Batu Gajah’s Colourful Colonial History
If you’re on holiday in Malaysia and driving north from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, you’ll reach the turn-off to Batu Gajah about two hours out of the capital.
You may not have heard of the town. If you have, it’s probably only because of a popular attraction on its outskirts: Kellie’s Castle, an unfinished colonial mansion dating back almost 100 years.
Most visitors to the castle don’t venture from there into the centre of Batu Gajah to see what else it has to offer. They return to the North-South Expressway to continue their journey.
This town of less than 50 thousand people is unlikely to be on most people’s must-visit list. But for anyone with an interest in Malaysia’s colonial history – and this surely includes many senior travellers – a short side trip to the former tin mining town will be rewarding.
You’ll need your own transport to explore the town. Relying on public transport would be too hot and tiring. If you’ve rented a car while in Malaysia, you can enjoy the town in comfort. Day package trips from Kuala Lumpur are also available.
Malaysia’s tin mining boom
Batu Gajah – the name means Elephant Rock - has seen colourful times. In the late 19th century, it was the centre of a tin mining boom. Immigrants from China had started mining in the 1820s and later British companies muscled in, introducing huge tin dredges that the Chinese miners found hard to compete with.
In 1884, the colonial authorities made Batu Gajah the capital of the Kinta District, richer in tin than anywhere else in the country. Large government offices were built. The town became a prosperous community, with colonial administrators, tin miners and rubber planters among those calling it home. Malaysia grew to become the world’s largest tin producer.
The boom lasted for decades. Gradually, however, nearby Ipoh grew in size and importance, shifting the focus away. And when Malaysia’s tin boom ended in the 1980s, Batu Gajah’s glory days were over.
Many old buildings from colonial days are still standing. You’ll find several of them in the Changkat Road area, the old European part of town.
Among the most impressive is the old court house, built in 1892. It stands at the centre of a complex of three well-maintained buildings linked by first-floor walkways that are still used as government offices today. If you’re lucky, the guard at the gate will allow you in for a closer look.
Raja Idris Shah, whose name is inscribed on the court building, reigned as Sultan of Perak until his death in 1916.
Another name on the plaque is that of the British Resident, Frank Swettenham. The name is well-known among Malaysians. Kuala Lumpur’s main port, Port Klang, was called Port Swettenham in his honour from 1901 to 1972. And Swettenham Pier in George Town, Penang – where cruise vessels dock - still bears his name.
An attractive colonial building in Changkat Road houses the administrative offices of the Batu Gajah Hospital. Depending on which account you believe, it was formerly either the nurses’ residence or part of the European hospital in the days when patients were segregated.
The hospital itself, across the road, is worth taking a look at too, if the nurses don’t shoo you away. It’s surely one of Malaysia’s oldest hospitals, and evokes the feel of bygone days with its aged wooden colonnades, intricately chequered floors and leafy little compound.
Other colonial buildings worth taking a look at include the former District Officer’s bungalow and the government rest house. Also of interest are the main Hindu temple, Sri Subramaniyar Swami Kovil, and the town’s oldest Chinese temple, the Kuan Tay Temple. The town also has many old Chinese-style shophouses, some still in use and others in various states of disrepair.
Near the hospital is the Christian cemetery, a fascinating stop for visitors who delight in history. Known as God’s Little Acre, it contains a monument to civilians and members of the security forces killed during the Malayan Emergency - the communist guerrilla war that lasted from 1948 until 1960. A separate memorial stone lists the names of those who died.
Among the more than 600 graves dating back to 1891 are those of three British planters – Walker, Allison and Christian - whose murders on a nearby rubber estate in June 1948 prompted the government to declare the emergency.
The conflict eventually claimed more than 11,000 lives, including that of the British High Commissioner in Malaya, Sir Henry Gurney, who was assassinated in 1951.
A commemorative ceremony for those who died in the Emergency and lie buried in the cemetery takes place here each year on the second Saturday in June.
Not far from the cemetery is St. Joseph's Catholic Church, built in 1928. It’s decorated in white and cream yellow inside and out, with a dome-topped steeple and stained glass windows above the altar. Catholicism was established in the area by a French missionary in 1882.
A striking relic from Batu Gajah’s tin mining heyday is a huge, British-made tin dredge that operated for 44 years until 1982. Unlike other dredges that were sold off for scrap, dredge TT5 was saved and is now a popular attraction. Visitors can take guided tours.
Then there’s Batu Gajah’s biggest drawcard, Kellie’s Castle, on the outskirts of town: a spectacular monument to colonial hubris and eccentricity. It’s nearly 100 years old and attracts far more visitors than anything else in the town.
The grand colonial mansion was built by a Scottish businessman, William Kellie Smith, who arrived in Malaya in 1890 at the age of 20 and made his fortune in rubber and tin.
Some say he built the mansion for his wife, some for his newly-born son. Work began in 1915, with many of the workers brought in from South India. But Kellie Smith later fell on hard times. When he died in Portugal at the age of 56 on his way home from a trip to the UK, work on the mansion stopped and never resumed. His wife, daughter and son returned to live in Scotland.
The mansion stands on a hillside near the road, a spectacular broken dream. Stories have grown around it: of ghosts, hidden rooms and secret tunnels. With its mix of eastern and western architectural styles, it attracts a steady stream of visitors. They explore its turrets and arches, its steep staircases and sad, unused bedrooms, its stables and rooftop lookout, its wine cellar and lift shaft.
Near the mansion is a Hindu temple that Kellie Smith built for his Indian workers. Standing among the row of little Hindu figures on its roof is a colonial soldier in uniform, complete with a spiked pith helmet and rifle. It’s said to be a statue of Kellie Smith himself, an unusual tribute to an unusual man.
Header image: © Alan Williams