"Gardening makes my heart bloom" -- mum

"The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat." -- Confucius

Monday, 28 March 2011

Taiping, Malaysia

Mountain range stretching from southern Thailand through peninsular Malaysia
After what seemed like a never-ever-ending winter and with the garden frozen solid, it was time to defrost in the steamy tropics of my childhood.  It took 24 hours to reach my mum's kitchen, just in time for our all important Chinese New Year's eve family dinner.  By midnight the sky was ablaze with flying rockets and fireworks - welcome Year of the Rabbit - may we all prosper and eat well!
Offerings to the gods
 
Taiping, my hometown in northern Malaysia, is a heritage town with a turbulent past.   In the 19th century, the richest alluvial tin found on the Malayan peninsula (indeed the world) were from an area in and around Taiping, in the state of Perak.  Chinese immigrants arrived in their thousands to make their fortunes and the descendents of many of these enterprising men and women still live here today.

Chinese miners hard at work in 19th century Klian Pauh (Taiping today)
A series of Chinese clan wars (Larut War) were fought to wrest control of these mines, aided by warring Malay chiefs who were embroiled in their own power struggles.   These led to the Pangkor Treaty  of 1874: acceptance of a British Residency in exchange for law and order, succession to the Perak sultanate was resolved, the leaders of both warring Chinese clans were  made Kapitan China and each clan allocated mining areas.  The tin mining area of Klian Pauh was renamed 'Taiping' (meaning 'everlasting peace' in Chinese).  A year later, the assassination of the pompous first British Resident of Perak led to a loss of state independence and to absolute British control. 
19th century Taiping
Isabella Bird, British adventurer and the first woman to be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, arrived in Taiping as a guest of the British Resident in February 1879.  In her book The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, she wrote:
"Taipeng is a thriving, increasing place, of over six thousand inhabitants, solely Chinese, with the exception of a small Kling population, which keeps small shops, lends money, drives gharries and bullock-carts, and washes clothes."
[Note: 'Klings' in this instance refers to the immigrants from the Coromandel coast]

Taiping 2011 - main road leading to the town centre, lakes, waterfall and Maxwell Hill
In 1880, a large part of the town burnt to the ground and was rebuilt by the British from local funds.  Taiping became one of the first planned towns in the country, with two main roads and a grid of many cross streets which have remained largely unchanged.

Building contractor, mine operator and philanthropist, Ng Boo Bee, was contracted to rebuild the town. Thankfully, a large number of these shophouses have survived despite some lack of thought to preserve the town's architectural heritage.  (Please, town planners, no more ugly multi-storey concrete blocks!)
British red phone box outside the clocktower,
both a reminder of Taiping's colonial past
Taiping became the British administrative centre as well as state capital until 1937. Then came the second World War...the town endured Japanese bombing and terrible atrocities were committed.  The Japanese made Taiping its military administrative centre for Perak and Sumatra.  Schools were turned into army barracks and torture chambers, and beheadings were a daily event in the town centre.

The British had left a legacy of wonderful colonial-style architecture, schools, hospitals, law courts, transport systems and even a fondness for the Queen.  In stark contrast, the locals were quick to expel the memory of Japanese occupation by destroying any reminder of that dark period in the town's history.  A war cemetery was created to honour those fallen heroes from the Commonwealth countries, a large number of whom were unnamed soldiers.

Some of the 19th century shophouses still standing today
Today, Taiping has transitioned from its important past to its 21st century place as a tourist destination.  With a population of about 200,000 the town is tranquil and idyllic, finally living up to its name of 'everlasting peace'.  It enjoys heritage status and is blessed with clean fresh air, a wonderful mountain backdrop (complete with waterfall),  abundant flora and fauna, a unique lake gardens and a largely untouched hill resort.  The town has an olde worlde ex-colonial charm and also boasts the first zoo and museum in the country.
Here's the other main road in town, it also leads to the lakes and hills
A local pastime is to gather at one corner of the wet market to bet on the rain.  Why?  Well, the town does 'enjoy' the highest rainfall in peninsular Malaysia, averaging 4000mm (13 ft) per annum, twice the country's average.  When it rains, life comes to a complete standstill - televisions are switched off and landline phone conversations cut short to avoid power surges or electrocution.
Storm clouds brewing in the early afternoon
Taiping thunderstorms must be experienced to be believed.......rain roaring off rooftops to the accompaniment of cracking thunder and blinding daggers of light.  Best advice: forget the umbrella for it will not keep you dry!  Seek shelter in a kopi tiam (coffee shop), sit back with a kopi-O (Malaysian roasted coffee) or a teh tarik (pulled tea) and enjoy the show.
Taiping Lake Gardens 2011
My favourite part of the town is the Lake Gardens, the first public park to be established by the British in Malaya in 1880.  This was created on 64 hectares of disused tin mining land gifted to the public by the last Kapitan China of Perak and Malaya, Chung Thye Phin.
Maxwell Hill (1250m), top left
There are ten lakes and ponds nestled between the town and the base of Maxwell Hill, the oldest mainland hill resort built by the British in 1884.  Access was by hiking, pony or sedan chair until WWII when POWs were forced to build a road for vehicles.  This is still the only road and Land Rover jeeps provide a thrilling half hour ride on steep hairpin bends through virgin rainforest.

Virtually untouched by developers, the hill and its surrounding areas have enjoyed a largely unspoilt ecosystem....until recently.  A RM65 million (approx GBP13.4 million) cable car project is now underway to promote tourism.  It will deliver 1,000 visitors per hour to the resort with the government promising "minimal adverse environmental impact".  
Tranquillity in the morning light
In 1933, George L. Peet wrote in A Journal in the Federal Capital:

I know of no more lovely sight in this country than the Taiping gardens when the rays of the early morning sun are shining obliquely through their clumps of bamboo, palms and isolated trees scattered on islands among the expanse of water. One receives in that glorious half hour an experience of light in foliage that is quite unobtainable in England.”

A sight to lift the spirits
Majestic century old rain trees (monkeypod)
Spectacular rain trees provide an incredible canopy of shade alongside a series of lakes.  These magnificent trees were planted in 1884 and have survived remarkably well.  Laden with giant birds nest ferns, fish ferns and orchids, their branches stretch majestically over the road to dip right into the mirror-like lake. 
Branches arching gracefully across the road and into the water
A serene spot to catch up on the news
On any given morning, before the sun rises over the hilltops, half the town (so it would seem) is out walking, running or participating in group exercises.  There's always a motley crowd doing aerobics by the lotus pond whilst, a bit further on, a smaller group gets together to 'catch mosquitoes' (tai chi) on an old roller-skating rink.

Locals taking their morning constitutional
Around a bend, the stillness of the morning is broken by the sound of Chinese strings floating across a lake. There, a group of martial arts enthusiasts can be seen wielding swords (sometimes red fans) in jaw-dropping beautifully synchronised movements.
Taiping Zoo lies behind this lush greenery
In the heart of all this tranquility lies the zoo and for me, there's nothing more delightful than listening to the excited monkey 'choir' rising to a fevered pitch during morning feeding time.  Macaque monkeys, gibbons and baboons wander freely through the gardens.  Occasionally, a Malayan water monitor lizard (among the largest in the world - adults over 2m and up to 25kg), can be seen swimming in the lakes or ambling on the grounds.
Epiphytes thriving on a rain tree
Ferns and orchids sharing this tree
Clingy Ficus Benjamina
This town has kept to a gentler pace of life and is a gem of an inheritance to those currently living there as well as those who have spread their wings a bit further afield.  Much can be done to preserve its heritage for future generations. 

Further reading:
(i)  A snapshot of Taiping's history on Journey Malaysia's  website:  http://www.journeymalaysia.com/MC_taiping.htm;
(ii) The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, a 19th century travel journal by Isabella Bird, an English explorer, writer and historian (references about Taiping are in chapters A Chapter on Perak up to Letter XIX):  http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bird/chersonese/chersonese.html;
(iii) An article in The Star newspaper about Taiping's architectural heritage:  http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2011/3/27/lifefocus/8265513&sec=lifefocus

Copyright Notice:  Apart from the two 19th century images on this post, all rights are reserved.

7 comments:

Matron said...

Stunning pictures! What a beautiful place. The photo of 19th century Taiping looks just like any English high street!

Bangchik and Kakdah said...

It rains everyday, that's the trademark of Taiping....

Dim Sum Gardener said...

Taiping always looked rather "washed out" but the air is incredibly fresh. Everything grows from cracks on the wall, roofs, pavements... The lake gardens is well worth a visit.

Jack Witson said...
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