Sunday Vibes

Unravelling Taiping's troubled past and time-honoured stories

FOR more than a century, travellers from near and far have been mesmerised by Taiping's mystical allure. The breathtaking beauty of the Lake Gardens has often been compared with the romantic Westlake of Hangzhou or the manicured gardens of Suzhou in China.

Taiping embraces and enfolds us into its magical world of serenity, giving weary minds and souls a much-needed respite. During the tumultuous revolutionary wars against the Manchus in China in the early 1900s, even Dr Sun Yat-Sen came to seek some solace and refuge here.

Besides providing shelter from the sun for generations, the overarching rain trees lining the lakeside have been an anchor of memory and marker of identity for Taiping as it grew over the century into a modern town today.

However, the peaceful scenery belies a violent past. If the century-old rain trees could speak, they'd tell of a bloody history that defined early Perak and Malaysia.


After the discovery of tin by the nobleman Long Jaafar in Larut in 1848, thousands of workers from China were brought in to Perak to work on its rich alluvial deposits. Many of these workers were members of secret societies, and the Ghee Hin and Hai San factions were dominant groups in Perak at that time.

Not long after, arguments flared up between the two factions over territorial and water rights, resulting in the devastating Larut Wars.

During my recent visit to his office, territory chief or Orang Besar Jajahan (OBJ) Datuk Seri Haji Wan Mohd Isa Haji Wan Mohd Razalli shared: "Unfortunately, different factions of the Perak sultanate were also involved in these wars. The Ghee Hin group was allied with Raja Abdullah while Hai San faction supported my great-great grandfather Ngah Ibrahim, who is the son of Long Jaafar, and he was also backed by Raja Ismail."

Following the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, Straits Settlements governor Sir Andrew Clarke installed Raja Abdullah as the sultan of Perak and anointed Chung Keng Kwee and Chin Ah Yam, leaders of the Hai San and Ghee Hin group, respectively, as Chinese kapitans.

In a symbolic move, the British also renamed the town of Larut to Taiping, which means "forever or great peace" in Chinese.


The Pangkor Treaty paved the way for British intervention in Malaya with the appointment of James W.W. Birch as the first resident of Perak. However, due to his unpopularity, Birch was assassinated by local Malay chief Datuk Maharaja Lela and his followers in Pasir Salak in 1875, leading to the ensuing Perak War.

After defeating the local rebels, the British hung Datuk Maharaja Lela and his accomplices, and both Raja Abdullah and Ngah Ibrahim were exiled to the Seychelles.

With a voice tinged with sadness, Wan Isa lamented: "After exiling Ngah Ibrahim, the British confiscated all his assets, including his two steamships and an entire herd of elephants. Do you know, elephants in those days are like Mercedes cars today!"


After the initial turbulence, Taiping lived up to its promise as a peaceful and vibrant town. It recovered with renewed vigour, driven by the booming tin mines and rapid population growth, which fuelled a massive expansion and development.

In the process, many new buildings and facilities were constructed, boasting a unique architectural landscape and adding a rich tapestry of life.

The first railway in Malaya was built to connect Taiping with Port Weld (Kuala Sepetang) to export tin. The Taiping Zoo, hospital, museum, Lake Gardens and country club are also among the 20 "firsts" in the Federated Malay States (FMS).


The Pangkor Treaty helped to heal the rift between Hai San and Ghee Hin factions.

Local historian Liew Suet Fun, a fifth-generation descendant of Kapitan Chin Ah Yim, whom I met through the course of my research for this story, shared: "After the treaty, both Chung Keng Kwee and Chin Ah Yim became good friends. Kapitan Chin even became the godfather of Kapitan Chung's son, Chung Thye Pin." Kapitan Chung named his favourite son after his beloved hometown.

Her smile wide, she continued: "The kapitans worked hard together to ensure peace and development for the town. They also jointly contributed their land for the beautiful lake gardens and established Yeng Wah Hospital in Taiping, which served the community, regardless of race or religion."

The hospital created a medical milestone with the installation of the first X-ray machine in the Far East in 1896. Yeng Wah Hospital later became the Taiping Hospital.

Beaming with pride, 82-year-old Chung Lai Yin, present during a photoshoot later, revealed: "My great-great grandfather Chung Keng Kwee donated generously to many schools and temples, including the Kek Lok Si temple in Penang. He also donated to Queen Victoria's golden and diamond jubilees."

Besides the generosity of the kapitans, the magnificent Taiping Lake Gardens was born out of the imagination and efforts of British colonial administrators Sir Frank Swettenham and his wife, Lady Sydney Swettenham, Sir Hugh Low and Sir Ernest W. Birch, who redeemed his late father's pride and legacy.

Today, Taiping residents of all races mix happily together. This peaceful relation dates back to its founding days when the kapitans were close friends with the sultans, Malay chiefs and British officials.


Given Taiping's synonymity with peace, the Taiping Peace Initiatives were first mooted by four founding partners — Taiping Municipal Council, Taiping Tourist Association, the United Nations and Universiti Sains Malaysia.

To promote these initiatives, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called "Partners for Peace" was established in Taiping in 2010. Over dinner one evening, its founding president, Beh Yang Toh, explained: "It's important for us to have peace. Without peace, there's no development and future for us!"

Ever since its inception, Partners for Peace has worked actively with other organisations to promote peace. Current president Joseph Lau once shared: "In conjunction with the 150th anniversary celebrations for Taiping and International Peace Day, we're planning a special peace carnival involving local, national and international partners this September."


The rapid expansion and population growth of Taiping had resulted in the rise of some outstanding schools, which produced many illustrious leaders who have shaped the destiny of both Malaysia and Singapore. It's a remarkable achievement few towns could match, thanks to its unique geography and history.

Founded in 1883, the Central School of Taiping in Jalan Stesen changed its name to King Edward School in conjunction with the coronation of King Edward VII in 1901. Being the oldest school in the FMS, it has produced many luminaries, including two sultans and a president.

During my recent visit, its long-serving alumni president Haji Mohiadeen Abdul Kader Mohd Ishack shared: "During my time, the British colonial government sent some of their best teachers to teach us. They set a high standard and taught us good English. Our loyal alumni is also a great help."

St George's Institution (SGI), also in Jalan Stesen, is another distinguished school with a century-long record. It has produced many government ministers for both Malaysia and Singapore.

In a recent visit to its impressive gallery, one of its alumni, Paul Low confided: "Our brothers were very dedicated and inspiring teachers. Every day, they stayed back after school to teach and coach our students."

Being the oldest girls' school in FMS, the 135-year-old Treacher Methodist Girls' School in Jalan Muzium has been able to successfully uphold its motto to "Live Worthily" and produce many outstanding leaders for the country.

The pride in the eyes of its alumni president Lim Kim Tin was palpable when she explained: "Over more than a century, our dedicated teachers tirelessly nurture discipline, industry and dedication in our students."

Meanwhile, for SMK Convent Taiping, established in 1899, its sister nuns had earned a reputation for being the most dedicated and caring of teachers. Its alumni president Choong Yan Tai said: "The dedication of our sisters was unquestionable. They had given their lives to guide and nurture us. We really owe them a big debt of gratitude."

I was also fortunate to meet the alumni president of SMK Hua Lian in Jalan Lumba Kuda, which has, for decades, been consistently producing some of the best academic results in the country.

Over coffee, the indefatigable Teoh Kok Tong commented: "The Confucian values we imbued in our students has helped them to develop good discipline and focus on their studies."

Besides those stellar schools, the less-fortunate pupils with special needs are educated at the self-funded Sekolah Semangat Maju Taiping (SSM) in Jalan Hang Jebat under the patronage of the Perak Sultan. Last year, the Permaisuri of Perak helped the school to successfully launch three colourful books drawn by its talented students.


The peace and beauty of Taiping have left an indelible impression on everyone, especially its early generation who had gone on to study abroad and live overseas. Although they're an ocean apart, their hearts still beat with the rhythm of their hometown.

Meeting some of them recently and listening to their stories have warmed my heart. I remember when Datuk Tan Thian Hoo, the former chief executive officer of Komag (a hard disk manufacturer now under Western Digital) who is living in the United States, beamed with fondness as he reminisced: "I still miss the warm and friendly relationship of Taiping folks. It's like a close-knit family."

Former corporate director and long-time United Kingdom resident Kue Fullck still waxes lyrical about her hometown. Softly, she enthused: "I love my Maxwell Hill and Taiping Lake Gardens. I miss them every day!"

Datuk Chuah Teong Ban, former Malaysian ambassador to Ukraine and Peru, had also much to say: "The pacifist aura of Taiping has imbued in me the love for peace and prepared me well for my diplomatic career."

On the same note, Teh Leong Thian, a former managing director in Singapore, shared: "My scouting experience as a king scout at King Edward School and around Taiping hills has instilled in me a love for peace and leadership."


Besides British soldiers, the Taiping War Cemetery commemorates our brave Malayan volunteers who fought the Japanese in World War 2.

Retired Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) brigadier-general Datuk Loke Kok Yee recounted: "During the Emergency, the British had a huge military camp in nearby Kamunting. We could hear the bugler playing the Last Post almost every week as they buried their dead soldiers."

During a recent international tourism show in Berlin, Taiping was rated the third-most sustainable city in the world. However, in his book The Footprints of Nature, Loke lamented: "The rapid development after the insurgency has destroyed much of our precious flora and fauna. I witnessed these changes from the ground and air as an RMAF pilot. Sadly, some of the iconic natural events related to Taiping had disappeared."

Echoing the same sentiment, Yeap Thean Eng, president of Taiping's heritage society, mentioned: "We're organising a special heritage trial in conjunction with our 150th anniversary celebration of Taiping. We're striving to retain our natural wonders and old-world charm before it's too late."

Taiping has a transcendental and transformational effect on everyone, deeply touching our hearts and souls. Its serenity and tranquility reach beyond our physical dimension, evoking a deep emotional and spiritual bond with it.

Let's hope Taiping will be able to maintain its unique peace and beauty forever.


Taiping-o-Taiping, you are so charming

Your Maxwell hill is green and endearing

Your Burmese pool so clean and sparkling;

Taiping Lake Garden is simply awe inspiring

With pink lotus smiling and bamboos gently swaying

The overarching centennial rain trees are entrancing

With majestic hornbills, herons and storks gracefully gliding

Revealing a unique beauty and history so enthralling.

Dr Gary Lit Ying Loong is a retired academic from Nanyang Technological University Singapore. He's a visiting professor to some universities in Asia and Europe. Reach him at

Most Popular
Related Article
Says Stories