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  • Ammar, R. & Izzaty, N.

Malaysian Ghost Towns Series - Pekan Papan

Accompanying music: Claude Debussy ~ Claire de Lune

Beyond the sleepy outskirts of Ipoh and Batu Gajah, lies a small town with an incredible history. Amidst its crumbling shophouses and empty streets, stories of past riches, war, secret societies, and even radioactive minerals intertwine with each other. This is the grand and illustrious story of Pekan Papan; the most intriguing ghost town in Perak.

An occupied shophouse sandwiched between crumbling buildings.

Reaching Papan requires one to use either one of the three entrances from the Ipoh-Lumut Highway, the main road that links many towns in Perak Tengah. For this trip, we took the entrance near Siputeh as we were coming from Lumut instead of Ipoh. This junction led us to Jalan Lahat.

Map of Papan from Ipoh (and our direction from Lumut).

Small junction ahead towards Jalan Lahat.

We went through a number of landmarks through this road towards Pekan Papan, the main one being another curiously-named town called 'Pusing'. During its heydays, Jalan Lahat was the main road that linked the many mining centers in Manjung and Perak Tengah districts to Ipoh. Since the completion of the Ipoh-Lumut Highway in 2008, traffic has generally bypassed Pusing and the surrounding areas (including Pekan Papan). A historically significant location in its own right, Pusing deserves its own travel log on another time.

Towards Pusing, with the Kledang range visible in the background.

The old town of Pusing.

Masjid Al-Rahman, frequented by the Indian-Muslim community in the vicinity.

Gurdwara Sahib Pusing.

After passing through the more populated areas, we reached a quiet junction where a single signboard appears on the left side of the road, with only one name displayed; 'Papan'. Taking the turn, we passed over a small river (Sungai Johan), followed by an old Chinese cemetery and a Chinese temple on the right. The road leads a bit further ahead until reaching a small cul-de-sac village; Kampung Papan.

Small junction towards Papan.

Old Chinese cemetery (an old, smaller Muslim cemetery is located at the far back).

Guan Yin Temple, believed to be constructed in 1847 and rebuilt in 1898.

Passing through old timber houses that dot the village, we found ourselves entering what seemed to be a picturesque abandoned town. Around a single road were rows of decaying century-old shophouses, some partially collapsed and others disappearing back into nature. At a single glance, it was hard to believe that this small pocket of buildings was once among the richest mining centers in Perak, rivaling even the likes of Ipoh, Batu Gajah, and Taiping.

Pekan Papan.

Old M.C.A. branch in Lot 35, alongside a row of shophouses.

Historical remnants and the town's current generation.

Located at the foothills of the Kledang Range, Pekan Papan sits just below Ulu Johan valley, a site once known to be very rich in tin. A single road (known as Main Road / Main Street) crosses straight through the town until disappearing into the hills ahead, towards Papan Recreational Forest. Despite mostly being derelict, Papan is not completely deserted, as its small number of elderly townsfolk still populate the area and its surrounding village.

Lot 77 with a shrine inside.

From Lumber Town to Bustling Mining Center (1700s - Late 1800s)

Papan is a Malay word that literally means 'plank', while its Cantonese name, 甲板 (Ka Pan) translates to 'first wood'. These names may have originated from the area's earliest known history as a small lumber town, probably as early as the 1700s. The Kledang hills that form the backdrop of Papan were once a well-known source of Chengal timber, attracting many Malay and Chinese timber workers from all over Perak. Along with the lumber industry, a number of mines were opened in the mid-1800s due to the discovery of promising alluvial tin deposits.

Kledang range, a group of hills that includes Gunung Hijau (543m), Gunung Kledang (800m) and Gunung Peninjau (1,059m).

Interestingly, Papan's course of history took a turn after the assassination of the 1st British Resident of Perak, J.W.W. Birch, in 1875. The resulting Perak War led to the banishment of Sultan Ismail to Skudai, Johor. Two years after his removal as the local ruler and owner of the mines in Papan, the British handed over the tax-collection duties and exclusive rights to work the tin mines to a Malay-Mandailing chief; Raja Asal. Originally from Sumatra, the Mandailings migrated to Peninsular Malaya to escape the Padri War in the 1820s. Raja Asal himself was involved in the Selangor Civil War (along with another Mandailing leader in Kuala Lumpur; Sutan Puasa) in the mid-1800s before moving to Perak.

The right to administer Papan was awarded to the Mandailings in honor of their assistance to the British in handling the local Malay uprising during the Perak War. By this time, Papan's popularity as an area rich in tin deposits was already starting to outshine its timber industry, even acknowledged by the British as being among the most productive tin mining areas in Perak.

Lot 27 at the junction towards the village area. A leisure center (Yee Lok Club) and a tea house used to occupy Lot 33 (far left end).

Two years later, Raja Asal passed away and the Mandailings' leadership was replaced by his nephew, Raja Billah. In the 1880s, there were already more than 13 mines and at least 500 workers in Papan. Under Raja Billah, the Mandailings worked together with Kar Yin Chew Hakka Chinese (led by Khew Ah Ngoh) in developing the mining industry in the town, leading to the opening of some of the biggest and deepest tin mines in Lembah Kinta at the time. Both Raja Billah and Khew Ah Ngoh were the first owners of mines that used steam pumps and advanced machineries in the area.

Found to be managing the community well, Raja Billah was appointed by the British to be the first penghulu (local chief) of Papan in 1882. He was also widely known at the time for owning the largest mine among Malays in Lembah Kinta. The Mandailing community went on to build a Mandailing village near the town center, complete with a large gathering house called 'Rumah Besar' and a mosque.

Rumah Besar (dubbed as 'Istana Papan'), a centerpiece building in the Mandailing village.

Decorated retaining wall in the Mandailing village.

Within a short period of time, Papan saw an explosion of activity on its doorsteps. With tin prices soaring in the 1880s, hundreds of miners migrated from all over Malaya (many from the declining mines of the Larut District) to work in the many newly opened mines. Responding to the influx of activities and businesses, more than 140 Straits Eclectic-styled brick shophouses were built around Main Street, surrounded by still more timber shops and houses.

Lot 73 (left) and 71 (right). The nearby Lot 69 (far right) housed a Hakka association;

Tsen Lung Fui Kuon.

By the end of the 19th century, Papan was flourishing. It had its own Cantonese theatre, school, dispensary, post office, football field, clubs, market, guesthouses, and even a tennis court. During this golden period, a vibrant community of many ethnicities bloomed, including Europeans, Hakka and Cantonese Chinese, Malays, Mandailings, Indians, Sikhs, Sumatranese, Minangs, Rawas, and Javanese. A British census in 1891 even revealed Papan as the 5th most populated town in Perak.

Papan old map (early 1990s) superimposed over modern day conditions.

(Ref: Site visit and Ho Thean Fook's God of the Earth)

Shophouses No. 82 - 92 near the market area (now replaced by community hall), said to have been occupied by among the richest families in Lembah Kinta. (pictured; Lot 82 - 92).

On the left is the entrance road towards the Mandailing settlement.

Aside from having a fully equipped police station and staff quarters, Papan surprisingly had its own prison (termed as 'gaol' during the colonial era). The building functioned both as a housing facility for convicts and also as a quarrying post, with prisoners periodically transported back and forth from another gaol in Batu Gajah. The prison was one of the seven British gaols in Malaya in the early 1990s.

Its also notable that the facility was built on a piece of land partly donated by a wealthy tin miner named Chung Thye Phin. A few years later, the same man would be known as the Kapitan China of Perak, who inevitably became the last of the Kapitans in Malaya.

Road between the brick shophouses (left) and timber buildings of 'new town' (right).

When not working in the quarries, miners would flock to the town to look for entertainment. Despite the small number of shophouses, there were abundant places for leisure, particularly at the Northern-end rows of shophouses. Brothels, shooting galleries, 'sing-song' bars, gambling dens, and opium sellers were available to accommodate the growing demand. An Anglo-Chinese club was also established at the further end of the road, a meeting space for the rich and well-connected.

Entrance to shophouse No. 43. The row was occupied by a variety of businesses during Papan's heydays.

Rise and Fall of Secret Societies (Late 1800s - 1930s)

Papan secured its position as an important tin producer in Lembah Kinta, evidenced by the construction of a new railway station nearby in the early 1900s. The station was part of the Ipoh-Tronoh Railway Line, connecting Papan directly to Ipoh and beyond. As transportation became more accessible, more opportunity was available for the development of the town and its resources. Unfortunately, the following tin-mining boom and mass migration of workers also imported intense conflicts between rivaling Chinese secret societies into the town, specifically between the Hakka-dominated Ghee Hin and the Cantonese-dominated Hai San. These were the same societies that triggered the Larut Wars (1861 to 1874), creating a path for the British to install a Residency system in Perak through the Pangkor Treaty.

Railway links in Perak in the early 1900s. The left track is the Ipoh - Tronoh Railway Line.

(Ref: Adapted from map)

The most notorious secret society conflict in Papan was in 1887, when a small brothel fight developed into a full town-wide riot. Later known as the 'Papan Riots', the incident was the biggest of its kind in the Kinta Valley. At the height of the clashes, it was said that a total of 18,000 men from the two opposing sides were ready for an all-out war, possibly leading to another major unrest in Perak.

Remnants of brick walls and pillars beside Main Street.

As more members gathered in Papan, the violent fights among the secret society members threatened to spill over to other towns of Lembah Kinta, just over 10 years after the peace treaty in Pangkor. The possibility of further chaos prompted the British administration to crack down on the small town; bringing in armed Sikh policemen, suppressing the riots, and heavily punishing the instigators. A number of men were executed, while numerous others were sent to prison.

Later introduction of laws and control measures made the riots among the last major incident of the same nature in Perak, shrinking the influence of the secret societies in the mining industries from then on.

Shophouses taken over by a small forest on one side of Main Street.

Perhaps related in some way, the town had seen numerous fire incidents in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The packed timber buildings and lack of fire prevention measures (something common for such towns at the time) exposed Papan to both accidental fires and arson attacks. During its peak population of more than 2,400 people in 1901, progress was halted by a massive fire that engulfed the town and destroyed at least a third of the buildings there. Some oral traditions even describe the huge fire nearly destroying all of the buildings in the town, including a row of shophouses owned by Raja Billah.

Lot 20, the only remaining old shophouse of the two northern rows.

Numerous companies took concessionaires and brought more advanced machineries to extract tin from the rich soils of the surrounding valley, with some of the largest being Perak Tin Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd (around 1,000 acres), Johan Tin Dredging (756 acres), Tong Yow Kongsi, Kledang Tin Mining Company Ltd and Papan Tin Ltd. The mines were so active that one of them even had the honor of receiving the visit of the High Commissioner of Malaya and the Governor of Singapore.

Despite numerous challenges; such as equipment limitations, tin price fluctuations, and environmental issues (one such case is a deadly landslide in 1929, killing 24), Papan remained an active mining center for decades until slowing down during the tin restriction period in the mid-1930s. Many of the excavated mines transformed into large lakes that surround the Papan and the Ulu Johan Valley today.

Salvaged mining equipment parts, probably from a tin barge.

Corroded dredging bucket and rolls of cables around Papan's village houses.

Wars and Guerillas (Early 1900s - 1960)

Papan was a significant political ground in Perak. Dr. Sun Yat Sen himself, the first president of The Republic of China, is believed to have hosted meetings in the town's Anglo-Chinese Club during his stay in Malaya in the early 1900s. It was in towns like Papan that he and his followers visited and garnered crucial grassroots support among the Malayan Nanyang (South-East Asian) Chinese for his 1911 Revolution in China. In spite of the town's recession from the fall of tin prices in the 1930s, Papan's restless streets still had a long way to go before losing steam.

Remnants of Lot 26, near the present-day basketball court.

The Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 and ensuing bombings of Ipoh made Papan a shelter for many refugees fleeing from the main front of the war. Around this time, the Malayan Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) was formed, originally made up of a small number of Malayan Communist Party (MCP) members trained by the British to become guerilla resistance fighters against the Japanese army.

Under the influence of the MCP, the guerilla army of MPAJA managed to attract membership, support, and donations from a great number of Chinese communities sympathetic to its cause against Japan, many of whom were desperate to escape or fight back the prejudiced violent treatment by the Japanese army. Its earliest and most formidable regiment was founded in Perak, with its 'Papan Patrol' headquarters located in the jungles behind the town. It was then that Papan grew its reputation as a 'black area' under the Japanese occupation and later the British colonial administration.

Abandoned car parked in front of Lot 45.

Of the many MPAJA sympathizers, the most well-known is arguably the Kathigasus. Both Dr. Abdon Clement Kathigasu, a second-generation Sri Lankan doctor, and his wife, Sybil Medan Kathigasu, a Eurasian nurse, left their clinic in Ipoh during the Japanese attacks. With Dr. Abdon injured, they both decided to settle in Papan and set up their clinic near the town center. Locals grew to like them due to their helpfulness and generosity in giving free medical treatment to the poor. Sybil, who was fluent in Cantonese, worked both as a nurse at the clinic and a midwife for the townsfolk.

Eventually, Ho Thean Fook (an ex-teacher from Papan, turned non-communist guerilla) was asked to get help from Sybil on behalf of the nearby MPAJA fighters. Despising the Japanese invading forces herself, Sybil ended up playing an integral part in assisting the fighters during the resistance. Aside from clandestinely providing medical aid to the soldiers, she also collected and channeled strategic information received from her shortwave radio (which was illegal during the Japanese occupation) to the guerillas.

Lot 74, site of the famous Kathigasu clinic, now a museum.

Due to this role, the Japanese army eventually caught up to her activities, and the Kathigasus were arrested in 1943. Despite the horrible interrogation and torture that the family endured both at the hands of the army and later the notorious Kampeitai (Japanese secret police), the Kathigasus did not reveal any information about the jungle fighters. Sybil was sent to the Batu Gajah Prison, while her husband was imprisoned in Taiping, both ultimately released in 1945 by the British after the end of the war.

For her brave actions, she was awarded the George Medal by the British, the most prestigious award for non-military British citizens. She died six months later due to the wounds inflicted during her time in prison.

Entrance to the Kathigasu museum with copies of newspaper clippings during the war.

Dr. Abdon, who received the M.B.E. award for his contributions, was further involved in the Pejara Taiping 'Ipoh Poison' trial several years later. The peculiar case involved illegal human experimentation and fatal poisoning from the use of the poisonous Ipoh tree sap extract. Dr. Abdon, who was serving as an assistant Prison doctor (while being an inmate himself), helped to testify as a witness, leading to an official admission and life imprisonment of a number of Japanese officers in 1947. Their memories and contributions are preserved through a memorial museum in their original shophouse clinic in Lot 74, just beside SJKC Papan.

Tree roots and a broken concrete pillar, Lot 26.

Following the 1942 massacre of communist leaders in Batu Caves, MCP was left with a massive leadership vacuum. The chance was taken by Chin Peng, the young de facto leader of the Perak MCP, to take the reigns. Despite MPAJA being disbanded after the Japanese surrender in 1945, MCP remained active deep within the Malayan jungles, this time targeting the colonial government instead. Utilizing funds, weapons and training from the British during the Japanese resistance period, the MCP created the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) in 1948, absorbing many communist members from MPAJA to continue on fighting. Again, the Kledang Range and Papan's jungles were used as hideouts for militant forces.

Lot 22 (far left), the only occupied shophouse in this row. Lot 28 (far right), has been completely overgrown with large trees.

The following years saw Peninsular Malaya falling into a long period of bitter racial conflicts, mostly driven by friction between ideologies, festering grudges from the Japanese occupation period, and the political ambitions of the MCP. Papan's jungles were among the infamous sources of guerillas involved in numerous violent attacks on civilians and police forces around Perak. Similar to the years before, the Ming Yuen (undercover MCP supporters) continued to assist the fighters through fringe villages like Papan and Pusing.

Windows covered by roots, Lot 26.

In response, the controversial Brigg's Plan was introduced by the British Military Administration (BMA) in 1948, the same year as the creation of MNLA. The country-wide plan was designed chiefly to cut off MCP from their support channels beyond the jungles. Along with this came the declaration of the Malayan Emergency.

Restructured as a 'New Village' or 'Kampung Baru', Papan was one of 158 kampungs in Perak put under close government watch, with its perimeters surrounded by barbed fences and resident movement strictly controlled. The combination of such measures and political developments in China slowly eroded MCP's effectiveness in the years ahead, leading to their loss of support and reduction of militant strength. The restrictions on most of these villages across the country remained for 12 long years, until the end of the Malayan Emergency in 1960.

Papan's jungles was declared safe again after years of guerilla activity.

Tin mining continued to be conducted at a slower pace in Papan after the war ended, both through large-scale machineries and simple 'rat hole' mining. Major mining plans was organized in 1977, resulting in 60 households being moved from Kampung Papan to the nearby Kampung Papan Baru. The operations did not last long enough, as the worldwide tin crash eight years later gave the final blow to the town's industry, triggering the final exodus of miners from Papan. Until today, remnants of tin dredging parts can still be found scattered around the village nearby.

One of the numerous tin mining lakes in Papan

(dilapidated basketball court in the foreground).

Radiation Scare (1982 - 2011)

Nearly two decades after escaping the shadow of militants and war, the spotlight was once again back on Papan. In 1979, a rare-earth production company, Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE), was incorporated to conduct operations in Bukit Merah, Perak. The company was a joint venture between the Japanese giant, Mitsubishi Chemical Ltd, and several local entities, including B.E.H. Minerals, Tabung Haji, and a number of Bumiputera companies. ARE was in the business of extracting monazite from tin tailings (amang), which was then refined to produce yttrium, a rare-earth mineral. The final product would then be sold off for use in high technology industries and products. This process (termed 'cracking') of obtaining yttrium, however, produces thorium hydroxide, a radioactive metal byproduct. Early plans to store this waste product around the small town of Parit were scrapped due to complaints from surrounding residents. This led the company to construct its long-term radioactive waste dump at an alternative government-selected site; Papan.

About one kilometer from the town center, surrounded by hills, farms, and fish ponds, three concrete trenches were discreetly constructed. Before waste transportation even started, the site was discovered by Papan's residents, and widespread uproar ensued, leading to the first anti-nuclear protest in Malaysia's history.

The proposed Papan dump site located one kilometer ahead, near villagers' farms, fish ponds and water source.

Residents started off by staging a 200-strong human blockage on the road leading to the site. In time, demonstrations against the dumpsite plans swelled to 3,000 residents, strengthened by more residents from Pusing and Lahat. By then, villagers from Kampung Baru Bukit Merah residing near the ARE refinery plant also joined in, with complaints of smoke and terrible smell coming from the factory. Allegations of increased cases of cancer (leukemia), birth defects, and other medical issues due to the proximity of radioactive material storage to villages area spread like wildfire. It was understood that the government was planning to keep the waste for possible nuclear power generation in the future, thus authorizing the long-term storage of thorium in Perak.

Multiple NGOs and international specialists got involved to increase pressure on the government to stop the company from continuing work. Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) produced radiation readings up to 88 times more than the international standards on public radiation exposure in a lake near the plant, while United Nations representatives visited Papan and declared the trenches unsafe for thorium storage.

Lot 53, Tong Onn Association, one of the few well-maintained shophouses in Papan.

At the height of protests, 10,000 people staged a march in Bukit Merah to demand ARE to stop work. Clashes in the following week led to the involvement of Federal Reserve Unit (FRU), injuries and arrests. A number of leading figures were further detained under Internal Security Act (ISA), while court cases between residents and ARE commenced. Public pressure (both national and international) resulted not only in the cancellation of Papan waste storage plans in 1985, but the ceasing of ARE operations altogether in their Bukit Merah plant in 1992. In the same year, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) was established, ensuring that the government has a specific body to oversee operations related to radioactive material in Malaysia.

A new Long Term Storage Facility (LTSF) was chosen in the Kledang Range, 3km from the proposed site in Papan. Between 2003 - 2005, Mitsubishi was reported to have spent more than RM300 million in cleaning up their stocks and factory, moving 85,000 barrels of radioactive material to the new government-owned dumpsite. At the time, it was the largest and most expensive rare earth decommissioning and decontamination project in the world. Currently, the dumpsite has been upgraded and the waste is entombed in the recently built Engineered Cells EC1 & EC2, with both expected to be controlled and monitored for at least another 300 years.

Map of cancelled dumpsite, new permanent dumpsite and ARE plant

(Ref: Adapted from Aliran and The Star report).

Returning to slumber

The radiation fiasco caused quite a stir for the small town, launching its name into the press across the country for a brief moment in its long history. As the issue died down, Papan's streets fell back into quiet seclusion. Journalist visits in 2017 & 2018 found only 150 kampung houses left around Papan, and less than 20 of its shophouses still being occupied. With its younger generation leaving for better work prospects elsewhere, the once-bustling center of activity transformed into a quiet 'hometown', populated mostly by the elderly, and far from the busy roads and industries of the Kinta Valley.

Yap See Mansion, once the residence of a wealthy tin miner & estate owner.

Going through Main Street today, its evident that many of its past buildings had already been lost through the passage of time, including the Cantonese theatre, gaol (ceased operations in 1925), railway station (decommissioned during WWII), post office and police station. Some areas once occupied by shophouses were replaced by a school (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina Papan) and a basketball court, while a multi-purpose hall was built on the old market site. A number of occupied shophouses are used for small businesses, such as a sundry shop, coffee shop, and associations' office, while others were retrofitted into private homes.