Victoria Bridge, Karai

by Hani Kamal

Victoria Bridge in Karai, Perak is one of the oldest bridges in Malaysia. It was built in 1897 and completed in 1900. The Victoria Bridge was built across the Perak River linking it to the rail line in Sungai Siput and Kuala Kangsar in the north. This is a single-track railway built to transport natural resources from the interior all the way to Singapore for export.

The Victoria Bridge today. Image credit: Hani Kamal

Karai – Coal Mining Town

Karai is located 9 kilometres from the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, and about 250 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur; it takes approximately 3 hours to reach. People are often confused with the location or name of the sleepy town of Karai where Victoria Bridge is located. The bridge is situated in both the Karai and Enggor towns. The British wanted to name the entire place Enggor, fashioned after Enggor Street in Singapore.  However, the village folks wanted to retain its name Karai. So, it became Victoria Bridge in Karai and the station is called Enggor Station.

The Enggor Station to Victoria Bridge. Image credit: Hani Kamal

In the 1890s, coal was first discovered by a Chinese planter Hok Hin Hoh while planting rubber trees on a leased plot of land. The discovery of coal in this sleepy town turned it into one of the busiest towns up north. Coal was in demand at that time for locomotives and other industrial usage.

During the prosperous period of coal mining between 1905 and 1930s, and with the completion of Victoria Bridge, several shop houses were built along the railway station road. These shops were used as wholesale rubber trade, sundry shop, eateries, pawnshop, liquor outlet, places to smoke opium and gambling dents. These pre-war shop houses remain until today but minus its once boisterous activities.

The Karai shoplots today. Image credit: Hani Kamal

When coal was first discovered in Karai, the concession was awarded to the Enggor Coal Syndicate Ltd. The Enggor mine ceased operation in 1928 when coal prices and demand went down. The low demand for coal and its low price was due to the discovery of newer technology utilizing petroleum.

Newspaper article announcing the closure of Enggor Coal Syndicate Ltd Company. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 19 July 1928, Page 9. https://tinyurl.com/2p93f9p6

Construction and Launch of the Bridge

Before the completion of the Victoria Bridge rail, pontoons were used to transport coal across the Perak River. Due to several adverse floods, most of the pontoons were washed away. These big floods expedited the administration to build a bridge high enough to avoid the overflowing river. The Victoria Bridge was constructed twelve meters from the surface of the Perak River. 

The overall length of the Victoria Bridge is 351 meters with each length of the beam measuring 305 meters. Its width is 3.6 meters wide. It is completely constructed with steel beams and six meters deep concrete foundation. There are 6 columns elevated 12 meters from the level of the river surface. The cost of construction was $325,000. Construction of Victoria Bridge commenced in November 1897 and the date of completion was recorded as March 1900. This bridge was fully functional for 102 years (1900-2002). The engineers from Railway Division were G.W. Fryer (Design Engineer) and C.R. Hanson (Resident Engineer), working under the supervision of Happlestone. The bridge is said to be similar to the “Bridge on the River Kwai” and Guillemard Bridge in Kelantan.

The Victoria Bridge was designed for a single-track carriage with 500 millimetres service lanes on both sides of the line. Both pedestrian and motorbikes/bicycles can use it to cross the river. These paths are still in use until today by people to cross the river.

The Victoria Bridge. Today tourists can walk in between the rails.The pedestrian crossings on both sides of the Victoria Bridge still functional till today to cross the river. Image credit: Hani Kamal

The Victoria Bridge was officially launched on 21 March 1900 by the late Sultan Idris Murshidul Azzam Shah (28th Sultan of Perak) at a ceremony which was also attended by Sir Frank Swettenham, the Resident-General for the Federated Malay States, and Sir John Pickersgill Rodger, the acting British Resident for Perak. Sir Frank Swettenham, in his speech during the opening of the bridge, regarded Victoria Bridge as the largest bridge in the East outside of India.  This bridge was named after Queen Victoria, the ruler of the British Empire at the time.

Official opening plaque

Today

Construction of the Victoria Bridge served the purpose of connecting this small town with other towns from Malaya and Singapore. However, when coal-mining activities discontinued, the town also loss its glory. The bridge ceased its function and it was only used to connect the two villages.

During the war, the Victoria Bridge was partly bombed by the British in order to delay the Japanese advancement from the north via Kelantan. After the war, the bridge was repaired and it functioned as usual. Added securities and barracks were built in lieu of local threats from the Malayan Communist Party.

Barracks were built to guard the Victoria Bridge during the period of Emergency. Two post guards were placed on each side of Victoria Bridge. 

By 2002, the Victoria Bridge railway track was abandoned for the new two-way rail track. Overgrowth and weeds ate into its surrounding and it was left unattended until in 2013 when the authorities cleared the area to rebuild it as a tourist attraction. By 2016, The Victoria Bridge was officially registered as a National Heritage under the Department of National Heritage Malaysia.

Sungai Perak Bike Trail to Kampung Raja Intan Suraya (25 km)

The RM2 million Living River Bike Trail Project from Chenderoh to Victoria Bridge was completed on Dec 6, 2020. The Sg Perak bike trail starts from the Victoria Bridge to Kampung Raja Intan Suraya. It was initiated by the state authority in order to maintain its beauty and cleanliness of the river and its villages. It covers 25 kilometres of cycling through fiercely independent old villages along the riverbank of the Perak River.  The starting point is from the Victoria Bridge itself.  Tourists can rent bicycles near the D’Village Resort opposite the Victoria Bridge.  The trail is surrounded by beautiful greens and you can catch people fishing on the side.  The roads are well tarred and highly conducive if you are looking for a “kampong ride”. You can almost imagine how hulubalangs who used to live in these villages jumping into river sampans at the call of das meriam* from the Kuala Kangsar Palace.   There are not many of such charming kampong surroundings left to tell their stories.

*Note:  Hulubalangs or soldiers of Sultans lived along the river banks of Sg Perak are known to be very loyal towards the monarch.  When hulubalangs are wanted at the palace in Kuala Kangsar, canon shots are made as a signal or call for their presence at the palace.  They would jumped into the boats (sampan) and row upstream towards the palace to report for duties. This was narrated by an ex hulubalang many years ago.  He lived in one of the villages and he retired as a silat (martial arts) master.

References

Haji Mior Haji Zawari. (2020). Karai: Teman dan Senibina. Akitek Suria, Ampang, Selangor.

Mohd Hasrol Haffiz Bin Aliasak, Mhd. Nor Bin Osman, Siti Rahayu Binti Zakaria, Mohd Farid Bin Sa’ad & Nur Lesya Firsya binti Johaimi Ling. Town of Karai : The only coal mining site in Perak and its contribution to the urban development. Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/9531628/Town_of_Karai_The_only_coal_mining_site_in_Perak_and_its_contribution_to_the_urban_development

SembangKuala. (2010, August 15). Victoria Bridge, Kuala Kangsar. https://sembangkuala.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/victoria-bridge-kuala-kangsar/

Victoria Bridge, Malaysia. (2021, October 15). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Victoria_Bridge,_Malaysia&action=history

Zahratulhayat Mat Arif. (2021, March 23). Living River Bike Trail along Sungai Perak now open. NST. https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2021/03/676228/living-river-bike-trail-along-sungai-perak-now-open

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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