LOCATED 45km northwest of Kuantan, Sungai Lembing was once the richest town in Pahang as it was a major producer of underground tin, and had among the largest and deepest subterranean tunnels in the world.
Known as the El Dorado of the East, it was my birthplace and it holds many memories as I am the only child in my family who was born there. These days, each trip to the sleepy town is filled with nostalgia.
My late father, Osman Abdul Rahman, was one of the senior miners and I was born in a dense residential area occupied by mine workers.
It was a British company known as Pahang Consolidated Company Limited (PCCL), which ran mining activities there. PCCL provided workers with facilities such as free electricity, healthcare and water supply.
For that, I am grateful. I remember how nearby residents had to use oil lamps in the middle of the night and dig wells to get water supply. We got to enjoy electricity and clean water, although power supply was limited to 12 hours per day.
Although Sungai Lembing mines became famous when they were operated by the British company at the end of the 19th century, mining activities had started earlier.
Locals said Sungai Lembing was famous among foreign miners, who used various mining methods, including the sculpting method using chisels, whose impact on the form of holes and tunnels is still visible.This is how the place “Kolong Pahat” got its name — after a tunnel that was created using a chisel.
Many of the old buildings in Sungai Lembing have been maintained as part of efforts to turn the historical site into a major tourist attraction after the state government approved a special area plan for the town, and it is now applying for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Site status.
Among the important buildings are workers’ quarters, clubhouses, cinemas and swimming pool — all still intact today.
There were two clubhouses back then. The one in the town centre was for subordinates, while the other in Kolong Pahat was for senior officers.
I still remember the glory days of my childhood when we, family members of mine workers, could easily own branded goods shipped directly from London.
Famous and luxurious brands, such as Clarks and Polo, were sold to mine workers at a hypermarket called Gudang.
Gudang was exclusively for mine workers and their family members, and a copper token resembling the 50 sen coin was used as an identity credential.
It is believed that Sungai Lembing was developed in 1887. Many mining relics are displayed at the Sungai Lembing Museum, located on a hill in the middle of the mining area.
The museum was once the residence of the PCCL manager.
According to mining experts, Sungai Lembing mines were once considered the deepest in the world. They reached 660m into the earth, and contained between 10 and 20 floors. Each floor hallway had a height of 3.3m.
The method of forming a tunnel excavation floor connected by a lift was considered the most advanced mining technique at the time.
Although the mines have been closed for almost 20 years, relics of the British company can still be seen today. The most obvious are the tunnels. Some of them are more than 10km long.
My late father often forbade me and my brother from climbing the hill behind my house for fear of falling into the abandoned mine pit. Now, most of the remaining pits are covered with boards and logs.
Villagers in Sungai Lembing are separated from the main town by the river. To facilitate their journey into town, suspension bridges made of steel cables were built across the river.
The bridges are still intact. They continue to be used by the locals although there are new bridges built by the government.
The mining company was very concerned about hygiene and health, and set up a hospital for mine workers. As far as I can remember, they sprayed insecticide every week to kill mosquitoes.
People from all over the country came to Sungai Lembing in search of fortune. They included my late father, who came all the way from Pekan as a teenager to make a living in the mining town.
I remember attending an English-medium school in Sungai Lembing town where we were served chocolate milk daily, and that was one of the reasons why my friends and I looked forward to going to school.
Unfortunately, the golden era of Sungai Lembing lasted for only a century before the management decided to end operations. The mines were closed in the mid-1980s due to declining prices of tin worldwide.
The closure saw many residents deserting the town and migrating to the city for jobs. Some went on to become Felda settlers.
Indeed, Sungai Lembing holds so many memories for those who grew up, lived and worked there.
The small town, which bustled with activities at the height of its glory, is now a shadow of its old self.
There used to be a mini petrol station in the middle of the town’s main road, which served the residents for a very long time before it ceased services several years ago. Now, the nearest pump station is 30 minutes away.
During the glory days of the tin -mining industry, a cinema in the middle of the town would screen Malay, Hindi and English films twice daily at night.
Outsiders were not allowed to walk freely into the town as security checks were set up at
the entrance into Sungai Lembing.
The state government has built the Sungai Lembing Museum to commemorate those glorious days. It is part of the Historic Park Development Project, which aims to display the once-famous mining town to the world.
The museum collects and displays artefacts from the tin-mining industry in the town, such as locomotives, mining equipment, clothing and documents.
Stepping into the museum enables one to have a better picture of how mining works were carried out before modern equipment was available. The museum remains a favourite among the elderly people here, especially former miners.
There are many ex-miners living in Sungai Lembing. Most of them still keep metal tools from their tin-mining days, including igneous rocks which are said to contain silvery-white metallic layers of tin ore.
The authorities hope that the establishment of the museum will make the younger generation aware of the previous generation’s sacrifices to gain prosperity for their families and the country.
Over the years, many left the town and the ageing double-storey wooden shops have started to close in stages, but some still continue to operate.
These days, during Chinese New Year, one can expect a sudden influx of people into the town. Those who work elsewhere, including abroad, will return home to visit their elderly parents.
As for me, riding my scooter occasionally into Sungai Lembing brings back all those childhood memories filled with bittersweet tales of joy and sorrow.