Maxwell Hill and Her People

Low Pey Sien

“What are the faces of Maxwell Hill? What defines the relationships of the surrounding communities’ with Maxwell Hill? How far does the significance of Maxwell Hill extend? Has the meaning of Maxwell Hill changed throughout the years?”

These questions formed the basis of my work for the programme.

Maxwell Hill is a prominent backdrop to Taiping. When we live in a place for a long time, we often become unseeing. We know the hill is there, but sometimes we forget its existence unless we interact with it. In my work, I explored what the hill means to the local communities who live in surrounding areas, as well as discover whether its meaning and role had shifted for them over time.

Through writings of the past, and oral history of the present, I learnt different memories of the place. I also explored different vantage points; Maxwell Hill as seen from its southeast, west, and north sides. Through Taiping’s historic timeline, different positions and different viewpoints I tried to indicate the communities’ changing relationships with the Hill. As I put these images together, I hope I have successfully conjured a fuller image of Maxwell Hill, or at least provided a space for reflection of the questions I began with.

Migrant communities — In early 1900s, migrants were brought in from India to work in the plantations and remained segregated under the British’s divide-and-rule. Around Sg Jebong Kanan, there are several Indian temples which originated from that time. Spirituality and faith have always been important pillars for these Indian community who were far from their homeland.

Rajakumar a/l Appadurai is a devoted Hindu. Now in his 50s, he works at an oil palm estate near Kg Baru Batu Matang. He has just moved into a newly-built house with his family. Before, he was living in the estate’s labour line house. He witnessed the changed of commercial crops in the estate, “I used to help my parents with collecting rubber before going to school”, said Rajakumar.

Nearby is Simpang Halt where the oldest train track in Malaya ran, once connecting Taiping and Port Weld. Built in 1885, the train was used to transport Taiping’s tin from the town to the port. Balan a/l Govindasamy 4th generation Taiping resident told me that he used to live with his grandfather near the temple at Simpang Halt. His great-grandfather came from India to build the train tracks here. All 4 generations of his family have worked with the railways, shaping this important infrastructure for the district.

Mangrove communities — It was a hot afternoon when we drove to Jalan Titi Kertang. This small road runs beside Sungai Larut and leads to a historic passenger port, Teluk Kertang. I have been here once with Goh Hoe Chiew who owns a charcoal kiln opposite the riverbank earlier in November.

This time, we met boat-maker and repairer Lim Inn How, a tanned and muscular man in his late 30s. He apprenticed with his late father, Ah Tee after completing school. According to Inn How, his late father was a wanderer learning the trade on his own after deciding to settle down here. It is tough work, as it “depends on the river tide”. Sometimes he works in the middle of the night when the water level is high enough to moor the boat into his workshop. Made from timber sourced from local forests, these narrow boats are specially built for collecting mangrove wood used in charcoal making and underwater piling. Despite the high demand in Inn How’s workshop, the industry is declining.

Earlier, Goh told me that the mangrove trees are slow-growing. Protected as forest reserves, the timber supply is regulated and limited. With protection however, the mangroves are sustained and remain as an ideal habitat for fisheries, ensuring the livelihood of communities found here.

Town communities — “湖水洋洋 山色苍苍 地灵人杰 太平文物灌疏芳” – 华联校歌” vast lake, dark green hills, spiritual land grows exceptional talents, cultural heritage of Taiping flows” – Hwa Lian school song.

It is a surprising fact that the picturesque Taiping Lake Gardens was transformed from old tin mining land as any mining is quite destructive to the environment. Yet, more than a century later the Lake Gardens still remains an important place for people to engage with nature and the hills.

Liew Suet Fun who is a 4th generation Taiping resident recalls seeing vast nutrient-stripped white sands and tin dredges in Kamunting as she was growing up. Now most of these mining lands have been reclaimed as housing and commercial areas, with no evidence of its past.

Near Taiping aerodrome, I met Muniandy a/l Rangasamy a retired factory bus driver who finds solace in the mining lake view next to his 20-year-old house and where he had started planting edibles as an evening pastime. Law Heng Neng who was detained at the Kamunting detention centre in late 1980s also shared in his poetry that the glimpse of hill range from the walled compound provided a calming refuge in his repetitive day-to-day detention life.

The visual linkage to Bukit Larut and the unbroken mountain range has become the soul of Taiping. The gesture of looking up is a daily habit of life. A mere glance at the hills calms the weary mind. That same glance tells the townspeople of the weather. But it is also a reminder of the constant tension between development and preserving nature, that dilemma of existence every community faces.

Foothill communities — “Ayun pak pek pak pong Gulai asam pedas, Pakai baju tampung, Lenggang bagai duras, Duras buaya kampung, Hilir-hilir mudik, Mana kampung kita, Malik sana bukit!” – Old folksong of Pattani.

North of Bukit Larut about 20km from Taiping, we spoke to Mohd Azreen bin Hassan in a humble roadside warung on a clear chilly morning. A young man in his late thirties, he is a 4th generation Batu Kurau resident. His ancestors fled from Pattani to avoid the Siam-Pattani conflict in the 1880s. Azreen recently moved back from the city to take over his family’s fruit farm and paddy field, preferring “the rural pace of life”. Besides himself, his friends form the same village, Pak Ngah and Sabri had worked on Bukit Larut.

Azreen’s family has an orchard of 30-100 year-old durian trees. His face beamed with pride as he spoke about Batu Kurau durians, which to him are “the best in the region”. He attributed the quality of the durian to the mineral-rich soil of Bukit Larut. “On each mountain the durians taste different, and the durians here are exceptional”, he said confidently.

On the northeast side of Bukit Larut foothill lies Kampung Labu Kubong, another farming community with Indonesian lineage that has settled down here for generations. For such communities and for Azreen, they have an intimate, symbiotic relationship with the hill. What they do affects the hill and any disruption to the ecosystem on the hill affects their living environment and livelihood.

Maxwell Hill — “It is eight miles from the landing at Teluk Kartang to Taipeng, where the British Residency is. The road crosses uninteresting level country, but every jolt brings one nearer to the Hijan mountains, which rise picturesquely from the plain to a height of over three thousand feet.” — writing by Isabella Lucy Bird, The Golden Chersonese And The Way Thither (1883).

When I learnt that Maxwell Hill was a hill station exclusively for British government officials, I wondered what makes Maxwell Hill so special. My friend, Ameelia Rokhaza’ain shared with me pictures of hills at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh and said, “see one day is bright with sun and the other just foggy and gloomy”. The foggy one reminded me of my visit to the 6th mile of Bukit Larut. The misty forest and cold fresh air made me feel like I was in another world.

The hill was developed minimally, but well planned as a self-contained government residence with live-in worker quarters, vegetable farms, dairy farm, ponies for transport, and even a post office. Thoraraisa Thoraipandy a descendant of South Indian hill workers and who grew up on the hill shared that the British also planted Australian Gum Trees or Eucalyptus trees around each cottage bungalow for health benefits. Perhaps the British officials saw a home in Maxwell Hill, as they shaped the hill into a setting like home. So that in a colonised land, they could still keep their memories and lifestyle.

Where these British residences stood, copious rains brought down rich alluvial deposits from the hills to form fertile coast plains and deltas creating a land that became Taiping, a thriving community till today.

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