Kong Sook Koon rests in her home, no longer able to walk any distances.
It’s a long way from Seremban, Negeri Sembilan Malaysia to China.
These days, as the crow flies, it’s a little bit over 2500 kilometres from Huizhou, China to Mantin in Malaysia, about a 2 hour flight today on a modern aeroplane.
One hundred and twenty odd years ago there was no such luxury as flying so the history of Seremban included the slow and steady influx of many Hakka people – most of them traversing on foot fleeing the violence of massacres, wars and rebellions taking place at their Guangdong region in China.
Many found their way to the small town of Mantin in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia drawn to the area with the promise of work in the newly discovered Titiwangsa range tin mines by the English managers at the time.
At its peak more than 300 families made their homes on about 32 acres of land, just a stones throw from the once powerful and wide flowing Setul river that supplied men with the opportunity of jobs on the newly built tin dredge, and for other family members to eke out livelihoods, cooks, laundry maids, off-shoot jobs to this thriving, booming industry.
They called their new settlement Kampung Hakka and until recently the descendants of these pioneers lived lives relatively unimpeded by authorities and continued to reside in the exact area their ancestors had made home.
After the tin mining boom collapsed a lot of the kampung inhabitants, now with children and great-grandchildren, became rubber tappers, worked as coolies on the Mantin Pass road, had jobs around town and lived, they believe, on the basis that there was an implied contract for them living on the land as their ancestors had, similar as to how rubber tappers “lived” on the plantations they worked in.
Fast forward to 2019 and the kampung area has been sold to developers and one third of the original Hakka settlement area has been demolished in order to build some low-cost housing blocks, with various offers given to the residents to purchase homes – at present the matter is in court so comments are restricted in this matter.
The settlement has an Interpretative Centre at the home of Chong Tze Yaw, a home which has belonged to his family for six generations and it is where I meet Madam Seong Foong Chan who represents Rakan Mantin, an organisation set up by her and others in September 2012, to raise awareness and support the rights of residents to continue living in their settlement. .
An old water-well, still in use today with an electric pump, sits in the middle of the room surrounded by walls engulfed with photographs, drawings and memorabilia of some of the past residents and current occupants.
As Chan explains, “About 10 years ago the residents were told they can’t renew their temporary occupation license anymore (TOL) and then 5 years later they received a flyer saying this land belongs to a developer and the area will be demolished.”
It was devastating blow to the residents who had expected to live out their years in the settlement as their ancestors had done before them.
Ninety-two year old grandmother Kong Sook Koon is one of those residents who hoped to live out the rest of her life in her family home, the place where she bore ten children, raising nine of them after one passed away.
Kong Sook Koon was born in Kampung Hakka Mantin in 1927 and has spent her whole life there.
She slowly speaks about the history of Kampung Hakka as one of her grandsons prepares a birdcage outside. He carefully adds some water to the base then pushes the cage against another which houses a small black and white bird, which promptly traverses into the bath, flaps its wings, happily chirping away.
“He is our sixth generation Hakka in Malaysia,” she says.
“My grandmother came here from China with her father, uncle and aunt to look for work,” she said. It used to be called Kampung Attap because of the attap roofing all the houses had.”
“Back then the houses all had wells and earthen floors, not concrete ones – there was no electricity, water was hand-drawn from the wells, kerosene lamps were used for light and wooden fires cooked our food.”
“Everyone cycled or walked, I never saw any cars and if you had big loads to carry you used bullocks.”
When the tin mining boom finished, her grandmother eked out a living selling home made rice wines which were treasured widely throughout the kampung.
Like the elders before her Kong Sook Koon contributed a lot of her childhood years to the family situation by helping her mum, day and night, to manage her younger siblings – her mum, she said “gave birth on a regular basis.”
“Most of the time I did not attend school but went to a neighbours house every day that had a big verandah and listened to old folk tales told by the elders and learnt the songs of our culture.”
She remembers when she was 11 years old attending school for a short while but after a few months returned home at the insistence of her mum to help with the siblings – it wasn’t until later that she returned to any official schooling.
Kong Sook Koon recalls seeing the tin dredge go up river when she was about 13 years old passing by the house, noting that the driver was a Chinese man from Mantin and “he stood tall” while navigating the massive structure upriver.
Kong Sook Koon survived the Japanese occupation at a nearby refugee camp saying, “there was very little to eat, everyone ate sweet potatoes, pucuk paku and sweet potato leaves. When the Japanese came they captured many people and we were put in refugee camps – girls had to disguise themselves as boys – we were afraid to go out. People at the camp cut our hair short and dressed us up in boys clothes – in this area and in Titi they massacred a lot of people,” she laments.
The articulate and accurate memories of Kong Sook Koon are a continuous, living, breathing, historical track record of the area and her knowledge is one of the many reasons why community initiative group Rakan Mantin has formed to help protect this community from losing their homes and their culture.
“There just aren’t many places like this anymore,” says Seong Foong Chan.
As Kong Sook Koon watches her grandson in the front of her home entice the newly bathed bird to return to its cage, you can’t help but think she is reminded of her husband and one of his closest friends, a Malay man who lived nearby in a Malay kampung who both shared the common hobby of bird rearing.
Watching cultural knowledge from so long ago passed on to one of her grandchildren today, who still rears birds and sells them to make a living today, must be satisfying to say the least.
Time will tell what will happen on the outcome of this enduring saga and as Rakan Mantin’s spokeswoman Seong Foong Chan says, “We need to find a model that will work for everyone as it’s not an easy task, we are working slowly-slowly and non confrontational. “
Rakan Mantin offer bicycle tours where you can wander through the small village alleyways and roads, chat with the locals whilst they play Mahjong inside. If it wasn’t for the TV antennas on the grooves and the cars parked outside you would feel like you are still in 1800’s as residents go about their business.
There are some wonderful homes and gardens which sit next to derelict houses abandoned by the neighbours who have decided to leave and not upgrade their home for fear of losing their money.
Some have left and some have stayed and perhaps an old Chinese proverb explains the tenacity of these people.
“Wherever there is sunshine, there will be Chinese. Wherever there is Chinese, there will be Hakka.”
If you would like to help the residents in anyway or get directions to the village then you can contact Chan via the ‘Rakan Mantin’ Facebook page.