by Karen Loh
An hour’s drive north from Kuala Lumpur on the North-South Expressway lies the town of Kalumpang. Situated in Hulu Selangor near Tanjung Malim, not many have heard of this small town much less its location. Founded by a tin miner, Kalumpang was unknown until the early 1900s and much of its development was due to the perseverance of one man – Cheong Ah Peng.
Hailing from Guangdong, China, Cheong Ah Peng @ Chong Mun Peng or Cheong Hoong made his way to Malaya sometime around 1895 in search of tin. Cheong was fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. He eventually learnt to speak Malay and a bit of English whilst living in Malaya. It is unclear how many places Cheong looked for tin in the early days but he eventually struck big in a hill at Hulu Selangor. The mine was in the hill itself and miners had to walk up the hill every morning to enter the mine.
As more tin was mined from this hill generating much profit, Cheong built a row of nine double-story shophouses in Kalumpang (and similarly in Tanjung Malim), a Chinese temple close by, and a school for boys with male teachers. Later as the town of Kalumpang grew, more shophouses and houses were built together with a marketplace, a bus station, and a police station. Cheong even managed to secure five acres of land for a Chinese cemetery from the government. He became very rich, had two wives and three sons. He was recognised for his achievements by the Sultan of Selangor, who presented him with a walking stick and with this walking stick, the story goes that he would reprimand youths who dared to misbehave in his town. In 1924, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor also wrote a letter of commendation recognising Cheong as a progressive miner in Hulu Selangor. Such were his contributions that a road was named after him in Tanjung Malim.
A Chinese newspaper; Malayan Thung Pau Daily News, published an article in October 1975 about Cheong Ah Peng, the town he built, and the tin miners who worked and settled there from early 1900. Here are excerpts from some of the tin miners’ stories:
A “My name is Yap. I came to Malaya when I was 14 years old. I came to work for Cheong Pak (uncle) who had a very big tin mine in the hill. I had to walk for 9 hours to reach the mine. The hilltop is a very lovely place to be on as the scenery is beautiful. From the top, one can even see the Straits of Melaka. The air is very cold around the hill. Cheong Pak was a very smart and nice man. Even though we were not allowed to take a day off from work, we had a big feast every time there was a festival. We culled chickens and ducks for the feasts and celebrated the festivals together. Some of the workers had to stay up in the hill to guard the mines. Cheong Pak built a long house for us to live in. Our days consisted of daily shifts of 4 hours per shift and we were paid every half year. During each payday, we used some of the money to gamble and Cheong Pak would join us too.
Besides working in the mines, we also grew vegetables during our free time. There were wild animals up in the hills. We encountered a black bear once and fortunately, no one was harmed. In 1926, the Government ordered the mine to be closed due to a very heavy thunderstorm that resulted in a severe landslide. It was rumoured that at least 10 men drowned but the workers were not from our mine. In fact, the people in our village were all very healthy and those who got sick were likely to have visited a prostitute den! Though we appealed to the Government not to close the mine as it still had tin deposits, we were still ordered to close it.”
B “I am Wong and 70 years old this year. I came to Malaya when I was 17 years old to look for work. My first job here was to dig out tin ore from the drains. The early miners believed that there were white crocodiles around the village but I have only ever caught one. With the help of 14 youths, we managed to trap the crocodile under a wooden bridge when the water was shallow. The crocodile was not white but grey in colour like any ordinary crocodile; it was 8 feet (2.4m) long and weighed over 100 kati (60 kg). Catching crocodiles seemed to be a favourite hobby for the people. Some even used dead chickens to lure the crocodiles though they often succeeded in catching only the smaller crocodiles weighing 10 kati (6 kg). We were paid every half year and I was the perfect gentleman as I did not go for the ‘dirty stuff’ (vices). With the money I saved, I got married and had eight children: 4 boys and 4 girls. Unfortunately, my wife passed away a few months ago.”
C “I am Siew and I remember that Cheong Pak was the person who lobbied for Chinese translation to be printed on railway tickets for our convenience, as most of us did not read English. Cheong Pak’s nickname was Sun Tai Wong (Mountain King). I was employed by Cheong Pak to guard and look after his buses. Cheong Pak owned a few buses and each bus could sit 23 passengers. Those days, a bus could travel 18 miles (29 km) with one gallon of petrol. Once there was a Japanese man who opened a photograph shop in Kalumpang. He turned out to be a spy. My second job with Cheong Pak was as a storekeeper in his mine. Everybody feared Cheong Pak, including Government officers as he was a fierce person and kept a revolver with him, which was a present from the Sultan at that time. Today, I believe that one of his daughters-in-law is living in Petaling Jaya and two of his grandsons, Cheong Loong Seng and Cheong Chap Ching are in Kuala Lumpur.
Today, there is only a small road in Kalumpang with 30 shophouses remaining and a population of about 3000 people. The original row of nine shophouses built by Cheong Pak was destroyed in a fire 50 years ago. The Cheong Fong Coffee Shop has a photograph of Cheong Pak with his friends. In this photograph, Cheong Pak is dressed in white, standing next to a car with his friends. It is believed that one of the people in the picture is Shuen Choong Sun (great man of China also known as Dr. Sun Yat Sen).”
D Leow, 74 years old. “I came to Kalumpang when I was 14 years old. When I arrived, Cheong Pak was already 50-60 years old. I remember my life with him around. He built two rows of houses at the Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh trunk road. When the houses were completed, many of the residents there rented the houses from him to start new businesses in the town. He was called Penghulu of Kalumpang.
Cheong Pak was a very nice and generous man. He did everything he could to keep us happy. He even attended court sessions with us. We adored him. Wherever he went, he would carry his walking stick, which was given to him by the Sultan. He built the (Chinese) temple in Kalumpang, which Dr. Sun Yet Sen visited and stayed a few nights while in Malaya. The temple has since been renovated three times. Cheong Pak donated a lot of money for the renovation. There is a plaque in the temple, which list him as a major donor. In 1907, Cheong Pak received $6000 from the Government for a major renovation. An important deity in this temple is the Malay Datuk statue, which stands 3 feet (0.91 m) tall. Nobody knows his actual name but it was believed that he was Cheong Pak’s good friend. When he died, Cheong Pak commissioned a statue in his form to remember him.”
Cheong decided to return to China after a few unfortunate incidents, taking his first wife with him. Maybe it was bad luck, cruel fate or maybe it was just an accident when a big fire burnt down his shophouses and much of the town. A severe thunderstorm also caused his mine to flood and collapse. He never recovered from these losses. His daughter-in-law, Choo Yuen Heng shares her story:
I married into the Cheong family when I was 20 years old. I lived with my husband, Cheong Po Seng in Kalumpang before moving to Ipoh. My father-in-law was a very nice, humble and generous man who was liked by all the people in Kalumpang. Even though he could only speak a few words of English, he managed to get along with government people and during each festive season, he gifted them food and wine. Those who worked with him became very rich but my father-in-law was unfortunate. First, his tin mine collapsed due to a big flood and then his shophouses burnt down. To rebuild the houses, he took a loan from a bank but as he could not repay the loan, he ended up selling his shophouses in Tanjung Malim. When his businesses failed, he returned to China leaving his second wife and myself behind in Malaya. My husband died shortly after the war (WWII). My father-in-law died at the age of 83. My son never knew his grandfather. We were only informed of Cheong Pak’s death by some sources in China.
Although Cheong Ah Peng returned to China, his descendants here in Malaysia and the people of Kalumpang today remember Cheong’s legacy as the tin-miner who developed the town, built a famous temple, a school, a cemetery, created jobs, and was much revered by the people of Kalumpang.