TOURISTS taking photos at the entrance to Istana Raja Bilah. — Photos: RONNNIE CHIN/The Star
NESTLED between Ipoh and Batu Gajah is the quaint former tin mining town of Papan.
Located just 15km away from Ipoh city centre, Papan is one of the smallest and oldest towns in Malaysia steeped in rich history and heritage.
One of the attractions is Istana Raja Bilah built in 1896 by Raja Bilah, the Mandailing aristocrat of Sumatran descent who made Papan his home, and later his final resting place on June 9, 1911.
In the book ‘Raja Billah And The Mandailings In Perak: 1875-1911’ by Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, a fellow Mandailing, the exodus of the Mandailing people from western Sumatra to the peninsula happened after the Minangkabau, influenced by Wahabi religious ideology, invaded their homelands in 1820.
He said Raja Bilah, who was born in 1834 in Kotanapan, Tapanuli Selatan, came to Papan in 1877 with his family and followers to farm and mine tin.
If you visit Istana Raja Bilah, you will notice a wooden house next to it.
It is occupied by his great-granddaughter Saadiah Kamarudin, 78, who lives there with her friend Sahariah Nafis, 64.
They are the only two Malays living in the village, the majority of whom are Chinese.
Surrounding her home are a few empty kampung houses and a mosque.
“Nobody lives here except the two of us,” said Saadiah seated on the steps of her house.
Her house is connected to Istana Raja Bilah or Rumah Besar, but the keys to the semi-wooden brick mansion are with Saadiah’s niece who lives elsewhere.
Saadiah said both her parents were first cousins, making them the grandchildren of Raja Bilah.
“I don’t remember him because he died around the time I was born.
“But before Istana Raja Bilah was constructed, Raja Bilah, his children and grandchildren used to live in this wooden house,” she added.
However, the other half of Papan lies in ruins.
About 30 dilapidated pre-war houses dot the sleepy town.
Among them is house number 74 that belonged to nurse Sybil Kathigasu, who was captured by the Japanese army in 1943.
She was tortured and held captive until the war ended in 1945.
The war hero lived there with her doctor husband Dr A.C. Kathigasu who provided medical treatment and supplies to the locals at that time.
She was rescued and sent for treatment in London but died there in 1948 at the age of 48.
With all these places of interest in Papan, plans are afoot by the Perak government to turn the town into a tourist attraction.
Papan was also the filming location for historical war movie Embun in 2002.
Batu Gajah MP V. Sivakumar proposed the idea in Parliament.
“I hope the Federal Government can provide an allocation to the state government to move forth with the plans, among them is to refurbish the pre-war houses.
“But one problem is locating the house owners. If the Batu Gajah District Council can find them, we can get investors to develop Papan,” he said after announcing the construction of a new community hall in Papan recently.
Present at the event were council president Mohamad Razif Ramli and Jelapang assemblyman Cheah Pou Hian.
Construction of the RM280,000 air-conditioned hall at the site of a disused market is expected to be completed by mid-October.
“The market that was built about 15 years ago was never used because of poor response, and lately the village head proposed that a community hall be built for locals to hold events in the town,” said Sivakumar.
When people talk about Batu Gajah, he said what always came to mind are Kellie’s Castle and the Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge.
Sivakumar added that with Papan’s rich cultural history and places of attraction, the sleepy town could be a boon to visitors if packaged properly.
There is also a herbal park nearby managed by the Forestry Department, which he believes could be marketed under agro-tourism.
Razif said the council’s priority was to ensure the pre-war houses are refurbished to their original state.
“It is good that a new hall will be built because in order to develop this place, we need the cooperation of the villagers who can organise various programmes,” he said, adding that there were about 150 houses in the village.
Papan Village Community Management Council secretary Tan Boon Peng said Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen also lived in one of the houses in Papan.
“I am not sure of the time period, but he did live in one of the pre-war houses,” he said.
The occupants of the said house is 45-year-old Sea Phang Chin and his parents.
“I was born and bred here, and I have heard stories about Dr Sun visiting Papan,” said Sea.
Contemplating the state government’s plans for Papan, Saadiah was in agreement.
“It is a good plan to develop this small town. Not many people are aware that Istana Raja Bilah is located here,” she said, adding that Raja Bilah had five children.