Day 2 of the Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 2 of the Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

Day 2 of our Road Trip takes us to the Goa Charas Temple and the Sungai Lembing mines.


In the 1880’s the British regarded the East of Malaysia and its centre as Terra Incognito. European explorers had yet to hack their way through the impenetrable jungle, brave the crocodiles and tigers, or worse, the Savage Natives. The land was, as they said in reports when doing deals with dodgy Sultans over mining rights, “Unsurveyed.” This was of course twaddle. Tigers there were, crocodiles and jungle too, but somehow the Chinese and the Malays were scattered about the place minding their own business. And lucrative it was too. They were mining tin and ferrying fruits of the forest off to the markets. Not to mention getting hold of that interesting plasticky stuff that British undersea Telegraph cables needed by the millions of tons, Gutta Percha. It was a hard living to make, but a living it was!

But there was also trouble. And it was not always from the ravages of opium addiction, beri beri and dengue fever. There were land and business disputes among both the Chinese and the Malays. Malay’s from the kampungs were rather resentful at finding Chinese descending upon areas they traditionally considered their domain. And everyone was resentful of the Sultan or Headman who had sold their rights out from under them and declared their operations illegal, despite them having paid someone for them! Or despite their families having been on that land for a generation or two.

So bad did the disputes among the Chinese become that in Perak, they even warranted the name of a war: the Larut War! In fact there were two Larut Wars! A certain Ngah Ibraham and Captain Speedy pop up as characters worthy of a comic book series in the history of these fierce confrontations. More of them later when we visit Ngah Ibraham’s house.

By the 1880’s the Larut Wars might have been over, but none of the issues had really been resolved. The natives were still restless, despite the British imposing a supposedly civilising “protectorate” over Pahang. This was largely a protectorate of some possibly lucrative investments in the tin industry, rather than concern for the safety of a population chased off by a bitter dynastic dispute, not to mention the odd outburst of anti-Chinese activity up in the hills.

Not to worry because an astute Chinese businessman from Singapore, a certain Lim Assam, married his daughter to Sultan Ahmad Muatham Shah of Pahang, and received an eighty year lease on several thousand square kilometres of “unsurveyed” land that, unsurveyed or not, had been producing interesting amounts of tin. He did a deal with Mr Louis Den Dekker, who should have been leader of a Reggae Band, but instead was a mover and shaker who got together the Pahang Mining Company, Ltd. which with a bit of business hocus pocus, pulled in finance from London and became in 1887, The Pahang Corporation, Ltd.

This all fell within the brief of the British treaty with the Sultan. The mission statement was “to do business of a larger scale.” And the Sultan was to get ten per cent. And as you can imagine, ten per cent of something larger than the small scale open cast mining of the locals, who tended not to pay him anything unless he sent in tax collectors, or that is debt collectors with a fifty per cent rake off of anything they can retrieve, is a far better deal. The British, whatever one might think of them, did tend to pay up. So, you can get the idea of the sort of thing that was going on before the British imposed their complicated but transparent legal framework. It was easier to deal with them, than the collection of local traditions, allegiances, and promises that had one reaching for one’s kiris when one realised one had been cheated.

By the way, none of these sort of activity have stopped. Chinese are still being prosecuted for illegal mining. Debt collectors still make offers you cannot refuse. Loan sharks, big brothers, and unwritten arrangements that go sour, are the grist of local gossip. Throw in some ghosts and you get a typical Malay action movie.

The Pahang Corporation Ltd sounded like a good idea until the guys actually started to try bring industrial scale mining into the Sungai Lembing area. Then they had to recruit people who knew how to instigate such an operation and these proved rather difficult to find. As soon as a Superintendent of Operations was appointed, he went up river to take a look at the situation, and promptly resigned. Finally a motley crew of desperate Chinese and one suspects even more desperate Europeans, hacked and clawed their way into the side of the mountain and died in alarming numbers of fevers of all kinds, bad food, bad water, heat stroke, not to mention mining accidents that probably never got into any incident book or received much in the way of medical attention.

So unprofitable was it all, that the Sultan cancelled the contract in 1890, which must have sustained considerable legal fees, or guns were put to people’s heads, and clawed back a lot of the land. His guaranteed income obviously had not found its way into his bank. The company was up river, largely without a paddle, until 1905 when the company was refinanced and became the Pahang Consolidated Company, and a stern-wheeler steam boat was purchased and finally there was a means of getting supplies in and tin out in profitable quantities.

Some wag had termed the mine the Eldorado of the East and finally it proved to live up to the hype. The Lembing Mines developed into a little town with its own shops and currency and a "toney" sort of population. If you worked there you got the latest goods from Europe. You got good food. You had a school. There was plenty of incentives to put up with living in an isolated community surrounded by heavy security.

It all went to pot when the Japanese came and never really recovered its former glory after the war. Now, it is turning into an interesting historical preserve of a Chinese village and some pretty impressive tunnels. When we went, as you will see, they were being used as a rescue training exercise for early responders to tunnelling disasters.

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