account, the discovery of elephantine-sized boulders by Chinese miners led to its name.1 Citing the records of the Acting-Penghulu of Sungai Terap in 1949, Kinta’s district officer,

H.A. Luckam, also mentioned some Sumatran Buddhists coming up the Kinta River from Telok Anson and carving the figures of two elephants on a stone at the edge of the river to mark their location. This account seems in line with Magistrate H.W.C Leech, who mentioned a similar landmark called “Batu Gajah” in 1880, then hailed as the mark towards Pahang.2

Despite the varying accounts, this “elephant stone” is said to remain in Batu Gajah’s old town, at the bend of the Kinta River near Kampung Pisang. Even if that is the case, much of the stone has lost its distinctive features owing to river erosion.

From Trading Port to Socio-administrative Hub

When Kinta was an isolated jungle with several mining areas in Papan, Lahat and Gopeng, J.W.W Birch, the first British resident of Perak, observed in 1875 “a large and fine village at the left bank” with “about 30 to 40 houses and a large smelting house” in Kampung Batu Gajah.

Under the chieftainship of Sri Amar Diraja, Batu Gajah’s strategic location at the bank of the Kinta River – slightly downstream from the confluence with Raia River – led to its selection as the transit port for the Papan mines in 1881.3

Its growing importance as a trading port was also noted by Hugh Low (later, Perak’s fourth resident) who reported that a “large sum of $849 was paid to its inhabitants for the clearing of fruits trees and appropriation of lands” since “the spot selected by H.W.C Leech is most convenient to the mines of Papan and its neighbourhood and has become a considerable trading station”.4 A landing stage for boats and barges was also constructed followed by shop houses along the river, operated by local Malays and Mandailings. This road became “River Road” and what was known as the “Old Town” of Batu Gajah grew from here.

The town’s rise was also connoted by the construction of its first mosque, Masjid Jamek in 1887. Established by prominent Muslim residents such as Toh Pandat, Kathi Haji Abdul Kadir, Kerani Wahab and Pandak Taha, it served a congregation from surrounding villages like Kampung Ayer Mati, Golek, Sayun, Sungai Terap, Lambang Kuda, Ara Payung and Kampung Manggis. As these villages gradually formed part of Batu Gajah’s expanding township, Pandak Taha, a local miner, was appointed as its first penghulu.

While Kinta was once managed from Kota Bharu, the river port of Gopeng, its low, swampy lands and malarial infestation led to Batu Gajah’s selection as the new administrative capital. Moreover, Batu Gajah’s plateau tableland, situated 350 ft above sea level, became the ideal landscape for the British. This “Changkat”, blessed with a regular cool breeze, soon became home to various government buildings, facilities and residences.

In 1884 Kinta’s administrative centre moved to Batu Gajah. Even Kinta’s first Malay school joined the exodus from Kota Bharu to Batu Gajah. While the seeds of the town’s education system began here, an English school was later founded by a contractor and landed proprietor, K. Malai Perumal Pillai, in 1907. It was claimed that Pillai himself bore all the expenses, including the cost of books for the students for about three years. This school was absorbed by the government in 1910 and renamed the Government English School.5 A year later, the Chinese community led by veteran miner, Khi Nin, established Yuk Kwan School.

Batu Gajah Railway.

By 1892, Batu Gajah had its own land department, district office and surveyor, and Chinese protectorate.6 Even the headquarters of the Kinta Magistrate and Treasury were stationed in Batu Gajah.7 This was followed by the establishment of the Batu Gajah District Hospital under Dr Wright, the senior district surgeon.8 A new police station followed in 1894, following the construction of the Kinta Gaol in 1888. Outstation prisoners were then brought to Batu Gajah and sentenced to do tremendous public work such as the laying out and widening of roads, clearing of jungles and drains, and even stone-breaking.9

The town’s metamorphosis entailed the formation of its Sanitary Board. Formed at the height of its expansion, the Board was responsible for the town’s planning and it was through this channel that swampy lands were filled in, terrain landscaped and new roads constructed.

Chaired by the assistant magistrate, the Board comprised of locals like Penghulu Pandak Akhat and Penghulu Raja Bilah, and notable Chinese like Shak Yen Fuk. When the sanitary boards of Ipoh, Gopeng and Batu Gajah were amalgamated in 1897 to form the Kinta Sanitary Board, Batu Gajah became its headquarters. Later, in 1905, Batu Gajah came under the Southern Kinta Sanitary Board. By 1917, the town was substantially laid out.10

Social life marked an important aspect of colonial Batu Gajah. While reading rooms, dance halls and social clubs – from the exclusive Batu Gajah Club and Kinta Gymkhana Club to the Batu Gajah Chinese Club11 – catered to civil administrators and town dwellers, the Changkat became the venue for shows, meetings and celebrations. For instance, the Annual Agri- Horticultural show was hosted in Batu Gajah in July 1894; when Sultan Idris Shah formally opened the Kinta Valley Railway. The Perak State Council also convened regularly at the Changkat12 and in 1887, Batu Gajah was given the honour of hosting the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Races were also popular among the Malay royalty, the British resident and officials, as well as European and Asian patrons from Taiping and even Penang.13

The Government English School.

Interestingly, Batu Gajah also housed Kinta’s first Catholic parish – St Joseph’s. Commissioned by the French Mission of Paris to Taiping, Father J.F. Allard found himself in Batu Gajah in 1882, ministering to the Chinese Catholics of Taiping who moved to Kinta for tin mining. He settled on the hill of the Changkat and built a small chapel there in 1885.

Having started with 250 members, the parish grew to 400 members in 1887. By 1891, a spacious church was constructed and inaugurated.14 Father Allard also joined his flock in farming and it is believed that their fresh supply of vegetables and fruits safeguarded the town’s mining community against beri-beri.15

Prominent Personalities

Although a majority of Europeans led the high life in Batu Gajah, none shone as much as Charles Alma Baker and William Kellie Smith. Once associates and friends, they became business rivals.

Born and raised in Otago, New Zealand, Baker was a surveyor who came to Perak in 1890. He acquired various mining concessions during his attachment to the government but landed in trouble when complaints concerning the inaccuracy of his surveys gave rise to an inquiry in 1897. Although his contract was terminated by the end of the year, Baker had already made his fortune as a miner. His most profitable mine was Gunung Lano, which the Chew brothers – Chew Boon San and Chew Boon Juan – worked on.16 With the income obtained, Baker ventured into rubber planting – the mainstay of his businesses in Malaya.

The tomb of Charles Alma Baker.

His lavish lifestyle was said to surpass that of the colonial elite – his grand bungalow along Changkat Road had a “private grandstand” with a fine view of the race course; one set to challenge the splendour of the district magistrate’s residence.17 He retired to New Zealand in 1923 but returned to Malaya in 1940. With war clouds moving over Malaya, Baker donated $30,000 for the purchase of six aircrafts for the RAF, thereby becoming the largest private donor to the Malayan War Fund.18 He passed away the following year and was interred in the Anglican cemetery in Batu Gajah, which became known as “God’s Little Acre” during the Malayan Emergency.

Smith, on the other hand, was not as fortunate as Baker. For one thing, he struggled in his numerous ventures, from plantations to mining and patchouli distilling. An engineer from Scotland, Smith partnered with Baker in survey work and road construction in southern Perak before joining Mackie, a contractor in building a cart road from Batu Gajah to Gopeng in 1894.

He later obtained a land concession, known as “Kellas Estate”, to grow coffee and rubber, and married Agnes, an heiress of the Liverpool Cotton Manuf actur i ng Company who was to inherit $300,000 in January 1906. Assured of her i n h e r i t a n c e , he borrowed extensively – from a loan to develop Kellas (used instead to renovate their bungalow), to the construction expenses of a distillery, purchase of sawmill machinery and the import of 200 Indian coolies to construct “Kellas Mansion”.19 Little did Smith expect that her inheritance would only come through in 1908, which left him with no choice but to sell Kellas Estate to Harrisons & Crossfield in 1906 to keep up with his loans.

God's Little Acre.

As the estate was incorporated as Kinta Kellas Ltd with Smith as managing director, he formed Klian Kellas Ltd in 1911 and tried his luck in mining – another doomed venture. Yet Smith was determined to finish the construction of “Kellas Mansion” when Agnes’s inheritance finally came through. Styled after the British Raj palaces of India, the mansion was built on a hill, facing a lake. Within its Moorish architecture was a six-story tower block for a lift shaft, a flat roof featuring an outdoor tennis court and a wine cellar on the lowest floor that could hold 3,000 bottles of wine. Its grandeur was said to make Baker’s house look shabby.20 Unfortunately, Smith did not live to complete it – having returned to Europe in 1926, he died of pneumonia in Lisbon. His family never returned to Malaya and this abandoned structure became known as “Kellie’s Castle”.

Among Batu Gajah’s leading Chinese was Shak Yen Fuk, a miner and member of the Sanitary Board who also became a member of the Chinese Advisory Board.21 Interestingly, the Ho clan formed the bulk of Batu Gajah’s prominent Chinese. Ho Yuk Phooi, for instance, was a clerk with the land office before venturing into planting and mining. He founded Yuk Kwan School together with Khi Nin and was appointed a Visiting Justice in 1930 and a member of the Rubber Licensing Board of Kinta in 1935.22

Ho Pak Leng was another figure who rose to prominence through mining and rubber. Once chief Chinese interpreter of Kinta’s magistrates court, he became a member of the Sanitary Board.23 Together with contemporaries like Foo Choo Choon and Cheah Cheng Lim, he rendered active assistance to the Anti-Opium Movement in Perak24. His second daughter, Ho Yoke Lan, married Leong Yew Koh, a lawyer who was to be a prominent MCA figure and the first Governor of Malacca.25

Similarly, Batu Gajah saw the rise of well-known Malays, mainly Megat Hussein and Haji Abdul Hamid. Megat Hussein was an entrepreneur and rubber planter who donated land to the Batu Gajah Mosque and various madrasahs. Hamid, on the other hand, was the headmaster of the Malay Schools of Batu Gajah and Pusing, whose literary works consisted of religious tracts, and doctrinal and grammatical literature followed by a Malay- Arab dictionary.

Kerani Ahmad is another noteworthy, having started his career as a government clerk before venturing into mining. He was bestowed with the title “Datoh Indera Wangsa” and during the Malayan Emergency, he opened his house as the headquarters of the Home Guards for Batu Gajah.26

Rise of Ipoh and Decline of Batu Gajah

Once the backwater of Kinta, Ipoh had become the best laid-out and most sanitary town in the Federated Malay States (F.M.S.) by 1910. From its own land office, court houses, fire station and hospital to the opening of its New Town with the finest market and abattoirs in the F.M.S., and cinematograph theatres, Ipoh’s gradual emergence saw it soon outshining Batu Gajah. This was evident when Ipoh was chosen as the new headquarters for the unified Sanitary Boards of Kinta North and South instead of Batu Gajah. The completion of the Ipoh-Tronoh line in 1909 also made Ipoh the “Railway Capital” of Kinta since it was now more accessible compared to Batu Gajah27. Inevitably, Ipoh was the new commercial hub by the turn of the century.

Not only did the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Perak Mining and Planting Association found their new homes in Ipoh; most miners and businessmen around Kinta also started to own properties in Ipoh for the sake of business.

Nevertheless, official matters still had to be resolved in Batu Gajah. Such inconvenience led the mercantile community to petition Sir John Anderson, the High Commissioner, in October 1909 to have the district headquarters stationed in Ipoh since most public meetings had shifted to the Ipoh Club and not the Changkat.

Government response, however, remained lukewarm. Since the removal of the district officer from the Changkat would render Batu Gajah obsolete, the government replied that the “inconvenience complained of was insufficient to justify the removal of the headquarters since the distance between Batu Gajah and Ipoh was only 9 miles and that they were connected by railway, as well as telegraph and telephone”.28 However, this was soon not to be.

The District Hospital.

By the 1920s, Ipoh was already an important metropolitan centre with a revenue comparable to that of KL; the former having collected $818,816 in 1924 versus the latter’s $871,609. Moreover, Ipoh administered to a population of over 100,000 in led to further migration to the city. The gradual transfer of Batu Gajah’s administrative capacities to Ipoh and the centralisation of power in KL left Batu Gajah to play a minor role in Kinta’s development, although it remains the capital of Kinta district to this very day.

The demise of tin mining as a lucrative industry in the 1980s further saw a decline in Batu Gajah’s population. In 2010 Batu Gajah had a population of 6,788 compared to 8,234 in 2000 30 and 10,143 upon Independence in 1957.31 While job creation is essential to prevent further exodus, the promotion of its rich history via the Batu Gajah Heritage Trail32 has very much “awakened” the town today. Kellie’s Castle, for instance, has also since become one of Batu Gajah’s featured spots. Given Batu Gajah’s potential in heritage tourism, coupled with its light manufacturing industry, a new paradigm for this once-bustling town awaits.

1 Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, “Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development”, Perak Academy, 2005, pp. 112-113.
2 S. Durai Raja Singam, “Malayan Place Names: From Port Weld to Kuantan”, Singapore, Third Edition, 1957, pp.87-88.
3 Speech on History of Batu Gajah by Dr Ho Tak Ming, Ipoh World, http:// db.ipohworld.org/view/id/2936 , accessed on 31st May 2018.
4 Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, “Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development”, Perak Academy, 2005, pp. 112-113.
5 E.C. Hicks, “History of English Schools in Perak: The Anglo-Chinese School, Sitiawan”, The Perak Library, Ipoh, 1958, pp.33-34.
6 Lim Heng Kow, “The Evolution of the Urban System in Malaya”, Penerbitan University of Malaya, 1978, pp.58-59.
7 Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, “Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development”, Perak Academy, 2005, p.115.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid, p.117.
11 Ho Tak Ming, ‘Generations: The Story of Batu Gajah’, Perak Academy, Second Edition, 2005, p.17.
12 Ibid, p.115.
13 Dr Neil Khor, Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur, ‘The Towns of Malaya: An Illustrated urban history of the Peninsula up to 1957’, Editions Didier Millet Ptd Ltd, Singapore, 2017, pp.92-93.
14 Fr. P. Decriox, ‘History of the Church and Churches in Malaysia and Singapore, 1511-2000’, Diocese of Penang, 2005, p. 89.
15 The percentages of death (mostly from beri-beri) in the Ipoh Hospital was 20.68% and in Gopeng, 19.73% as compared to Batu Gajah’s 13.93% (Ho 2009: 566-567).
16 Ho Tak Ming, ‘Generations: The Story of Batu Gajah’, Perak Academy, Second Edition, 2005, pp. 55-66.
17 Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, ‘Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development’, Perak Academy, 2005, p.120.
18 Ho Tak Ming, ‘Generations: The Story of Batu Gajah’, Perak Academy, Second Edition, 2005, p.66.
19 Ibid, p.70-71.
20 Ibid, pp.94-95.
21 Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, ‘Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development’, Perak Academy, 2005, p.121.
22 ‘Untitled’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 7 March 1935, p.2.
23 ‘Untitled’, Malaya Tribune, 6 June 1918, p.5.
24 ‘Perak Anti-Opium Society’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 26 February 1909, p.4.
25 ‘Mr Leong Yew Koh’, Malaya Tribune, 5 November 1935, p.7.
26 Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, ‘Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development’, Perak Academy, 2005, pp.124-125.
27 Ho Tak Ming, ‘Ipoh: When Tin was King’, Perak Academy, 2009, pp. 292- 294, 343-344, 478.
28 Ibid, 279-289, 333-337.
29 Ibid, p.478, 494.
30 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2000 and 2010, Department of Statistics Malaysia.
31 Lim Heng Kow, ‘The Evolution of the Urban System in Malaya’, Penerbitan University of Malaya, 1978, p. 68.
32 Batu Gajah Heritage Trail, Malaysian Traveller, https://www.malaysiatraveller. com/batu-gajah.html, accessed on 7 June 2018.

Koay Su Lyn reads and writes of the past to make sense of the present. She is a research analyst in the History and Heritage Programme of Penang Institute.



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